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野火扑救大有商机,行业发展存在隐忧

David Tao  2011年06月28日

政府越来越依靠私营承包商来扑灭野火,但是应急救灾这个行业和野火本身一样难以预测。

    美国亚利桑那州沃露大火继续肆虐,美国联邦政府和地方政府都在日以继夜地抢险以控制火势蔓延。然而,私营承包商在救火方面扮演着越来越重要的角色。

    政府部门虽然负责协调救火工作,但救火的实际操作越来越多地由私营承包商负责。全球变暖带来的高温和干旱使得大火频繁发生,而政府机构却资金短缺,因此营利性公司发挥的作用越来越大。

    然而,每年大火发生的时节都无法预测,公共财政状况也不太稳定,这些都使得人们对私营承包商应对险情的能力心存疑虑。

    私营企业在美国承担了40%以上的救火任务,国家野火救助协会(National Wildfire Suppression Association)是这些私营承包商的代表,该协会执行董事黛比•麦莉称,这一数字和美国林务支出(Forest Service)的数据一致。2008年,美国林务支出了7.57亿美元,聘用了1,000多个私营救火公司,约为野火救助预算的52% (总预算为14.6亿美元)。2009年和2010年火情稀少,支出下降了一半,为总预算的41%。

    虽然业务暂时有所下降,但是在过去20几年中,私营承包商在美国野火控制的大部分领域都发挥了重大的作用。部分承包商甚至能够覆盖美国境内的广大地区,在火灾发生时启动救火行动,如野火扑救和咨询公司Chubb's Wildfire Defense Systems在美国14个州开展业务,消防公司Rural Metro的救火范围也辐射至全国。然而,该行业的组成仍以小型承包商居多,很多公司员工屈指可数,重型救火设备也仅有一两台。据麦莉估计,约75% 的野火救助承包商都属于后者。

    消防行动使用的飞机从一开始就有很大部分是私有的(因为这些飞机一到冬天就闲置不用,政府机构无法负担),而承包地勤人员则是一种相对较新的趋势。第一个不包含飞机服务的合同签署于1986年,这类做法一直很盛行,直到1988年黄石公园(Yellowstone)大面积失火。此后,联邦政府和州政府便靠私有公司来清理灌木丛和监控燃烧。私有公司承担了越来越多的协调配合工作。

    “20年前的消防营跟现在比大不一样——当时就是些政府雇员,不执勤的时候就在帐篷里睡大觉,”美国土地管理局(Bureau of Land Management)发言人肯•弗雷德里克说。“而现在有了数据处理,食物救济,沐浴设施,饮用水服务,以及运输工作。私营承包商的作用大大提高。”

管理监督

    和政府机构不同,私营承包商的雇员在淡季时还能够从事其他工作,如景观美化和建筑方面。当然,这种灵活性的也存在负面影响,即人员的流动率使得私营公司的员工很难积累足够的消防经验,至少对一线消防员来说确实如此。照理说承包商消防员需要按国家野火协调集团(National Wildfire Coordinating Group)制定的标准接受培训,但是这一标准的执行却得不到保证。

    在2006林业消防合同的审计中,美国农业部(USDA) 表示担心有些私营承包公司的消防员并没有在上岗前接受充分的培训。作为回应,承包商代表加大了对公司培训设施的第三方监督,但是他们仍旧有权给自己的员工授予培训上岗证书。

    一些承包商消防员之前有为政府消防队工作的经验,但私营公司可以自颁证书的风险在于,公司为了处理紧急野火事故,有可能会缩短新员工的培训,以便迅速弥补人员不足。

    另外一个问题是,由于这一行业的高度不稳定性和激烈的业务竞争,承包商投机的风险在加大;同时政府不得不经常寻求新的合作伙伴,并且这种合作关系通常都是在紧急状况下仓促形成的。

    沃露大火是亚利桑那州历史上最大的野火事件,另外两次大火发生在Monument 和Horseshoe II。这次大火使得2011年成为美国消防公司最忙碌的一年,但也只是在西北部地区,当地许多新成立的公司都在竞争,希望参与灭火行动。相形之下,在美国传统的火情重灾区太平洋西北地区,据麦莉说,今年的淡季导致该地很多承包商关门歇业。尤其是该行业大量的小承包商,他们的情况很不乐观。

    她说:“做这行,你得是非常精明的商人”,没人知道下一场大火发生的时间和地点,“所以不一定总有活干”。

    虽然野火管理承包给私营公司不仅对政府支出造成风险,承包商本身也要承担风险,但是很多公司仍然在寻找灾难带来的新市场。负责协调政府机构消防事宜的国家野火协调集团现在也在打算让私营承包商承担更多工作。

    虽然该计划还处于拟定阶段,但这一提议将使私营公司对野火响应事宜的掌控达到前所未有的水平,不管是一线的消防人员还是负责组织的管理人员。实际上,该计划转交给承包商的责任还包括协调政府机构和私营承包商,这难免会加大发生利益冲突的可能性。

    目前,亚利桑那州的大火还在继续,我们无法确定下一场大火发生的地点,同样不确定的还有到时候谁将来保护我们。

    As the Wallow fire continues to rage in Arizona, federal, state, and municipal entities are working around the clock to contain it. But there's another group of increasingly important firefighters battling the blaze: private contractors.

