Fire Aviation operations during the COVID-19 pandemic

The Eastern Geographic Area has released their Wildland Fire Response Plan (WRP) for the COVID-19 pandemic. The 83-page document was written, compiled, and assembled by the Eastern Area Type 2 Incident Management Team led by Steve Goldman, working under Tim Sexton’s Area Command Team. The three Area Command Teams were responsible for WRPs for the rest of the United States.

All of the teams worked directly with each Geographic Area’s Coordinating Group Chair, dispatch/coordination centers, and local units. They also worked under the direction and supervision of the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (NMAC), through a Team Coordinator (Joe Reinarz) and maintained frequent contact and communication through multiple daily briefings to the NMAC.

The plans were developed using a standardized template and a process for national standardization; but development included attention and inclusion of all specific concerns for the Geographic Area covered by each plan.

In this article we are covering the Eastern Area plan, but based on standardization and the use of a template there may be a significant amount of duplication between plans, which will facilitate inter-Geographic Area responses — if that even occurs under the pandemic.

Wildfire Today covered the general provisions of the Eastern Area plan, but below are excerpts specifically about fire aviation. The entire official document can be downloaded here.


All Rotor Wing Operations

Prevention
Best practices to prevent exposure:
• Briefings: utilize video conferencing, texting, messaging, radio or loud speaker.
• Limit who enters the aircraft and airbase to pilots and flight crews only.
• Work with minimum crew staffing levels to limit exposure.
• For crew and passenger safety follow FAA COVID-19 Guidance.
• Consider putting helicopters into limited status, and 2:1 management where when possible.
• Use one hour call backs during periods of low activity.
• Evaluate allowing vendors to stage at their home base with a 24-48 hour call back.
• With approval of the Contracting Officer, reimburse vendors for transporting relief pilots and crews by vehicle and or light aircraft versus commercial airlines.
• Ensure technological capability to participate in a virtual/ remote environment.

Incident Response
Best practices during mobilization/at incident and through demobilization:
• Follow guidance included in All Personnel Safety Guidance Appendix A.
• Use paperless dispatching (106 dispatch, text message, Cad, rip and run, kneeboard).
• Consider assigning a Rotor Wing Coordinator early in the season at the GACC to increase efficiency.
• Maintain situational awareness of others being transported and working with on the fireline.
• Reconnaissance, passenger transport or other non-module member flights will be avoided unless absolutely necessary.
• Photo or video sharing of incident will be utilized for situational awareness to avoid adding personnel to the confined space of the aircraft.
• Pilot and mechanic should decontaminate interior and exterior of the aircraft between missions per GSA/OEM/NBAA guidance.

Exposure Response
Best practices in the event of a presumptive exposure.
• Personnel should report symptoms or potential COVID-19 exposure to supervisor immediately and initiate onsite self-isolation/self-quarantine.
• Supervisor will report through chain of command to IC or local agency administrator.
• Incident staff will interview person affected for symptoms and determine locations and other personnel that might have been exposed, using COVID-19 approved protocols.
• When possible use virtual interview methods.
• Decontaminate any equipment and locations before returning to service.
• Demobilize person virtually, to home unit if possible; follow COVID-19 public health orders.
• Follow existing public health orders for transportation arrangements back to unit.
• Incident staff will work to identify and inform others potentially exposed, check for symptoms and determine if there is a need for decontamination or further action.
• Follow agency protocols and regulations regarding use of affected person’s name(s) and information.
• Place aircraft out of service until properly decontaminated per GSA/OEM or NBAA guidance.
• Return aircraft to contract availability by the appropriate maintenance inspector.
• Notify Controlling aircraft or dispatch of status change.
• Contact Contracting Officer to place aircraft out of service.
• Isolate aircraft away from active operations and personnel.
• Follow CDC and current local/state department of health guidelines.

Fixed Wing Aviation

Prevention
Best practices to prevent exposure:
• Briefings: utilize video conferencing, texting, messaging, radio or loud speaker.
• Limit who enters an airbase, seaplane base and the aircraft, to flight crews and pilots only. Do not conduct tours or allow observers to gather near the facility.
• For crew and passenger safety follow FAA COVID-19 Guidance.
• Limit multi use of headsets, helmets, knee boards, gloves, flight suits, tools, etc.
• After each flight the pilot should follow GSA/OEM/ NBAA guidance to decontaminate the aircraft interior including handles, interior seating, seat harnesses and the cockpit.
• After maintenance, decontaminate the aircraft per GSA/OEM/NBAA guidance.
• Work closely with the GACC to return tactical (SMKJ, LEAD, ATGSs, ATs, etc.) and flight support crews to the same base every night to eliminate travel induced exposure for flight and maintenance crews.
• Ensure technological capability to participate in a virtual/ remote environment.

