The U.S. Forest Service, the agency responsible for awarding federal contracts for large air tankers and firefighting helicopters, is proposing a number of very significant changes to the helicopter contracts. The agency has posted a second draft of a new Request for Proposals (RFP) and will hold a virtual meeting about the contracts on September 29.
One of our readers whose company has been providing helicopters on the previous contracts has some opinions about the changes the Forest Service is pushing. They requested to remain anonymous in order to avoid retribution from the agency. Here is what they wrote. It has been lightly edited.
The Call When Needed (CWN) “Parent Contract” is a 1 year with 9 option years contract, with Exclusive Use (EU) contracts being bid *through* the parent contract for 1 year with four option years. In each case, only the first year is guaranteed. They claim that 2 times throughout the 1/9 year parent contract, they will allow onboarding of new vendors/equipment. But only when they decide, of course! Sounds like a great schedule to buy a “next gen” helicopter.
This draft RFP is such a massive and violent change from what has been requested in previous contracts that most operators aren’t going to be able to handle it. We operate Type III helicopters and are now faced with 40lbs+ of equipment (costing over $60k per aircraft) to meet minimum requirements – things that we really don’t need like a Traffic Avoidance System (but the ADS-B they required last year isn’t good enough) and a loudspeaker (because yelling at the fire helps?). Oh, and don’t glance over the cockpit camera, which they want even on restricted category bucket ships. The cheapest camera we could find is $10,000. How’s about an STC for personal electronic devices, only available from one company, nobody else in the industry even knows what the hell the STC is or is for! But you better pay for it, USFS says!
Once we get all of that figured out, turns out that the increase in performance specifications at 7,000′ / 30°C combined with the added equipment pretty much eliminates legacy ships from meeting performance requirements. They essentially want a Sky Crane to do a Jet Ranger’s job… and guess who they were calling last year when our state was in a firestorm? A lot of the operators that will get pushed out because of this RFP do a lot of irrefutably safe work when fire season peaks, or when resource work is needed, with excellently maintained legacy platforms at great value to the taxpayers.
Add to this that they are wanting us to throw all of this money into our aircraft to get on the contract (which is now a 10 year contract!) while simultaneously saying that they fully intend on moving to “modern” helicopters that are built after the year 2000 and are all twin engine. But they won’t tell us when they are doing that, just that as we bid on EU work within the CWN contract eventually they are going to want “modern helicopters”. The only modern type III helicopter we can find that meets the requirement is $6.4m which is triple the value of our 5 type III helicopter fleet (and we own a Type III light twin, it’s just too old for the Forest Service’s liking). Type II’s? There are only 2 options and they are well in to the 10’s of millions of dollars. Say goodbye to the 205 and 212, its brand new 412EPX’s or nothing.
The biggest issue overall is that this contract is a prerequisite for our other federal and state work such as state fire and wildlife survey, etc. Without a federal contract, we can’t get carded – and without cards, we can’t work for the state. So, because the Forest Service wants to push all but the “top tier” of their options out, they are essentially putting every government agency’s resources at risk. We can only hope the upcoming DOI on-call helicopter RFP due out later this year isn’t so crazy.
We are all for the push for better equipment for our wildland fire efforts… but the USFS can’t do the change this suddenly and without any industry input. There is obviously some back door dealing going on with this RFP as it very specifically pushes money to certain equipment providers and tips the hat to certain helicopter companies. The question and answer document shows the USFS is unwilling to be understanding – its our way or the highway, thanks for nothing. We have gone a few years in the past 10 where we had zero USFS work at all based on fire behavior… but they want their random equipment to be installed on our dime. It’s driving us away from government work and I’m truly worried about the availability of rotor assets next year if they end up going through with this wish list RFP.
I know we aren’t alone in how upset we are with the Forest Service right now. A quick peruse through that Q&A shows that dozens of operators really gasped when this RFP came out. The arrogance and dismissal by the FS with most questions being answered “Noted, Language will remain as written” just adds frustration to irritation. Thanks for giving us a voice