NPS to hire branch chief for aviation

National Park Service amphibious aircraft

Above: National Park Service photo.

The National Park Service is expecting to hire a National Aviation Program Manager to fill the position vacated last month by the retirement of Jon Rollens. The GS-14 position provides leadership and direction for NPS aviation programs with specific emphasis on national aviation policy, standards and procedures.

There is only one “selective placement factor”. Applicants must have at least 90 days of wildland firefighting experience.

A pilot’s license is not required.

Skills the candidates should have include knowledge of:

  • Aircraft and associated support systems for resource management;
  • Wildland fire management, law enforcement, search and rescue, and related flying activities;
  • Evaluation and audit processes for aviation safety and risk management analysis.

Neither Mr. Rollens or his predecessor, Susie Bates, were pilots.

Before becoming NPS Branch Chief of Aviation in 2011, Mr. Rollens was the Regional Aviation Officer  for the U.S. Forest Service’s Northwest Region for nine years. From 1997 through 2002 he was a National Aerial Attack Systems Specialist for the Forest Service, and before that, a Helicopter Operations Specialist for the USFS Intermountain Region.

Our opinion:

The National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the other federal land management agencies would benefit from having qualified pilots in their top regional and national aviation positions. We have been told that the USFS National Aviation Officer is not a pilot and only one of their Regional Aviation Officers is. A person in these jobs who does not know what they don’t know can be dangerous.

For a position that leads the entire aviation program, if it comes down to two applicants, one with 90 days as a wildland firefighter and another with a pilot’s license, the pilot should get the nod. Most of the complexity in these positions is on the aviation side, not the firefighting aspect. There is a great deal of fire expertise in the organizations that the Aviation Officers can tap into. A wealth of specific and detailed aviation knowledge from a pilots perspective is more rare.

Federal hiring procedures are ridiculously complex, but these agencies should figure out a way to be able to hire at the GS-13 and 14 level, a pilot with extensive program management skills, even if they don’t have firefighting experience.

12 thoughts on “NPS to hire branch chief for aviation”

  1. Is a current drivers license or identification card required? It sounds like an airman certificate or several fire season would be a negative in the hiring process. Puppet Position.

  2. While I appreciate your opinions favouring a commercial pilot to fill the vacant position of the National Aviation Program Manager there is much more to it than what you state. Do you not think that whoever the successful candidate is should be one that brings the best qualities, experience and leadership, etc., to the position? Optimally, the ideal candidate would be an individual that started his/her career as a wildland firefighter and overtime made a decision to become either a fixed or rotary wing pilot that has focused their flying career performing aerial suppression activities, with the same traits as I previously provided above.

    Having skillsets as a pilot or a wildland fire fighter would be extremely beneficial to performing the role; however, considering the position is one that is more an administrator, I do not necessarily agree that one background supersedes to other. The individual that should be hired is someone with strong leadership, planning, communication; aviation related business skills and wildland fire experience that can bring in individuals to support him/her in both areas of aviation and that of wildland fire operations to ensure the safest, most effective and efficient operation.

    1. I agree that the ideal candidate would be a pilot with years of wildland firefighting experience. But if it is a binary choice, I believe being a pilot is more important in order to manage an aviation program.

      1. Management experience ain’t all that’s required. Remember Mary Jo Lavin? And aviation experience ain’t all of it either. Remember Tony Kern?

  3. Maybe not a “pilot’ but a fire manager with between 32 and 34 years of experience in wildfire. Vast knowledge of managing numerous programs that include fire aviation. Being a hot shot would fulfill the fire experience. A successful manager of a world wide web who is contemporary in think. A manager that has traveled outside the U.S. to expand his/her knowledge of how other fire agencies conduct their operation. A manager who can work with people, identify problems and find sensible solutions. Be able to enjoy a change of pace (from work) to clear the mind, have a hobby like photography or riding motorcycles.

  4. Pilots are in senior management at the USFS – The only people that can meet the USFS job requirements for GS-13 and above is to have national aviation management experience – which comes from the Air force or Guard. Bill, your reporting on USFS aviation program mis-management has shown pretty clearly that is probably best to have an MBA or MPA rather than a pilots license and experience managing a fighter wing.

    Mr. Rollens replacement will spend absolutely “0” time in a cockpit evaluating piloting skills and piloting tasks. She or He will spend much of it determining appropriate training requirements and budget guidance for Helitack, Short-haul, Law Enforcement. She/he will also develop policy for UAS, aerial firing, animal capture and all other things that end up being done by an aircraft.

    It takes about $8-12K and about 80 hours of time to become a pilot…. and can be gained privately or at any one of more than 500 flight schools in the US.

    The 3 months of firefighting time is most likely are more of a carrot to carry over someones federal Primary fire retirement to secondary.

    I would rather have somebody in the job who gets the needs and challenges of each NPS unit’s limited budget, staffing and resource needs, rather than someone who knows under which conditions to apply Anti-Ice carb-heat.

    P.s. I love that you have an opinion and are willing to share it and willing to hosts contrary opinions.

    1. The problems arising from hiring doctors to manage health programs perhaps illustrates the issue. Doctors are trained to be specialists, and it takes years, due to the complexity of the specialty. Having worked with a number of doctors who were hired by the USG to run field health projects, they all started with enthusiasm, but quickly most discovered they didn’t like the job – they were trained to diagnose (problem-solve) and deliver medical care, not have to stare at the dreary stack of spreadsheets on the desk all day, analyse line items for driver over-time, attend planning and review meetings, go to the Ministries of Health to negotiate the customs release of vaccine deliveries, not to have to fight for budget line items, make the arguments for or against actions and the funding required to do those actions, make determinations between multiple demands – everyone’s own projects are always more important than everyone else’s – so someone else has to sort it out with fairness, no favorites, keep everyone funded, not feuding and fully functional.

      The doctors missed doing what they liked best – directly delivering medical care. They usually ended up leaving – after doing poorly. A very few were able to take their backgrounds and make the transition, so it’s not impossible for a doctor to be successful in shifting to management, but it’s typically not in their training and often not in their temperament.
      After a while, projects began looking more consistently for experienced Public Health managers to manage the doctors, the projects and the budgets. Even though most never actually practice medicine, their management training is all geared to medical and health; they have to know the field through doctor’s eyes, so good ones really do know it inside and out and more critically, have well-developed the skill to judge what’s important and what’s not in every issue, from day-to-day operations to emergencies.
      On the surface, to the general bystander, the training and temperaments of pilots seem similar in certain ways to doctors and one might expect some similar issues in trying to transfer over to aviation management?

  5. SEVERAL excellent points, indeed. Reminded me of a friend who has a four-year nursing degree. She landed in Administration (which she’s very good at), but she completely abandoned nursing. “I thought I was going to take care of patients,” she said. Now she’s a librarian.

  6. Well, some of the pilots in senior USFS management positions are totally clueless as to the aviation side of things precisely because they came from the military w/o wildland fire experience.
    Hate to say it but, laughing stock, if you will.

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