    While governmental agencies are responsible for coordinating wildfire management efforts, the physical operations of containment are increasingly the domain of private business. And as global warming contributes to hotter temperatures and dryer conditions fueling more intense fire seasons, for-profit companies are taking on bigger roles where increasingly cash-strapped government bodies come up short.

    Yet the unpredictability of yearly fire seasons, combined with the uncertainty of public finances, raises questions about contractors' ability to address such emergencies.

    Private industry makes up over 40% of wildfire services across the country, a number in line with Forest Service expenditures, according to Debby Miley, executive director of the National Wildfire Suppression Association, which represents contractors. In 2008, the Forest Service spent $757 million on more than 1,000 private contracts, roughly 52% of its $1.46 billion budget for wildfire suppression. In 2009 and 2010 -- two slow fire seasons when expenditures dropped by half -- that fraction fell to 41%.

    Despite what's likely a temporary dip, private contractors have over the past two decades become big players in most aspects of wildfire management. A few have emerged that can respond to fires across a broad swath of the U.S. -- Chubb's Wildfire Defense Systems currently operates in 14 states, and Rural Metro's (RURL) fire operations span the country. But the industry is still largely comprised of small contractors, many with just a handful of employees and one or two pieces of heavy equipment. Miley estimates around 75% of contracting wildfire companies fit in this latter category.

    While wildfire aviation has been largely private since its inception (government agencies can't afford to pay for planes that would sit idle during the winter), the use of contracting ground crews is a relatively new development. The first non-aviation contracts were signed in 1986, and by the time much of Yellowstone went up in smoke in 1988, the practice was flourishing. Federal and state entities have since relied on private companies to clear brush, light backfires, and fulfill an increasingly diverse array of support roles.

    "Twenty years ago, fire camps looked much different -- it was just some government employees sleeping in tents between shifts," says Bureau of Land Management spokesperson Ken Frederick. "Today there's data processing, food services, showers, potable water services, transportation. The private contractors' roles have ballooned."

Regulatory oversight

    Unlike government bodies, private contractors can hire their work crews for jobs in landscaping or construction during the fire offseason. The downside to this flexibility, at least for crews on the front lines, is that higher rates of turnover can make it difficult for private employees to accumulate the necessary firefighting experience. And while contracted firefighters are expected to go through training outlined by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG), the ability to enforce such standards is hotly contested.

    In a 2006 audit of the Forest Service's firefighting contracts, the USDA expressed concerns that some private employees received inadequate training prior to work. Groups representing contractors have responded by upping their use of third-party monitors on company training facilities, though companies are still allowed to certify their own employees.

    Some contract firefighters have prior experience working for government agencies. But the risk of private certification is that companies responding to a sudden wildfire outbreak might be tempted to speed new employees through training in order to capitalize on the spike in labor needs.

    Another worry is that high industry turnover and competition for contracts increases the risk of cutting corners and burdens the government with a constant stream of new partnerships, often formed during a state of emergency.

    Wallow is the largest wildfire in Arizona history and, along with Monument and Horseshoe II, one of three state fires making 2011 one of the busiest seasons in recent memory…but only for the Southwest, where new companies are vying to get involved. In contrast, the Pacific Northwest is normally a literal hotbed of fire activity, and according to Miley, a slow season has led many contractors in that region to close down operations; the industry's many small operations are especially at risk.

    "The trick in this industry is that you've got to be a very astute businessman," she says, noting the impossibility of pinpointing where and when the next big fire will strike. "There are no work guarantees."

    But for all the risks associated with contracting wildfire management -- both to taxpayer dollars and the private contractors themselves -- companies are continuing to find new, profitable niches in the business of disaster. The NWCG, responsible for coordinating wildfire response between government agencies, is considering a plan to contract out even more work.

    Though still in the proposal stage, the plan would give private companies an unprecedented level of control over wildfire response, from the workers on the ground up to the committees organizing those workers. In effect, the program would contract out the act of coordinating both government agencies and private contractors, which could increase opportunities for conflicts of interest.

    For now, the Arizona wildfires continue to rage as the nation remains unsure where the next one will strike -- or who will protect us when it does.

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