Report from the Aerial Firefighting Conference

Rome, Italy, 5-6 November 2009

Published:  11 January, 2010

As Chairman of Tangent Link, Rear Admiral Terry Laughran provides an in-depth report on the last Aerial Firefighting Conference held in Rome last November.

It was evident from the record number of over 200 attending Aerial Firefighting Conference in Rome that the interest in and support of the AFF community to these conferences, presented by Tangent-Link in concert with the UNISDR (United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction) Wildland Fire Advisory Group, remains strong. Whilst 'International' in its aim of bringing together the community in its shared efforts to combat wildfires more effectively, the 25 nations represented were predominantly European, but included delegates from North America to Russia and Japan to Australia. Since the North American conference in Anaheim, California, in February 2009, Tangent Link had mounted a well attended one day event on the Gold Coast in Queensland Australia in conjunction with the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.


 The next North American based conference is to be held in Vancouver, Canada 16-17 March 2010. The next European based Conference is timed for November 2010, while looking still further ahead we can anticipate the 5th International Fire Conference under the auspices of the UNISDR to be held in South Africa, 9-13 May 2011. 


Interest can hardly have waned of course given the disastrous wildland fires which have affected most of the 'at risk' countries during the year and Johann Goldammer, Director of the GFMC (Global Fire Monitoring Center), Germany, updated the Conference on the price paid in human lives lost. Aside from the 173 recorded in the Australian fires of Black Saturday (7 February 2009) and lesser, but no less important numbers of firefighter and civilian lives lost in the USA and in Europe, less publicised deaths occur on a huge scale across less developed areas of the world.


The GFMC has published its first Annual Global Wildland Fire Fatalities Report for 20082 and the Interim Report of the Australian Royal Commission into the 2009 fires (recommended reading) is available on the Internet3. Such losses underline the need to continue the high degree of international cooperation in aerial firefighting, which in Europe is reflected in offers of aerial firefighter providers from other regions such as North America and the Russian Federation. There is also a pressing need to improve the competency of coordinated air to ground operations and these issues point the way to more in depth deliberations in future gatherings. 2 3  

The Conference 


A key note from our host nation by Colonel Gianpiero Sanfillipo reflected not only Italy's continued occupation with the aftermath of the Laquila earthquake in April 2009, but the regional nature of the internal firefighting arrangements. This was reflected in turn in presentations by various nations, Croatia, Poland, Spain and Greece. It appeared from Anaheim that Canada has more effectively captured the coordination of national assets across the regions and the lessons to be learned merit revisiting in Vancouver. 


Presentations are available on the Tangent Link Web Site for Delegates, however it is worth summarising two sets of conclusions as they reflect the fundamentals of cooperation and coordination: Colonel Sanfillipo summarised the lessons which had been learned during Italy’s Out of Country Operations to support others, identifying: - Non Standard Activation Procedures; - Unclear Command and Control Authority; - No entry point of contact fluent in English; - Lack of Fire Assessment Information; - Limited Host Nation Support; and Undefined Liability. Moving forward he identified a number of actions: - Enhance & Optimise International Cooperation; - Improve Training (through developing and introducing full mission trainers); - Standardise Training & Costs Sharing through Common Training Centres; - Night Vision Devices & Systems to perform Night Operations. 


This and other presentations drew useful comment from the floor, specifically on the value of the CALFIRE mission training facility and caution with regard to aerial firefighting (including water scooping) at night. A relative new comer to a concerted AFF effort, stimulated by their fires of 2007, was the Lebanon and Sawsan Bou Fakhreddine, Director General of the Association for Forests, Development and Conservation, was quick to identify those key issues upon which we all focus: - Enhancing the coordination and communication between air and ground intervention teams; - Establishing permanent capacity building programmes for various internal stakeholders and in other countries; - Establishing cooperation mechanisms with EU and neighbouring countries for external assistance; - Improving readiness by ensuring the availability of more helicopters, fixed wing, trucks and hand tools; and of most importance, educating people about forest fires. 


