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Forest Disturbance Processes

Improving the Process for Awarding Firefighting Helicopter Contracts

[photo:] A helicopter seen from below (photo by Gerald J. Lenhard, Louisiana State University).Research Issue

U.S. Forest Service aviation managers needed a better, more reliable, and transparent process for awarding helicopter service contracts for wildfire suppression activities.

Our Research

The U.S. Forest Service contracts helicopter services for fighting wildfires. In the past, the contracting process relied on ad-hoc spreadsheet ranking methods. Aviation managers and contracting officers have wanted a more efficient process. To address this need, a team of Forest Service researchers created a suite of optimization decision models and a database system. 

Aviation managers identified three selection criteria that are considered when awarding contracts: cost per pound of delivered water, total contract cost, and quality ratings of the aircraft and vendors.  Optimization decision models were developed to simultaneously consider these criteria when awarding contracts.  The models incorporated relative preference or priority weights for the selection criteria. 

Aviation managers chose to assign a greater relative importance to the aircraft quality rating than the two cost measures, resulting in trade-offs between the cost and quality measures.


The new models have been used to award firefighting helicopter contracts since 2008.  These tools greatly improved the efficiency and credibility of the award process and allowed decision makers to select contractors based on both service quality and costs.

Research Results

Snyder, Stephanie A.; Stockmann, Keith D.; Morris, Gaylord E. 2012. An optimization modeling approach to awarding large fire support wildfire helicopter contracts from the US Forest Service. Forest Science. 58(2): 130-138.

Research Participants

Helicopter Modeling Optimization Team:

  • Stephanie Snyder, , Operations Research Analyst, U.S. Forest Service, Northern Research Station
  • Keith Stockmann, Economist, U.S. Forest Service, Region 1
  • Janet Sullivan, Biologist, U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Reserach Station
  • Eddie Morris, Regional Aviation Officer, U.S. Forest Service, Region 1 (now Region 8)


Last Modified: 02/25/2016