The Air Force's plans to overhaul its enlisted evaluation and promotion systems and eliminate the scourge of "Firewall 5s" will be detailed next week in Washington during the annual Air Force Association Air & Space Conference.

In the most significant change to the Weighted Airman Promotion System in a generation, the Air Force plans to start scaling back on the points associated with time-in-service and time-in-grade, eventually eliminating them as factors.

It's also changing Enlisted Performance Reports to halt the problem of so many airmen earning top ratings of "5" in all categories -- often referred to as a "Firewall 5" -- that made the EPR all but meaningless as a selection tool, officials said.

"The purpose of the enlisted evaluation system is to accurately document duty performance so we can have honest performance-based discussions with our airmen," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III said last month, when the Air Force announced some of the changes. "Unfortunately, over time the system has become inflated."

Airmen will have a chance to hear firsthand about the changes from the head of enlisted policy at Air Force headquarters on Wednesday, Sept. 17

The changes are intended to ensure the system advances its best airmen, in part by no longer awarding a sizable number of promotion points to people based on how long they've been in uniform or in their current grade.

Instead, the emphasis increasingly will be on how well they've done their jobs, based on the three most recent Enlisted Performance Reports. Until now, the last five EPRs were considered, so it's going to be more about how have you performed most recently.

The result is that EPR points for the Weighted Airman Promotion System will increase while those for time-in-service and time-in-grade will diminish until, sometime in the next few years, they go away.

The changes will be applied beginning next year in the first phase of master sergeant promotions.

After WAPS test results are combined with the EPRs, service and grade times and decorations, the top 60 percent of scorers within each Air Force specialty code will have their records sent to an evaluation board. Until now, only the records of airmen up for senior NCO jobs have met a board.

The Air Force's top NCO said the changes will not mean fewer promotions.

"We're not going to promote any less people because we're going over to a new system. We're going to promote the same amount of people we needed to promote with [the current] system," Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Cody said last month during a broadcast interview with Air Force News Service. "It's just going to be different people. And to be honest, you're all going to know who those people are. You already know who those people are today."

Air Force officials are not themselves certain what these changes will mean. The service will conduct analysis at the end of each promotion cycle to determine if there are any unintended consequences.

Current and retired airmen who commented on the changes on an Air Force website offered mixed reviews.

One reviewer said he saw the value in eliminating time-in-grade but not time-in-service, since that shows a commitment on the airman's part.
 
The writer offered that WAPS testing should be dumped.

"I spent 25 years in a federal job after retiring from the Air Force in 1980 and was never tested," he wrote. "Testing, whether on one's career field or on general Air Force knowledge, is archaic. Include the EPR, TIS, decorations, time in combat/war zone, additional duties, and extracurricular activities (again a show of commitment)."

Another retired airman recalled that when the EPR system came in 20 years ago, it was done for the same reason the Air Force is making the latest changes -- to eliminate "rater inflation."

He said he quickly lost two "outstanding airmen because I gave them 4s on their EPR. ... Within a year everyone was getting 5s again. These two airmen never stood a chance."

According to other writers, raters felt they had to give their best airmen 5s across the board to make them competitive. The perception, one writer said, is that other squadrons were doing it, so you had to look out for your own people.

That kind of grade -- dubbed a "Firewall 5" because it came to be considered a guaranty of promotion -- is now so common it "makes it very difficult to differentiate our very best performers," Welsh said in a statement in July.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@monster.com.