Vera Goldschmidt Ferreira, a Portuguese National Detached Expert to the Civil Protection Unit in the European Commission was able to give an upbeat report on the EU Fire Fighting Tactical Reserve (EUFFTR) comprising 31 participating states and with an established Monitoring and Information Centre (MIC) This is a pilot project coordinated by France with 80% European Commission funding to deliver communal aerial fire fighting forces on the basis of the MIC advice. Provided with resources allocated by key participating nations, a 3 range of lessons have been learned with regard to the governance of a common EU Resource, host nation support, common operating procedures and the resolution of conflicting requests through video conferencing.


We look forward to the final report on this initiative which we hope will attract continued funding. There were a variety of supporting presentations including Pieter van Lierop of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) articulating a Fire Management Strategy and Voluntary Guidelines including not only the need for housekeeping in terms of vegetation fuel to wildfires, but the requirement for an Integrated Fire Management Approach, integrating prevention, preparedness, suppression and restoration, to name but a few. Presentations on Unmanned Vehicles and Remote sensing Technologies were accompanied by developments in Chemical Firefighting Agents.


Giorgio Dell'oro from NAMSA, the not for profit NATO Maintenance & Supply Agency, drew attention to the ability of his organisation to provide the full spectrum of logistics support to aerial firefighters. This has the potential for cost effective support to enhance availability of scarce aviation resources. Maintenance and Support is almost in place for the Mediterranean Canadair users and it was good to see the Conference being used to promote initiatives of this nature. 


Dr James Buckee, an astro-physics graduate, addressed the issue of climatic cycles affecting the wildfire seasons. He reflected on the cyclical nature of the Earth’s temperatures over several centuries. In a comprehensive presentation he showed both cooling and warming cycles, ominously predicting that conditions conducive to significant wildfire activity would continue through 2010. 


Finally, we had a most welcome impromptu interjection from Brendan Smythe, an Australian Opposition Member of Parliament sitting in Canberra, a former Minister and a Volunteer Firefighter. He reminded us that there are few 'lessons learned' rather many more 'lessons forgotten' and he was able to quote a Ministerial statement issued, not as you would have expected from the context, in the wake of their most recent fires, but in the 1930s. It was good to hear too, such a ringing endorsement of the importance and success of our Conference. 




A particular feature of this AFF gathering was the significant number of exhibitors, which, combined with the venue, gave the air of a much larger convention. The technical aids to firefighting on display were outstanding with the centre piece a full scale aircraft simulator provided by SELEX Gallileo. Marina Pizzol, Head of Training and Simulation for the company, gave a persuasive presentation on the benefits of being able to reproduce and practice the most critical and demanding phases of flight in Aerial Firefighting to enhance the proficiency and hence the safety of the crew at a reduced cost on utilising expensive air frames for training and continuation flying. It is hoped that the simulator will be available in Vancouver. 


We were blessed also on this occasion with sponsorship, welcome as ever from a range of sources, with EWM - European Wildfire Management as VIP and Eurocopter, Aersud Elicotteri and Bombardier as Host Sponsors, all supported by a valued range of others. 




It is inevitable that fiscal constraints will limit the ability of many elements of the Aerial Fire Fighting community to travel. The much trailed Aerial Firefighting Network is close to becoming a reality with access to a Tangent Link portal which will allow an exchange of views and importantly, to inform those not able to attend the conferences. We remain committed also to the UNISDR Fire Aviation Working Group where Dr Johann Goldammer is best placed to coordinate an advisory committee with the objectives of: sharing information - especially safety related; agreeing and setting consistent operating practices; setting standards to assist in improving safety and the sharing of resources; and providing advice on fire aviation.


The functioning of the Fire Aviation Working Group is not yet visible publicly – but is shaping up. Previous conferences have highlighted the cost in terms of lives and property of not attacking fires immediately and with all resources at our disposal and I can do no better than quote our Keynote Speaker: “Aerial forest firefighting is not a product to advertise and sell but it is an investment made and paid for by the state to defend human lives and property” and Johann Goldammer’s introductory remarks: “This conference is another important step towards consolidating the process of enhancing international cooperation in fire management.” And we need this worldwide brotherhood given the seemingly relentless growth in the threat from wildfires. 

  • Operation Florian

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