Aerial firefighters double-down on safety as fires rage

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WASHINGTON, Sept. 26, 2016 /PRNewswire-iReach/ — As wildfires rage across much of the US, aerial firefighters are continually reviewing and enhancing their safety management systems, with increasing attention to the impact of firefighting’s high-stress environment on pilots and ground crews.

Structured safety management systems have come about by regulatory mandate. Under Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules, duty days for pilots are limited to 14 hours, with an eight hour maximum for actual flight times. Also, within any six consecutive days, pilots have a 42-hour limit on flying, but after 36 hours of flying within that time frame, must get the next 24 hours off. Along with compliance with those regulations, the industry’s safety management system programs are focusing even more on fatigue, a major issue for pilots and ground support crews, given the high stress conditions inherent with wildland firefighting.

“Under US Forest Service (USFS) guidelines, our pilots get 48 hours off duty after working a 12 day maximum shift,” said Larry Kelley, Director of Fire Operations for Helimax Aviation in Boise, Idaho. “However, we modified that last year with 12 days on and two days off–and then, after the next 12 days on, we give them seven days off, which the pilots seem to like.”

Kelley added that Helimax has weekly conference calls with every aircraft and crew member regarding safety issues. “During these calls pilots, mechanics, and drivers have the opportunity to let management know what their concerns are,” he said. “If they have any, we are very proactive in addressing them.”

Kelley also noted a US Forest Service (USFS) policy which gives pilots some latitude with fatigue issues, if they pose a potential safety risk. “The managers will listen to the crew and if they determine that a pilot is getting tired, they will stand the aircraft down and slow the pilot’s flight time, which benefits the whole operation,” he remarked. “This prevents the pilot from trying to get the job done without admitting being tired or affected by the heat.”

Portland, Oregon-headquartered Columbia Helicopters took a major step to mitigate pilot fatigue last year, when it integrated the Helicopter Association International’s (HAI) “Land and Live” policy with its own safety management system program.

“It gives pilots the authority to stop work if they are not comfortable flying the aircraft for any reason such as fatigue, excessive visibility problems, or a large number of aircraft in the area,” said Dan Riches, the company’s Director, Health, Safety, Environment and Security. “Their first option is to land the aircraft to assure safety.”

To ensure that safety is maintained, the company, itself, closely monitors flight hours, as do the individual flight crews. “For the past several years, our evolving Risk Management Program has incorporated fatigue assessment which is done using a proprietary iPad application for risk management and dispatch purposes. This is carried out by the crews, daily, and electronically reported to the home office,” Riches explained.

David Barnett, Chief Pilot at Erickson, Inc. reported that during every fire on which the Portland, Oregon-based company’s aircraft are deployed, a morning briefing is held to ensure that the safety provisions under its Aerial Operations Policy Manual (AOPM) are being implemented. “During those briefings, any safety issues we believe the pilots should be aware of, such as nearby powerlines, other aircraft operating on the fire; as well as where ground-based personnel are working are discussed,” he said.

Barnett added that pilot fatigue is among the concerns raised at those briefings. “By policy, we will support any pilot who decides not to fly because he or she is too tired to carry out the mission, or sees see any kind of safety problem.”

Along this line, Rick Livingston, President of Sonora, California-based Intermountain Helicopter, said that the company, which operates a single Bell 212, holds a formal safety meeting each Monday during which safety concerns are discussed. “The meetings include everyone with the company—the pilots, mechanics, and fuel truck drivers,” he explained.

Livingston pointed out that with a single helicopter and just seven employees, Intermountain Helicopter has addressed any fatigue problems “by having the staff on hand” to relieve any pilot, mechanic or fuel truck driver, if necessary.

Airtanker company Neptune Aviation Services closely monitors the number of missions flown, number of hours flown, along with the hours of extended standby requested by the USFS, during any three day period in order to gage pilot fatigue, as Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of the Missoula, Montana-headquartered company explained. Neptune Aviation Services safety management system also includes its maintenance crews.

“We get reports from the crews about pilot fatigue, and if a certain threshold of reporting is reached, we will initiate a fatigue check, either by phone or with face to face interviews with the Chief Pilot or Flight Administrator,” Snyder noted. “Both also interface with the crews, on a daily basis, to check on their physical state by asking them how they are doing and if they feel they can fly.”

“Mechanics have a requirement of at least eight hours off during any 24 hour period, and they must have two 24 hour periods off during any 14 day period they are working,” he said. “Also the drivers of the ground support vehicles must adhere to specific Department of Transportation (DOT) duty and time regulations.”

Maintenance crews are specifically monitored by the company’s Maintenance Control Center, which provides support and technical assistance. As with the pilots, that includes daily fatigue checks. However, at Neptune Aviation Services, pilots and mechanics also look out for each other.

“When we are working on contract, the maintenance crews have the right–through their managerial structure–to raise concerns about pilot fatigue. In a similar fashion, pilots can also raise concerns about mechanics’ fatigue,” said Snyder. “This focuses both groups on recognizing the signs of fatigue.”

Columbia Helicopters, Erickson, Inc., Helimax Aviation, Intermountain Helicopter, and Neptune Aviation Services are members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before regulatory agencies with oversight and management responsibilities for wildland resource management.

Media Contact: George Hill, American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association, 8016737324, ghill@ahsafa.org

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SOURCE American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association

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