SEATs: The Unsung Heroes (Part 1)

With wildfires getting more devastating and deadly, especially in the western U.S., stories on these disasters are making their way into the news and social media. Scenes of firefighters marching up to the firelines, digging out vegetation, and extinguishing burning homes and structures often leads evening newscasts in the summertime. And through it all, aircraft can be seen helping out the firefighters on the ground.

As the cameras track aircraft building retardant line or dropping water directly on the fires, the heavies, the jets and multi-engine propeller planes get the most airtime. But working tirelessly, often in the background, are the smaller aircraft, especially one type of aircraft: the Amphibious (Fire Boss) and Wheeled Single-Engine Air Tanker, otherwise known as SEATs.

Although there are only a baker’s dozen of Large Air-Tankers (LATs) and Very Large Air-Tankers (VLATs) on Exclusive-Use contracts with U.S. Forest Service this year, with another dozen or so on Call-When-Needed contracts, there are around 80 wheeled SEATs and 18 Fire Bosses that will be fighting wildfires across the U.S. this year. Whereas the massive LATs and VLATs can drop thousands of gallons of retardant at a time, a Fire Boss can drop as much or more than a VLAT can in an hour (and do so without returning to base for fuel for another 2.5 hours), while a wheeled SEAT can hold its own in the same hour or so, dropping up to 2,400 gallons in the same hour.

As of the 2019 fire season, there are 100 Fire Bosses operating around the world. A majority of them are based in Spain, Portugal and Croatia.  In these countries the Fire Bosses are used extensively in initial and sustained attack and in some cases are put on “loaded patrols” over fire prone areas to pummel fires as soon as they start.

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Dauntless Air (formerly Aero Spray)

To get a better idea of what this largely overlooked segment of the aerial firefighting community has to offer, Brett L’Esperance, CEO of Dauntless Air, which is based in Appleton, Minnesota, took some time to discuss his business.

In 2017, Brett started a new chapter in his life as CEO of an air-tanker company, at that time called Aero Spray. “When I showed up two years ago, we had nine aircraft, eight of them Fire Bosses and one a wheeled SEAT. Today, we have twelve Fire Bosses and one-wheeled SEAT,” he said proudly.

“The excitement around a business like ours comes from the missions,” Brett explained.

“Whether you’re flying an airplane or working a fire on the ground, the overwhelming sense is that the thing that you’re working on matters in the world. I’ve been heavily involved in leading many other businesses, and I constantly remind the folks at Dauntless that there are a lot of other industries you could work in that don’t have the same impact on other people’s lives. The sense of helping others is fantastic. You get up every morning and you feel great about what you’re trying to achieve."

Much of what Brett spends his time on is getting people to think differently about how to respond to the growing wildfire threat.

“We’ve been pushing the idea of the Rapid Initial Attack with wheeled SEATs, Fire Bosses and Type 3 helos on social media, at state foresters’ conferences, in Washington D.C. and in talking with regular people about a different approach to the wildfire threat.  Educating people on the idea of responding unbelievably quickly with cost and water-dropping effective aerial assets to keep small fires small, so the guys and gals on the ground can get there, put the fire out in less time and with less effort and stress to do so. It’s an idea that makes both common and dollar sense.”

Name Change/Culture Change

“The business was a good business long before I became involved in it. From a high level, I have a duty to provide our personnel with the best equipment, training and resources to amplify the good things we did and try to be great at them. One of the first things we needed to do was differentiate ourselves from everyone else in the space. By changing the name [from Aero Spray to Dauntless Air], the logo and the branding of the business and by clearly outlining what makes our approach different in the marketplace we have been able to achieve some differentiation in the industry.”

In addition to looking and sounding different than others in this space, they wanted to make Dauntless Air one of the best places to work in the industry.

“Having come from another aviation business where we successfully took a toxic culture and turned it into a great work environment, I have seen the power of a positive culture and what it can do for creativity, productivity and, most importantly, employee fulfilment. Aero Spray’s culture was good and solidly based on safety, but I knew we could make it better.”

Within the first few weeks of stepping into the CEO role, Brett hosted a town hall meeting and let everyone know where they were heading with the business.

“Given the fact that I was an unknown to the team, I asked them for their consideration and patience as we moved forward together. I asked them to put what faith they determined appropriate into the words I was sharing with them at that time, but to let my actions, the management team’s actions, speak for themselves over the next few months and years. I followed up with visiting all the tanker bases to hear directly from our personnel and have made that an activity that I try to do every summer since.”

