Commentary and information about public safety and security, intelligence and counterintelligence, open government and secrecy, and other issues in northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Location: Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, United States

Raised in Palouse, WA. Graduated from Washington State University. US Army (Counterintelligence). US Secret Service (Technical Security Division) in Fantasyland-on-the-Potomac and Los Angeles. Now living in north Idaho.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

US Forest Service Use of Contract Firefighting Crews

With fire season fast approaching, The Seattle Times article headlined Report says private firefighting crews inadequately trained caught my eye. The article was written by Seattle Times staff reporter Craig Welch. It was published on March 22, 2006.

The Times article did not provide a URL for the report, so I went to the Idaho Panhandle National Forest Supervisor's Office at 3815 Schreiber Way in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, to try and obtain the URL. The front-desk employee contacted the public information officer, Dave O'Brien, by telephone and asked for the information. The employee relayed Mr. O'Brien's response that the report didn't involve the Forest Service. End of conversation.

I sent an email to Seattle Times staff reporter Craig Welch, and within a few minutes he provided a link to the US Department of Agriculture, Office of Inspector General (OIG), Western Region, Audit Report entitled Forest Service Firefighting Contract Crews. The report number is 08601-42-SF, dated March 2006. The US Forest Service is an agency of the US Department of Agriculture.

The report details the results of a three-year investigation by the OIG. The USFS uses contract firefighting crews to supplement USFS employee firefighters. These contractors are expected to be trained to USFS standards by private organizations that represent wildfire suppression contractors. Those standards are intended to ensure safety and efficiency on the fire scene.

During the 2002 fire season USFS incident managers noticed performance problems with poorly trained and inexperienced crews hired under the Pacific Northwest Wildfire Coordinating Group's Interagency Firefighting Crew Agreement of 2002. In particular the USFS managers observed:
  • Contractors certified qualificatons for crewmembers who had not satisfied standards and requirements for their positions.
  • Instructors who are hired by the companies providing the firefighters may have been pressured to cut corners on training.
  • There was no assurance that supervisors of non-English speaking contract crews could communicate effectively with incident management staff or their own crews.
  • Undocumented workers are used by contract firefighting crews.

The OIG recommended that the USFS:

  • Develop a program to review and verify national contract firefighter qualification records.
  • Verify that associations' training sessions are monitored for standards performance.
  • Ensure that associations' electronic training records cannot be modified by persons with an employment or financial interest in a contractor's business.
  • Adopt an appropriate standardized field language assessment for national contract crews and ensure it's completed before fire season.
  • Coordinate with federal agencies to identify counterfeit documents used to obtain employment on contract crews.

In response to this report, the USFS concurred with all the OIG's findings and recommendations.


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