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First The Wind . . . .



"We're going to develop a trained, professional workforce."

A professional workforce has been a goal of decades worth of commissions, panels, etc. For example, last week before the Senate Committee on Armed Services, Secretary of Defense Gates said: "Since the end of World War II, there have been nearly 130 studies on these problems." Secretary Gates went a bit further and noted a list of systemic problems that went beyond the contracting workforce such as:

  • Entrenched attitudes throughout the government are particularly pronounced in the area of acquisition: a risk-averse culture, a litigious process, parochial interests, excessive and changing requirements, budget churn and instability, and sometimes adversarial relationships within the Department of Defense and between DoD and other parts of the government.
  • At the same time, acquisition priorities have changed from defense secretary to defense secretary, administration to administration, and congress to congress ? making any sort of long-term procurement strategy on which we can accurately base costs next to impossible.
  • Add to all of this the difficulty in bringing in qualified senior acquisition officials. Over the past eight years, for example, the Department of Defense has operated with an average percentage of vacancies in the key acquisition positions ranging from 13 percent in the Army to 43 percent in the Air Force.

I think Secretary Gates defined a number of our problems fairly well. In my view, the problems include the Senate, House of Representatives, congressional staff, Executive Office of the President, GAO and Inspector General analysts and attorneys, agency leadership, program offices, and finally the agency contracting offices. The efforts of these organizations have resulted in a process that often fails. These organizations and people need to know what they are doing before they do it. In short, I believe they all need specific training that matches their organization's duties. I have a lot of bones to pick with all of these organizations and I plan to do it--eventually. However, it is too much to cover in one blog entry. Instead, I'll focus on the importance of training--not any training. I'm talking about the type of training that instills needed knowledge so that people can do their jobs successfully.

The government always seems to react to disasters instead of preparing for them. We never seem to have an adequately trained contracting staff to deal with events that should have been foreseen. For example, Katrina, Iraq redevelopment, etc. Well, here is a personal story that involves the effects of a lack of training. Its not a contracting story but contracting training, or the lack of it, can affect lives too.

In 1981, I was working as an investigator for the U. S. House Committee on Appropriations. That Summer, a senior staff member--I'll call him "Sarge"--sat at my desk to discuss our next assignment. We were going to investigate the deaths of 2 Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) employees who had died fighting a wildfire at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge near Cape Canaveral.

Sarge and I traveled to the Refuge and talked with the employees who fought the fires. As we talked, their pain was etched on their faces and in the sounds of their voices. They just had lost 2 co-workers. One of the employees guided us as we walked the path the 2 men had taken to build a firebreak with a small bulldozer. After that, we left Merritt Island and headed for the FWS regional headquarters in Atlanta. For whatever reason, the individual we spoke with there brought out the men's partially melted helmets. Perhaps, he was trying to make a point to staff of an Appropriations Committee. If so, he did with me. Sarge did the talking and I stared at the helmets. Back in Washington, Sarge met with FWS headquarters personnel and I analyzed the wind speed and wind direction from the weather stations at Merritt Island for June 8, 1981. We knew the approximate time the 2 men entered the brush on the bulldozer and now we knew the timing and the effect of the thunderstorm as the 2 men moved into and through the brush.

Here is what happened. Lightning struck the Refuge on June 7, 1981, and at least 2 fires started the next day. On the morning of June 8, 1981, the wind was blowing from the southeast due to a weather disturbance on the Atlantic Ocean. As the disturbance moved off shortly before noon, the wind shifted and was coming from the south. At about that time, the two men entered the brush east of the fire. It was as if a door opened for a brief moment to invite the men to enter. Even at that moment, a thunderstorm was in the general area and it was heading in their direction. In a few minutes the wind again shifted--this time it came from the southwest. Now, a door seemed to close behind the 2 men sealing their fate. Shortly after the men entered the brush, the staff at a fire to the west reported the thunderstorm and that its rain was knocking down their fire. By now, the 2 men probably made a right turn towards the west preparing to surround the fire with their firebreak. As they did, the thunderstorm approached them with increasing winds from the west, now heading directly at them. They turned the bulldozer to the east hoping to cut their way through the brush to safety. However, the bulldozer became stumped and they jumped off and ran for their lives. Not far from there, they stopped in a clearing and set up a fire tent. By now, the thunderstorm was upon them. The wind from the thunderstorm, with gusts in excess of 52 mph, had shifted violently from the west. It turned the fire into an inferno that overtook the men and fatally burned them in their tent. Immediately after the men were fatally burned, the rain knocked down the fire.

I gave Sarge a copy of my maps with the wind analysis to read. As I explained, his eyes filled with tears. We completed our analysis, sent our report to the Committee, and the Committee included it in the Committee print. Our conclusions were clear--funds for firefighting training were not getting to the staff at Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge. It didn't take long for The House Committee on Appropriations and the rest of Congress to do something. After the tragedy, firefighting training funds found their way through the system. For the 2 men, it was too late. Instead of lives, they now have monuments and at least one building with their names on it.

Two lives were lost due to a lack of training. Its worse when you read a brief biography of the 2 men. Meet Scott Maness and Beau Sauselein. Who would they have become? Who did we lose?

Nearly 28 years have passed since I walked the path of that bulldozer and stared at those helmets. I still think about the two men, I still see those melted helmets, and I still see my weather maps.

I've asked many people the following question since 1981. What is the first thing you think of when a thunderstorm approaches? Nearly all of them say rain. After they say rain, I give them my stock answer. First the wind . . . . First the wind, then the rain. First the wind, then the rain!

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