Firefighter pay and liability legislation making slow progress

The proposed legislation that would increase the pay and the professional liability for some federal firefighters is still waiting for action in several House of Representatives subcommittees. The bill is named the “National Infrastructure Improvement and Cost Containment Act”, H.R. 4488, and is being pushed by Casey Judd and the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association. Wildfire Today has covered it at length and also hosted a live discussion about the bill.

The Press Enterprise, which frequently does a great job covering wildland fire issues, has an article about the bill. Here is an excerpt.

The Press-Enterprise

Better pay and benefits and increased legal protection for the nation’s federal firefighters are needed to help reign in the increasing costs of battling wildfires across the country, say proponents of a bill making its way through Congress.

Compensating firefighters for all the time they spend at fire scenes and extending year-round health benefits to part-timers would help curb defections from the agency, they say. By strengthening its own ranks, the bill’s supporters say, the Forest Service would have to rely less on costly assistance from local and state fire departments.

Additionally, the legislation seeks to recognize the dangerous nature of firefighters’ work by changing their titles from “forestry technician” or “range technician” to “wildland firefighter.” It also would raise the mandatory retirement age from 57 to 65 in an effort to keep more veterans within the agency.

“If we can retain some of the younger folks that have been hopping ship, and we can keep some of that brain trust around for a few more years, we have a better opportunity to fill in the missing gaps of those federal resources,” said Casey Judd, business manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, which represents federal firefighters nationwide.

In 2008, there were more then 2,000 federal firefighters in Southern California, according to a U.S. Forest Service report. Local residents said a strong fire protection system is critical, and that includes having veteran firefighters ready to battle blazes on the vast swaths of federal land in the Inland area.

The pay changes would begin in a trial program expected to cost about $25 million over three years. Based on the trial, officials would assess whether it saves money; the hope is that the extra pay and benefit costs would be more than offset by savings related to the reduced dependence on other fire agencies, supporters said.

Outside agencies have negotiated lucrative contracts to assist the Forest Service firefighters on federal land, Judd said. The contracts often include administrative fees and the cost of housing contract firefighters in hotels, while Forest Service crews sleep in tents in makeshift fire camps, he said.

Federal firefighting costs have risen steadily in recent years, now totaling about $1.5 billion annually. In 2008, the government had to transfer $260 million from other accounts to cover firefighting. Officials expect firefighting to consumer more than half of the Forest Service’s discretionary budget by fiscal year 2011-12.

Introduced in January, the pay and benefits bill now sits before several House subcommittees, and it remains unclear how soon it might move forward. Judd spent much of the past week in Washington to drum up support and identify senators willing to take up the cause.

Forest Service spokesman Joe Walsh said officials in Washington are assessing the legislation and have yet to take a position.

Illinois prescribed burn manager certification

In 2007 the state of Illinois passed a law, Public Act 95-0108, that established some requirements related to conducting prescribed fires. Some of the key points included in the legislation include:

  • A “certified burn manager” must be on site.
  • A written prescription for the project must be approved by a “certified burn manager”.

Prescribed fire is a serious business and needs to be conducted by highly skilled and experienced professionals. But this is the first we have heard of a state passing a law requiring that a person be certified as a “burn manager” under specific requirements written by the state. Are there other states with similar laws?

After the law was passed in 2007 the state’s Department of Natural Resources established the requirements to become certified. They include:

  • Training: Basic ICS, basic wildland firefighter training (S-130, S-190), and a “specialized Illinois Prescribed Burning Manager Course”.
  • Participate in five burns.
  • Complete two burns as an apprentice prescribed burn manager.
  • Submit a written application with a $50 fee.

These are very minimal training requirements.

And, there is this:

Persons who have received the certification as a Prescribed Fire Burn Boss Type 1 or Type 2, known as RXB1 or RXB2 respectively, under the NIIMS Wildland Fire Qualification System, can receive an Illinois Certified Prescribed Burn Manager Certificate by submitting an Application, proof of the RXB1 or RXB2 certification and the $50 fee.

There is also a grandfather clause that makes it easier for someone to become certified that has been conducting prescribed fires for a while.

I wonder if federal employees conducting burns on federal lands will have to apply and pay the $50 fee.

Below are the key sections of the law that was passed in 2007:

Continue reading “Illinois prescribed burn manager certification”

Live discussion, firefighter pay and liability legislation

As planned, we held a live discussion on January 28 about the new wildland firefighter pay and liability legislation that was recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, called the “National Infrastructure Improvement and Cost Containment Act”, H.R. 4488. The bill would affect the pay, retirement age, and fireline liability of federal wildland firefighters. The full text of the bill is HERE. We summarized it and offered some commentary HERE.

