DLA supplies critical gear to firefighters battling historic wildfire season

By Beth Reece DLA Public Affairs

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As thousands of families from Alaska to California evacuated their homes to escape fast-moving wildfires this summer, several Defense Logistics Agency activities rushed to provide direly needed firefighting equipment.

The agency assumed logistics support for the Forest Service in May 2014 after the General Services Administration turned over responsibility for nearly 300 items ranging from fire hoses to protective clothing required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildland Fire Protection Program.

DLA and Forest Service officials were still outlining the details of a support strategy when the 2015 peak fire season started in May. More than 8 million acres – an area larger than the state of Maryland – have gone up in flames since then, the Washington Post reported in early September. And in August, as more than 60 fires burned across 13 states, the National Fire Preparedness Level was raised to five, the highest readiness level for wildland fire operations.

The magnitude of supplies needed by firefighters and the fast pace at which they’ve been ordered has been a challenge, said Dave Kless, DLA Logistics Operations’ national account manager for federal and international programs.

“At the height of PL5, we were getting orders for anywhere from 30 to 60 different types of items, and of course the customer needed them immediately. The fact that we had firefighters spread across numerous areas made things even more complicated,” he said.

About 98 percent of the material needed to fight this year’s fires has come from DLA Distribution San Joaquin in Tracy, California. The majority of that material is managed by DLA Troop Support, which works closely with Forest Service officials to determine the amount of equipment to pre-position in San Joaquin so it’s ready for movement to one of 11 storage locations managed by the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management.

The Forest Service does not have the capability to submit automated requirements through the Military Standard Requisitioning and Issue Procedures. Their ordering process begins when firefighters email their orders to DLA’s Customer Interaction Center in Battle Creek, Michigan, where agents enter the requirements into EMALL, the Defense Department’s online shopping portal. Material handlers in San Joaquin immediately pull the orders, pack the material and send it on its way.

Joe Sousa, distribution facilities manager at San Joaquin, said the team willingly works in the evening and on weekends to get orders out the same day they’re received. The expectation is to have orders at customers’ doorsteps within 24 hours.

Though DLA’s support for most items has been seamless, DLA Troop Support has had to overcome limited domestic manufacturing capability for fire hoses. The activity issued a long-term contract last fall for the item, but the vendor encountered issues sourcing the material domestically even after extensive market research and industry outreach.

“It’s a dying trade unfortunately. The looms are very large, very expensive, and there aren’t many people who are skilled to operate them,” said Lauren Colabelli, chief of DLA Troop Support’s Fire & Emergency Services Equipment integrated supply team for construction and equipment.

Although DLA is required by the Berry Amendment to acquire the hoses from domestic sources, the agency obtained approval to use the same Canadian vendor previously used by GSA.

“Having that in place has enabled us to provide support through this fire season, and we’re currently working with manufacturers to build up a domestic source,” Colabelli added.

By early September, the Forest Service had used more than 6,000 miles of fire hose of which the F&ESE team supplied approximately 1,500 miles.

Supporting firefighters has become as critical a mission as providing life-saving supplies to the Federal Emergency Management Agency during natural disasters such hurricanes and floods, Kless said.

“The difference is that the Forest Service fights fires every day. Peak fire season is only six months of the year, but we’re still supporting them during the rest of the year. It’s kind of on par with what we do for the military in terms of them being an everyday customer,” he said.

Funding issues for state and local firefighters and the vast size of DLA’s operation have complicated the transition from GSA, but Mark Garland, manager of the Forest Service’s warehouse in Redding, California, said he’s seen progress and expects the relationship will grow.

“We had bumps on both sides, and we’re working through those constantly,” he said.

While the Forest Service is one of DLA’s smallest customers and the partnership isn’t a money-generating venture, Kless said it was logical for the agency to assume logistics support.

“No one can do it better. We can manage inventory efficiently and we have worldwide distribution,” he said. “The last thing you want to read about is homes burning and acres lost because firefighters didn’t have the equipment they needed.”

Kless hopes that DLA can eventually help the Forest Service save money by replacing some of their items with ones that are already being ordered in large quantities for military customers. He also anticipates more interest from the Forest Service in how DLA manages inventory.

“GSA had a dedicated group of people and a dedicated process to support the Forest Service. As the new supporting agency, we can’t just say we do things differently,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to give them the tailored solution they’re looking for, and I believe employees all across the agency are working hard to do that.”