Incident Response
Best practices during mobilization/at incident and through demobilization:
• Follow guidance included in All Personnel Safety Guidance Appendix A.
• Use electronic dispatch orders of resources (106 dispatch card, Kneeboard, etc.).
• Use minimum crew staffing levels to limit exposure.
• Consider pooling ATGSs within the GACCs and assign as needed. Utilize multiple bases during high activity, even though other bases may be farther from the incident if support staffing will allow.
• Maintain situational awareness of passengers’ social distancing and potential symptoms; report any observed symptoms through chain of command.
• Work closely with the Dispatch Offices and the GACC to return pilots and flight crews to the same base every night, preferably home, to eliminate travel induced exposure for flight and maintenance crews.
• Consider assigning Fixed Wing and Airspace Coordinators prior to actual fire season

Exposure Response
Best practices in the event of a presumptive exposure.
• Personnel should report symptoms or potential COVID-19 exposure to supervisor immediately and initiate onsite self-isolation/self-quarantine.
Supervisor will report through chain of command to IC or local agency administrator.
• Incident staff will interview person affected for symptoms and determine locations and other personnel that might have been exposed, using COVID-19 approved protocols.
• When possible use virtual interview methods.
• Decontaminate any equipment and locations before returning to service.
• Demobilize person virtually, to home unit if possible; follow COVID-19 public health orders.
• Follow existing public health orders for transportation arrangements back to unit.
• Incident staff will work to identify and inform others potentially exposed, check for symptoms and determine if there is a need for decontamination or further action.
• Follow agency protocols and regulations regarding use of affected person’s name(s) and information.
• Place aircraft out of service until properly decontaminated per GSA/OEM or NBAA guidance.
• Return aircraft to contract availability by the appropriate maintenance inspector.
• Notify Controlling aircraft or dispatch of status change.
• Contact Contracting Officer to place aircraft out of service.
• Isolate aircraft away from active operations and personnel.
• Follow CDC and current local/state department of health guidelines.

Airbase/Helibase Operations

Prevention
Best practices to prevent exposure:
• Briefings: utilize video conferencing, texting, messaging, radio or loudspeaker.
• Limit who enters the aircraft and airbase to pilots and flight crews only.
• Work with minimum crew staffing levels to limit exposure.
• Follow FAA COVID-19 Guidance.
• Follow GSA/OEM/NBAA disinfection guidance after each flight or after maintenance / fueling.
• If possible, contract for a block of rooms or apartments for the season for agency and contractor flight crews to use. Sanitize the rooms prior to and after each use.
• Work closely with the Dispatch Office and the GACC to return ATGSs, ATs, LEADs and flight crews to the same base every night to eliminate travel induced exposure.
• Use the contract one-hour call back to reduce the number of personnel at the airbase.
• Faster ordering of additional aircraft to lessen firefighters needed on the ground through more aggressive initial attack.
• Consider options such as double crewing all aircraft during periods of high use and call up additional CWN services to obtain a more aggressive initial attack.
• Ensure technological capability to participate in a virtual/ remote environment.

Incident Response
• Best practices during mobilization/at incident and through demobilization: Follow guidance included in All Personnel Safety Guidance Appendix A.
Use multiple bases during the response, even though other bases may be farther from the incident in order to limit the amount of personnel at the airbase.
• Install and use additional retardant loaders to limit hose and nozzle contacts.
• Communicate with other bases and dispatch to ensure positive coordination (airspace, radio frequencies, supervision assigned, etc.) as multiple aircraft from different bases and agencies may be present during initial attack.

Exposure Response
Best practices in the event of a presumptive exposure.
• Personnel should report symptoms or potential COVID-19 exposure to supervisor immediately and initiate onsite self-isolation/self-quarantine.
• Supervisor will report through chain of command to IC or local agency administrator.
• Incident staff will interview person affected for symptoms and determine locations and other personnel that might have been exposed, using COVID-19 approved protocols.
• When possible use virtual interview methods.
• Decontaminate any equipment and locations before returning to service.
• Demobilize person virtually, to home unit if possible; follow COVID-19 public health orders.
• Follow existing public health orders for transportation arrangements back to unit.
• Incident staff will work to identify and inform others potentially exposed, check for symptoms and determine if there is a need for decontamination or further action.
• Follow agency protocols and regulations regarding use of affected person’s name(s) and information.
• Place aircraft out of service until properly decontaminated per GSA/OEM or NBAA guidance.
• Return aircraft to contract availability by the appropriate maintenance inspector.
• Notify Controlling aircraft or dispatch of status change.
• Contact Contracting Officer to place aircraft out of service.
• Isolate aircraft away from active operations and personnel.
• Follow CDC and current local/state department of health guidelines.

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One thought on “Fire Aviation operations during the COVID-19 pandemic”

  1. “• Use the contract one-hour call back to reduce the number of personnel at the airbase.”
    “• Faster ordering of additional aircraft to lessen firefighters needed on the ground through more aggressive initial attack.”

    These two statements from the Eastern Area Plan are contradictory…and, isn’t faster ordering of aircraft already a standard practice? Good grief.

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