Our featured panelist was Casey Judd, the Business Manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association who played a major role in crafting the bill and getting it introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives. Thanks to Casey and everyone else who participated.

The discussion is archived Here.

Federal wildland firefighter pay bill introduced in Congress

On Thursday, January 21, Representative Bob Filner (D, California) introduced into the House of Representatives a bill, the “National Infrastructure Improvement and Cost Containment Act”, that would affect the pay, retirement age, and fireline liability of federal wildland firefighters. Here are some key points of the bill, which was given the number H.R. 4488 (the full text is HERE):

  • Retirement age: The bill would change the mandatory retirement age for a wildland firefighter from 57 to 65.
  • Outsourcing: It adds protection from outsourcing for the five major federal land management agencies, the USFS, BLM, NPS, USF&WS, and the BIA.
  • Wildland Firefighter series: It requires that the Office of Personnel Management develop a “separate and distinct wildland firefighter occupational series that will more accurately reflect the variety of duties performed by wildland firefighters.” Anyone who is currently in the 401 series would have the option of transferring to the new Wildland Firefighter series.
  • Portal-to-Portal: $25 million would be authorized to begin a pilot program in which firefighters would be paid for “all time the firefighter is away from their official duty station assigned to an emergency incident, in support of an emergency incident, or pre-positioned for emergency response”. Standard overtime rules would apply and employees would be exempt from premium pay limitations. The pilot program would begin “with the 2010 wildfire season”. The Department of Agriculture and Interior would participate in the pilot program which would not exceed three calendar years.
  • Non-Federal resources: The bill requires that during the pilot program there would be reductions in the amount of fire suppression funds expended on non-Federal fire suppression resources.
  • Hazardous Duty Pay would be treated as part of base pay for retirement purposes. And the following is a little vague, but it appears that firefighters would receive hazard duty pay for all the time they are “on the fire line of any wildfire or prescribed fuel treatment burn or fire“, regardless of the control status.
  • Benefits for Seasonal Wildland Firefighters: there are some changes related to the availability of life insurance for seasonal wildland firefighters.
  • Buy Back of Previous Firefighting Time: there are changes related to the buy back of work time and how it relates to retirement.
  • “Sec. 8. Firefighter Liability”: The bill requires that for every fatality to a firefighter or other employee of  the U.S. Forest Service and now the four Dept. of Interior land management agencies due to an entrapment or “burrower”, the department’s Inspector General (IG) shall conduct an investigation. This requirement has been in effect for the U.S. Forest Service, only, since the 2002 Cantwell-Hastings bill, and has resulted in witch hunts, attorney fees, and jail time for firefighters who make mistakes on the fireline. The bill would repeal the provisions of the 2002 bill regarding the IG investigations for USFS fatalities but replaces it with similar requirements that would apply to the USFS and the Dept. of Interior wildland firefighters. The bill does, however, require that IG investigators “have the necessary training, skills, and experience to competently conduct the investigation”, but does not specify what training, experience, and skills are required. It goes on to say  “The investigations and accompanying reports shall be used by all land management agency fire programs to build upon the concept of lessons learned from the fire event. It is not the intent of Congress that the investigations and reports would be used to find fault or place blame for a fatality, but rather to recognize that wildland firefighting is an inherently dangerous occupation and to reduce the number of fatalities from due to wildfire entrapment or burrower.”

I will have to assume that a term that repeatedly shows up in the bill, “burrower”, is a typo, and they really mean “burnover”. An unexpected consequence of spell-check run by an intern?

It is interesting, ironic, and insulting that the portion of the bill that is named “Sec. 8. Firefighter Liability” actually adds to and worsens the liability problems for wildland firefighters, spreading the IG witch hunts further, now into the Department of Interior.

That section is worrisome. I don’t see the need to double down on the ill-conceived requirement of IG investigations on fatalities. Originally thought in 2002 that it would enhance safety for the U.S. Forest Service, it has had the unintended consequence of making it difficult or impossible to glean any lessons learned, since firefighters involved in a burrower burnover or major accident are now lawyering-up and refusing to speak to investigators.

The simple statement in the bill that the intent is not to “find fault or place blame” will not prevent the IG’s law enforcement officers, fresh out of Basic Wildland Firefighter training, who will be conducting investigations, from doing just that–finding fault and placing blame. That is what they do every day in their law enforcement job.

And more firefighters may go to jail for mistakes made in the heat of a wildfire battle.

The intent of the 2002 bill, now law, was to enhance safety, but it did the opposite. Intent means nothing. Intent is crap.

The bill has been referred to four committees:

House Oversight and Government Reform
House Natural Resources
House Agriculture
House Armed Services

The bill has only been introduced in the House and referred to committees. Other than than that no action has been taken. But this is a huge and very positive step, and much credit must be given to Casey Judd of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association who has been pursuing this legislation for years.