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And the fleet is growing.

“Due to the continuing interest in the Fire Boss as a platform, we have added four more Fire Bosses to the fleet over the last two years and added four new Ground Support Vehicles and trailers (GSVs) and replaced four older (GSVs),” Brett said with a grin.

“This growth, while exciting and positive, brought with it significant recruiting challenges in all three of our functions: pilots, crew chiefs and mechanics. Over the last two years we’ve added 25 team members to the Company.”

A sizeable challenge and accomplishment.

“To continue along that growth trajectory, we’ve gone a long way to create a workplace that is both personally and financially rewarding. We hire for attitude first, aptitude second. We have continued to reinforce a culture where everyone has each other’s backs. There is no difference between a pilot, a mechanic and a crew chief, or anyone in an administrative role. We’re all in this together. We’ve developed incentive plans for the entire Dauntless team that allows everyone to succeed, primarily based on the safety and success of the company and secondarily on metrics that are based on individual performance. We try to stay in the pay range that keeps people excited about being here.”

In addition to the typical compensation structures, there are other things the company does for its team members.

“The fire season is an intense work effort by all our folks and something that we know can be hard on a family. We also firmly believe that at the end of every season, we as a team can learn a lot from the things that worked well during the season and the things that didn’t. Due to both of these points, over the last two seasons, we have had an end of season gathering where we invite our team members and their spouses to get together, break bread, review what happened over the season and issue a very sincere thank you to both the Dauntless team members and their significant others. It’s a great way for the management team to get the pulse of everyone in the organization and to let the important people in their lives know that we appreciate the sacrifice that the family is making every season. The unsolicited feedback we’ve gotten after doing that two years in a row is that people are appreciative of it. You don’t have to do a lot of big things for people to appreciate a workplace, the little things matter as well.  It’s about creating good culture in the company and we believe its critically important to try and do so.”

The War on Wildfires – A Different Approach

“I’ve been ringing the bell that there’s a different way of fighting fires,” said Brett.

“A smarter and more cost-effective way that frees up the cash to focus on forest health initiatives such as prescribed burns and appropriately managed forest thinning. Washington state is a living, breathing example of how this new approach is working. The Washington Commissioner of Public Lands, Hillary Franz, was elected after a very bad fire season in 2015, when close to 600,000 acres were burned, many hundreds of millions were spent, and three state firefighters had died. She had not grown up in the wildfire business, but knew she had a problem on her hands. In an effort to try to better combat the wildfire challenge, she reached out to as many fire chiefs in the state as possible. Her simple question: ‘How do we get ahead of these wildfires?’ The common refrain? ‘Get on a fire quickly with aerial assets, keep it small and provide enough time for the ground troops to get there and do their job.’ The associated benefit of keeping fires small? Firefighters’ jobs on the ground are less taxing, dangerous and stressful.”

Music to Brett’s ears.

Brett summarized.

“Since moving away from the “old way” of fighting wildfires in the state and embracing the strategy of pre-positioning fast-responding Fire Bosses and state owned helicopters across the state, the number of acres that have been burned in the last few years have dropped from almost 600,000 in 2015, to roughly 100,000 every year since (while fire starts have continued to rise every year during this time).  With that reduction in fire activity, the firefighting costs have dropped from several hundred millions to a number many times less than that. The money they’ve saved there has been used to push back the risk through forest thinning and prescribed burns.”

Based on the success of this strategy, the Commissioner was able to go to the Legislature this year and secure an additional $55 million to continue doing those types of things.

“We’re trying to push the idea of rapid initial attack not only to fire agencies but also to citizens in fire-prone states,” Brett revealed, “because they need to know that a different way of battling wildfires exists and is working in Washington state. If we don’t start changing our approach to battling wildfires people are going to continue to die and structures are going to continue to be destroyed. What’s the old saying? ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome or result’  Let’s stop being insane on this topic. There are better approaches to this challenge.”

Getting Down to Hard Numbers – Rapid Initial Attack…

“The idea behind Rapid Initial Attack is based not just on Dauntless and the Fire Boss as the only platform to use, but to talk about how we need to take the 18 Fire Bosses,  roughly 80 wheeled SEATs and the 150 or so Type 3 helicopters in the United States, all of which have lower day and flight rates than the larger LATs, VLATs and Type 1 helos, and to think more strategically about placing them,” said Brett.

