Private Sector Grounds Air National Guard Fire-fighting Assets
Private operators have laid claim to airborne fire-fighting, then keep the government from using its assets on the basis that it would be unfair competition.

  by Bill Simon 10/27/03  

There is a serious problem with the government's response to wildfires. But it's not the government's fault.

In October 2003, Southern California was ravaged by the worst wild fires in ten years. While homes burned, it was evident that fire-fighting resources were stretched to the limit and it appeared that nothing more could have been done. But sitting on the ground at the Channel Island Naval Air Station in Ventura County were the Air National Guard C-130 aircraft that had been outfitted to fight wild fires.

While helicopters carry about 350 gallons, the Air National Guard C-130s carry 3,000 gallons to attack wildfires using the specially developed Modular Airborne Fire-Fighting System (MAFFS).

The Southern California wildfires were raging in four counties and a thousand homes had already been lost, yet it would be a week before the Air National Guard fire-fighting C-130 air tankers could fly.

The Air National Guard has not been allowed to use its airborne fire-fighting resources in a timely fashion because of the claim by private airborne firefighters that the military unfairly competes with them. They keep the government at bay by threatening law suits based on the Economy Act of 1932 which bars the government from competing with the private sector. Powerful lobbies such as Helicopter Association International (HAI) have argued that until *every* private airborne fire fighter is employed fighting fires, the government cannot use its military assets to combat fires. So the big planes just sat on the ground while Southern California burned.

We faced this same situation exactly ten years ago as Altadena and Laguna were burning. With the ashes from the nearby Ventura fire literally settling on their wings, the C-130s sat on the runway unable to get authorization to "start engines." Awareness of this issue led Congressman Elton Gallegly of Ventura California to introduce the Bill, H.R. 3440, in the 1st Session of the 103rd Congress in an attempt to remedy the problem. The intention of the Bill was to free the government to use its airborne fire-fighting assets as soon as possible. But for *ten years* Congressman Gallegly has met with strong opposition from the private airborne firefighters as represented by HAI and others.

In a continuing effort to make more efficacious use of our fire fighting assets, Congressman Gallegly recently teamed up with U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley of Colorado to add an amendment to the 2004 Defense Authorization Act to provide a two-year pilot program in which the Economy Act would be waived to get all available fire-fighting equipment in the air as soon as possible. The House passed the amendment, but the Senate did not.

This is a response from HAI (enter "Gallegly" in the search box):
HAI is strongly opposed to this amendment, which could adversely affect the business interests of private contract aerial fire-fighting operations, placing the military in direct competition with commercial operators.
This illustrates the hubris of those who oppose the timely application of government airborne fire-fighting assets. They claim the military is placed in direct competition with commercial operators when it is the *commercial operators* who have laid claim to a job that is expressly in the purview of the government. Then they obstinately protect their existence by pleading that the government would be in violation of the Economy Act of 1932 if the government attempted to carry out its obligations without first meeting the business demands of the private-sector fire-fighters.

This arrangement is not only absurd, it is, to my mind, illegal. Article I, section 8, of the Constitution of the United States states that Congress shall have the power to provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States. In providing for the general welfare, fire-fighting and policing have been clearly established as the responsibility of government. While the government may subcontract services from the private sector, those hired need to realize that they are working only at the pleasure of the government and in no way do they replace the government. Somehow this got turned around.

The present legal interpretation of the Economy Act of 1932 places the business interests of the private and commercial airborne fire fighters higher than the general welfare of the people and prevents the government from carrying out its expressly delegated responsibility to provide for the defense and general welfare. It seems to me that it is therefore unconstitutional for the private sector to keep the government from doing what it was empowered to do.

The business interests of the private and commercial airborne fire fighters should be viewed the same as that of private ambulance services. Private ambulances work in conjunction with the city paramedics. They provide a service and have a market niche. They do not demand that all private ambulances be in use before a fire department ambulance can be dispatched. So too, the private firefighters have to find their market niche and work in conjunction, and not in competition, with the military.

Unfortunately, due to the hubris of a few individuals who place their income above the general good, the lesson of ten years ago was not learned and as a result many have suffered. As homes burned all we heard was that resources were limited, yet all the while, private sector airborne firefighters kept our government airborne fire-fighting resources grounded. This cannot be allowed to happen again. It is imperative that this issue be resolved to allow the government to provide the best possible response to fires.

Congressman Gallegly has been diligently pursuing reform on this issue since 1993, but he is up against powerful lobbies who intimidate the Senators. He needs to be supported. For more information please contact:

Tom Pfeifer
Press Secretary
Office of Elton Gallegly
(202) 225-5811 Tel
(202) 225-1100 Fax

Bill Simon