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Contractors at the Department of Interior (DOI) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Interagency Fire Briefing at Heli-Expo 2017 said they left the meeting frustrated at a lack of feedback on two controversial topics. Attendees were looking for explanations about a solicitation that appears to target one specific restricted category aircraft and decisions to not renew options on several Type 1 contracts that began last year.
The briefing is designed to update contractors and provide information on entering government contracting, but most arrived with serious questions and concerns.
The solicitation in question (No. D17PS00157) was posted on Feb. 24, 2017, and called for an exclusive use helicopter for use by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Boise, Idaho. Closing on March 17, 2017, and in effect from May 15 to Sept. 11, 2017, the solicitation calls for a Type 1, 12-passenger, twin-engine helicopter with 140-kt speed, wheeled landing gear with shock absorbers, and dual aft sliding doors.
Attendees voiced concern that the specific details in the solicitation, which seemed to clearly describe the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk — a restricted category helicopter only flown by a handful of operators, would limit bidding opportunities for most contractors.
Walker Craig, chief of technical services for the Office of Aviation Services at DOI, suggested the solicitation was not limited to one type of aircraft, but when pressed by contractors, he cited Federal Acquisition Regulations that require discussion on a solicitation to be in writing.
“If you have a question on a specific solicitation, you need to submit that question through the solicitation,” he said.
When asked when an answer would be forthcoming, Craig said the solicitation would be reissued with an amendment if the commanding officer in charge saw the need to do so based on the question.
Craig had a PowerPoint slide prepared showing the increased area that could be covered by a faster helicopter, highlighting how an initial attack helicopter is needed to bring in firefighters.
In response to another question, Craig said he didn’t anticipate the DOI moving away from FAA Part 135 certified aircraft.
Further questions regarding the legality of posting a solicitation for a restricted category helicopter, the inability to move firefighters outside a temporary flight restriction (TFR) area in a restricted aircraft, and lack of options beyond the UH-60 were unanswered. Craig said responding to them would cause an unfair advantage to those in the room and he reiterated that questions needed to be sent in writing.
After a quick break, Frank Gomez, contracting officer for the USFS, took the podium and shared information on USFS helicopter asset needs. He highlighted that the Type 1 contracts started last year will not be exercising options this year, reducing Type 1 contracted helicopters from 34 to 28.
“This downgrade came from D.C.,” said Jim Edge, helicopter program manager for the USFS, in response to questions regarding why historically optioned contracts were not being exercised. “The new administration has said every department will be cut by 10 percent and we’re doing what we can to prepare for budget cuts.”
Edge emphasized how airplane air tanker numbers decreased in 2012, calling for an increase in Type 1 helicopters. Now that new tankers are available, the USFS is looking at reducing Type 1 contracts, citing allowable payload.
“We want to be sure we’re getting our money’s worth,” Edge said.
After the meeting, several contractors stayed to share their concerns.
“Both of these are frustrating,” said Steve Wright, vice president of Rainier Heli International. “We just want it discussed openly so we can understand it,” he added.
Brain Beattie, director of operations at Croman Corporation, one of the operators affected by the reduction, said: “This is a very serious issue to cut resources before policy decisions.”
Jim Russell, vice president of CHI Aviation, agreed. “There are a lot of unanswered questions,” he said. “They’re going to do what they’re going to do, but they could have explained it better; been more transparent.”