The best case scenario is that the bill will make it out of the four committees unscathed (except for the removal of the Liability section), will be approved by the full House, similar action will occur in the Senate, and then will be signed by the President.  The worst case is that the bill will die in the committees and never receive consideration in the full House. Or there could be something in between, with the text of the bill being changed or watered down.

If you have an interest in this bill you should visit the web sites of the four committees listed above and see if a Representative from your state sits on one or more of them. If so, a letter or a phone call to their offices could make a difference.

Wildfire Today supports this bill, but only if the “Sec. 8. Firefighter Liability” portion is removed, or completely rewritten to eliminate the Inspector General offices from the process and specify in their place a real professional-quality Serious Accident Review Team composed of subject matter experts, not cops.

The cops in the IGs’ offices should not be asked to step far out of their training and experience to make judgments about wildland fire behavior, strategy, tactics, and human factors. Nor should firefighters investigate the fatality of a law enforcement officer. It takes decades to become an expert in the field of wildland fire. It takes longer to become a Type 1 Incident Commander on a fire than it does to become a brain surgeon.

You can follow the progress of the bill HERE.

UPDATE at 9:40 MT, January 26, 2010:

One of the folks who commented, Michael, asked if the bill applied to AD firefighters. I pasted more information about that in a response to his comment below in the “Responses”, but to me this question is still up in the air. There is a possibility that nothing in this bill would apply to AD firefighters OR “militia” employees.

If that is the case, it is a shame for a number of reasons. If it did apply to them, it would have had a very positive effect on the number of people that would have made themselves available for fire and incident management team assignments. Wildfire Today covered HERE some of the problems caused by a lack of participation on incident management teams.

Live Discussion, Thursday night

We will have a live discussion about this legislation Thursday night, featuring Casey Judd, Business Manager of the FWFSA. More information is HERE.

Washington state “no man’s land” continues to generate opinions

Wildfire Today has previously covered the issue of the 49,000-acre Dry Creek fire (here, here, and here) and the fact that it was not within any established fire protection district in eastern Washington. At a meeting on November 23 some local residents complained that suppression of the fire was compromised or delayed because the fire was not within any tax-supported fire district. (Map)

The Daily News, “serving the lower Columbia”, has weighed in with an editorial. Here is an excerpt.

…A few legislators at the November meeting indicated that they would offer a bill requiring firefighters to immediately engage fires outside their fire districts. Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, was one them. Chandler called it a “duty to serve” law, according to the Yakima Herald-Republic.

Firefighters already recognize that duty and can be expected to make every effort to respond to emergency calls, regardless of fire district boundaries. There are valid concerns about liability and the expense of engaging out-of-district fires. If lawmakers want to make a contribution, they should address those concerns. But simply mandating that tax-supported fire districts ignore district boundaries is the wrong way to go.

We agree with those local fire officials who attended the November meeting and later expressed some misgivings about simply mandating that firefighters respond outside their districts, without allowing for concerns about cost and liability.

“I’m not in favor of a mandate that says we’ll fight fires in no man’s land no matter what,” Dave LaFave, chief of Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue, told Daily News reporter Barbara LaBoe. “Because that puts all the burden on the folks (within the district) who are providing for all the service. The folks who live in no man’s land are basically gambling they don’t need service, but if they do then we’re called.”

Eric Koreis, chief of Castle Rock’s Fire District 6, told LaBoe that he could “understand legislation that directs people not to stand by when they see an emergency happening. But at the same time,” he added, “I think it’s a good opportunity to work on funding and the legality of the issues to keep it fair to people who live within the fire districts.”

Exactly. No one would advocate standing down in an emergency. But there must be some incentive for landowners to allow themselves to be annexed into a fire district or create their own fire district. Simply mandating away fire district boundaries is a very quick fix that, in reality, is no fix at all.

Senate passes bill that includes $4M for belly tanks for National Guard Blackhawk helicopters

Most of the National Guard Blackhawk helicopters that I have seen dropping water on fires have used a collapsible bucket hanging from a very short line, about 25-30′ long. The prop wash from the rotor blades blows the fire all over the place.

That’s why I was pleased to see an earmark in the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Bill that allocates $4,160,00 for fixed belly tanks for National Guard Blackhawk helicopters.

Funding would be used for engineering, evaluation and procurement of the Recoil UH-60 Blackhawk Helicopter R60 Wildland Fire-Fighting Tank System (900 gallon) for the Army National Guard (ARNG). This is in an aim to make R60 tanks become organic equipment of the ARNG be distributed nationwide to State Army National Guard to support and respond to wildland fires.