AIAA 2021-2022 Undergraduate Aerial Firefighting Aircraft; Prison Inmates as Firefighters: California’s Controversial Policy

Vance, Kobi, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Quinlan, Jesse, EN-Mech/Aero Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Elliott, Travis, Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

Sociotechnical Synthesis
The AIAA hold an annual design competition in which teams of ten members may submit an aircraft design based on a series of constraints. This year’s prompt dealt with Responsive Aerial Firefighting Aircraft or RAFA. The goal of this competition is for teams to develop a conceptual aircraft that can be a cost effective, novel aircraft to aid in total fire suppression. This comes in light of the devastating 2020 California wildfires. Additionally, in 2021, the Boeing 747 Supertanker was retired from service. The Supertanker was by far the largest tanker in service able to hold over 19,000 gallons of fire retardant. With its retirement, new methods of fire prevention and mitigation must be created. An in-depth analysis into a new firefighting aircraft will be discussed within this paper.
In addition to the regular ground teams and firefighting aircraft, California has developed a program involving prisoners as firefighters. The California Department of Correction (CDCR) hosts a program in which non-violent criminals may work in Fire Camps and earn money. This program has existed for decades, but in the wake of covid-19 some camps were shut down. However, some in California believe this program to be beneficial and should be expanded. Additionally, as wildfires increase in frequency and magnitude, there is a distinct shortage of man-power. One negative aspect of this program is the actual pay the inmates receive. Some organization like the ACLU see this as potential exploitation given how dangerous the work is. On the other hand, former members of the program only speak highly of the experience. This complex situation will be analyzed using the Social Construction of Technology STS framework.
When it comes to the problem of firefighting, there are high-tech solutions and low-tech solutions available. The difficult problem facing Californian officials is which solution to devote funding towards. On one hand, aerial firefighting covers a large area and helps control fires spread. However, it is extremely expensive making It restricted to only large fire complexes. On the other hand, inmates provide a cheap source of labor on par with traditional firefighters. The downside is the risk it poses to the inmates and whether or not they are being exploited.

BS (Bachelor of Science)

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering
Technical Advisor: Jesse Quinlan
STS Advisor: Travis Elliott
Technical Team Members: Spencer Barnes, Jamie Graham, Haley Knowles, Kevin Moccia, Joe Orrico, Grace Vidlak, Brendan Whalen, Jackson Wray

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