NWCG: Best practices for fire aviation during COVID-19 pandemic

“Airbases or aircraft may be unstaffed or closed due to COVID-19”

MAFFS C-130 Wyoming National Guard
A MAFFS C-130 from the Wyoming National Guard refills its tank during training at Boise April 21, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Interagency Aviation Preparedness Task Team (IAPTT) has developed recommendations for managing fire aviation during the COVID-19 pandemic. The team is requesting that the National Interagency Aviation Committee (NIAC), which is chartered by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, approve a list of best management practices (BMP).

The IAPTT calls the BMPs “a living document to allow changes as they are needed without confusing the aviation community,” and recommended that it be posted on the NWCG website.”

Here are some excerpts:

  • Ensure implementation of the recommended wildland fire screening protocol by the NWCG’s Emergency Medical Committee (ETA, TBD) for everyone entering the airbase.
  • Contractors and agency personnel need to document daily activities and interactions (location, date, time, and names if possible) daily. This information may be requested if a known exposure has occurred.
  • Contractors and agency personnel shall carry and use disinfecting supplies for protection of aircraft and personnel.
  • Restrict access to the bases and all aircraft to essential personnel only.
  • Keep aircrews separate from other aircrews, contractors and base personnel. Recommend adding temporary facilities and supplies, such as: travel trailers, tents, mobile offices, portable toilets, wash stations, ice chests, etc. to reduce cross contamination.
  • During periods of standby and extended standby, allow flight crews to isolate themselves in quarters and respond from quarters directly to aircraft with minimal person-to-person contact with public and base personnel.
  • For personnel working at the airbase, recommend use of N-95 mask while working in tight spaces to protect against exposure such as the potential for coughing and sneezing.
  • Evaluate MAP start dates to existing conditions to potentially allow vendors to either start the MAP later or to stage/standby at the contractor’s base of operations.
  • Identify home bases for those resources currently without, such as large, very large airtankers, and CWN aircraft.
  • Align aircraft, aircrew, and crew days off.
  • Program managers, contracting officers, and contractors are encouraged to create schedules to minimize or eliminate aircrew rotations, including the need for relief crews.
  • Avoid the use of relief crews. If relief crews are used, CORs, COs and vendors shall develop a travel plan that avoids, as practicable, commercial travel and utilizes driving or chartering aircraft for crew transport to and from the home base or the alternate work location. Work with the contracting officers to identify applicable reimbursement costs and procedures.
  • When proper separation at an airbase cannot be achieved, utilize alternate locations on the airfield or adjacent airports, to stage aircraft that do not require the infrastructure of an airtanker base (e.g. helicopters, light fixed wing etc.).
  • If possible the aircraft and crews should recover nightly at the assigned permanent or temporary home base.
  • Use long term rental or agency vehicles and long term lodging to reduce exposure. Sanitize both lodging and vehicles before, during, and after use.
  • Restrict boosting out of the local area. Evaluate R&R the existing crew in place and/or reducing staffing for the duration of the assignment. [note from Bill: this apparently refers to mobilizing smokejumpers to stage at locations other than their home base]
  • Reduce staffing numbers when approved and applicable such as:
    • Requesting 2 helicopters for each helicopter manager as appropriate (restricted/limited).
    • Expect to utilize and provide pre-approvals for extension of personnel to 21 days.
  • When military aircraft are activated, position them away from existing contractor aircraft, agency personnel and existing agency bases. Consider for MAFFS units to reload only at their activated MAFFS base.
  • Consider that resources ordered out of state may be required to quarantine for 14 days either upon arrival or return from assignment.
  • Staff base with minimal personnel during standby periods allowing the remaining base personnel to work and respond from quarters.
  • Utilize virtual briefings to minimize person to person contact. Utilize conference lines, email, Microsoft Teams or other similar multi-media resources with links to appropriate briefing materials.
  • Aircraft dispatch forms shall be delivered to all resources electronically instead of person-to-person or information can be relayed over the radio.
  • When available utilize additional agency vehicles to transport crews while maintaining social distancing. If agency vehicles are not available acquire long term rental vehicles. Contact local dispatch for assistance on emergency equipment rentals.
  • Minimize transporting passengers as much as possible; clean each aircraft between flights in accordance to FAA direction. https://www.cdc.gov/quarantine/air/managing-sick-travelers/ncov-airlines.html
  • Eliminate the use of shared personal protective equipment (e.g. headsets and flight helmets).
  • Clean personal protective equipment (e.g. headsets and flight helmets) before and after utilization.
  • Due to the dynamic situation of the COVID-19 pandemic, airbase operations at times may not meet policy requirements. In these cases, prior to the deviation, it will be reported to supervisors who in conjunction with aviation managers will analyze the risk and determine if the operation should continue.
  • All cargo being transported via aircraft will be handled by essential personnel only.  Handling of cargo should be accomplished with the minimum personnel as possible and all personnel will handle cargo with proper PPE at all times.
  • All personnel that show any symptoms of illness are to immediately isolate as recommended by CDC/FAA and follow agency, CDC, and state guidelines for notifications, testing and quarantines.
  • Airbases and/or aircraft may be unstaffed or closed due to COVID-19. Do not staff or open a contaminated airbase or aircraft without proper decontamination. Notify controlling dispatch and/or coordination center of status changes.
  • COVID-19 risk mitigation shall not increase or transfer risk to flight crews. Flight crews will determine mission “go, no go” decision based on proper risk mitigation.

The excerpts above comprise only a portion of the four-page document which can be found on the NWCG website.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Mathew. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

3 thoughts on “NWCG: Best practices for fire aviation during COVID-19 pandemic”

  1. “Avoid the use of relief crews”? How does that work? Everyone on 12/2? Less days off? Park aircraft for 2 days? Spoken by people who have never performed this work at any level other than flying a desk. More ?’s than answers here, and running out of time. My job is to wiggle the sticks, not make policy – but again such a lack of understanding of how we operate in the field from Boise. I bet money not a single call has been placed to vendors asking for their opinion or ideas. And if there was, I imagine those ideas were quickly discarded because of $$. Hope I’m wrong

  2. This should be an interesting fire year! If the Hospitals are having problems getting enough PPE for their Doctors and Nurses then where will contractors get the proper PPE for their crews?

  3. It seems that one thing left out of this lengthy list concerns testing of personnel. Tests are available now that provides results in minutes. What are the agencies doing to ensure that rapid testing and kits are prioritized for airbases and aviation personnel? I think it would be reasonable if such swab tests were available at fixed bases such as tanker bases and permanent helibases, for all personnel to be tested and cleared before working. Incoming personnel from outside areas should be tested either before they travel or when they arrive. In the field, such testing should be available at temporary helibases for all incoming personnel to keep them free of those testing positive. If teams will then support a segregated helibase from fire camp, cross contamination can be minimized.

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