“The technology now exists to predict where the most fire prone areas are going to be a week or two out during the fire season. If we could approach the wildfire challenge on a more national level and use these technologies to determine the best locations to spread out these 250 or so aerial firefighting assets, we could quickly jump on new fire starts to keep them small, relying on the larger aircraft to help support the battle in the most at-risk areas.”

One public misconception is that there is a vast fleet of firefighting aircraft available.

“There are only about 28 LATs, VLATs and multi-engine scoopers in the U.S aerial firefighting complex,” Brett pointed out.

“Interestingly enough, what I have learned in my outreach to the public is that ordinary citizens think that the aerial firefighting force that protects them from fires is military-like in size. When they hear that this is not the case, it causes alarm. With only 13 LATs and VLATs on Exclusive-Use contracts in 2019, they can’t be in all the places, all the time. We’re promoting a more effective use of the smaller fixed-wing and rotary assets as first responders to a fire start. You already have 100+ aircraft, between the wheeled SEATs and Fire Bosses, and about 150 Type 3 helicopters that can be used as the first line of defense to knock these wildfire starts down. In talking to the average person about this, I often get the response of, “aren’t we doing it that way?” Unfortunately, I tell them, ‘no, we’re not.’”

Some in the public take a more aggressive view on the matter.

“One person pointed to last year’s Camp Fire and asked ‘Isn’t this a national security threat? If a bunch of terrorists killed almost 100 people and burned down 20,000 structures within a few weeks, don’t you think we would have a military response?’ I answered that I agreed with her, but that the country’s current aerial firefighting strategy isn’t built for it, doesn’t seem have the budget for it, and has structural/contractual challenges to reaching enough scale to do so.”

A driver of why there aren’t enough aerial firefighting assets out there to combat the wildfire challenge is the industry’s requirement to operate within the Small Business Administration’s (SBA’s) carve out and the associated dated requirements of company size. The North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) dictates the SBA’s requirements for how large a company can be to continue to receive contracts from federal fire agencies under the SBA carve-outs.

“The way federal guidelines and NAICS codes are set up, larger, more well capitalized organizations can’t set up operations like a defense contractor might, where you might be able to double or triple the current fleet of aerial firefighting assets. There’s obviously a need, and there’s a willing group of operators who could provide the supply of aircraft, but in growing their fleet too large, an operator could actually grow itself into bankruptcy by violating the limited size requirements set by the SBA and the NAICs code for the entire wildfire-fighting industry. To run a safely-maintained fleet of aircraft and pay your employees a fair wage in today’s wildfire fighting complex, it is unnecessary anymore to force an antiquated definition of an appropriately sized small business on the industry. It’s time to look at this industry as a grouping of highly professionalized businesses that are providing a key service across the nation, year in and year out. SBA protection is no longer needed or appropriate for the industry.”

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Becoming Competitive

Brett provided some insight into building a business that can win and retain contracts while keeping employees happy.

“Given the hiring challenges across our three key functions (pilots, mechanics and crew chiefs), we want to be known for paying a fair wage and creating a great culture so that we can get our people to come back next season. You’ve got to care for the people who work for you. Often that means paying them above average and doing other things that impact the company’s bottom line. This is a reality that we’re okay with. We need to do this to ensure that our company continues to run as safely and successfully as it has for the last decade."

And the little things matter.

“I’m finding that little things like inviting a spouse to an end-of-the-year gathering makes a difference. It’s an investment in the future success of the Company. It’s a small thing that people appreciate and hopefully keeps them interested in coming back next fire season when so many other opportunities exist out there.”

He learned this lesson in one of the unlikeliest places.

“One of the companies I used to be on the board of was one of the country’s largest tow truck operators. The guys who had bought the company before us eliminated the previous owners’ Thanksgiving turkey to all the employees. We brought it back and got all kinds of pats on the back and thank you notes for doing that.”

And he said that while it cost the company some profit margin, it was marginal enough that the benefit far outweighed the cost.

Safety is also an important consideration in the risky aerial firefighting business.

“One of the things we amped up when we arrived was that we have to continue to push a culture that is very much safety-focused. We put in place a Safety and Compliance Committee which is made up of two people from every function in the organization.”

That costs money and time to organize and implement the things that will make every employee safer in our Company, but it pays off.

“I’m passionate about this business and the mission we’re focusing on. When you see people die and you see peoples’ homes destroyed, it’s exciting to think about the fact that our approach to fighting the war on wildfire could change that outcome. We’ve seen it work in Washington state.  Could it work in other places in the country like California? Yes. Only time will tell, but we’re excited about the future.”

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