Retention in the US Forest Service in California

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The San Bernardino Sun has an article about retention of US Forest Service employees, especially firefighters, in California. The headline of the article is “Burning Questions”. Every time someone writes that as the title of an article or book, they think they are the first one to think of it.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Burning Questions
U.S. firefighter report raises concerns
Jason Pesick, Staff Writer
Federal lawmakers from California think Washington doesn’t know how to put out fires.

“With a fire, for God’s sake, you’ve got to be able to respond and respond effectively and have that response led by people who understand the forest,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands.

Last week, the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the national forests and fights wildland fires, responded to federal legislation requesting a report on federal firefighter pay and personnel policies with proposals to increase recruitment and retention in the Southern California national forests. The report, released two months late at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing, had little in common with a draft produced by agency officials in California.

“The upshot of the new report is that – `Problem? What problem?’ It seems to be disconnected from the situation on the ground,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, who served a stint as a seasonal firefighter with the Forest Service in the ’80s.

According to the final report, the idea that there is a recruitment and retention problem in Southern California is “hard to substantiate based on data.” The eight-page report – trimmed down from a 22-page draft originally crafted by California-based Forest Service officials – also said recruitment is more than making up for attrition and was scant on specific recommendations.

In their draft, officials painted a very different picture, recommending that firefighter pay, facilities, leadership, training and communications be improved and that perks such as providing day care and more government houses be considered. They also recommended examining job titles for the firefighters, who are classified as forestry technicians.

“This is a critical issue. The lives and property of many Californians are at stake,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who requested the report, said in a statement, “and we must have a competent, professional and adequate firefighting force.”

She said she’d send the draft to a senior-level Agriculture Department official to get further feedback.

According to the report, the Forest Service in Southern California lost 9.4 percent of its firefighters in 2007. The rate was 46.6 percent for a certain class of junior firefighters.

“When you’re losing half your people in the first year, I think you’re delusional not to realize you’ve got a problem,” Schiff said.

The attrition rates for the San Bernardino and Angeles national forests were the worst in Southern California, according to the report, with 61 percent of those departing last year going to state and local fire departments, which pay higher salaries.”

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