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.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

21 thoughts on “Federal wildland firefighter pay bill introduced in Congress”

  1. The very first line “Retirement Age” is the reason I did not get converted to “Full Time” from seasonal employment.
    If they didn’t screw with the system we wouldn’t have a shortage of mid-management level and seasoned firefighters.

  2. Rember the ol’ saying “Hogs get slaughtered, pigs get fat”. This legislation is waay too much for us to bite off in shot given the current state of the fed. Just look at the economic woes of Cal. I would be more than happy if the following2 items were attained..1) be able to buy back all time spent on the fireline and apply to retirement age, not just pre 1998. I can’t believe the feds are STILL getting away with this arcane ruling 2) have operatioanal rules which state that ff’s are entitled to 16’s with H on every fire-Rx or wild, controlled or not, away from home or in your backyard. Period! This item alone would have a cascading effect beneficial to both the agency and fftr while keeping costs contained. It would almost virtually eliminate the need for time keepers in fire camps and keep it simple for time keepers at home (and on the road for that matter) and also make great strides in eliminating the friction betwen IC’s/fire managers and crew sups, crew bosses and fftrs. All the $$$ basically comes out of the same fund yet we spend millions a year “robbing Peter to pay Paul” for what? I really like the option of 20 year retirement date for type 1 fftrs. I don’t need to be paid $100.00 an hour to sleep in a hotel room that’s already paid for. I don’t want the gov. controlling me 24/7 whether I’m on fire or not. I like wearing greens and yellows instead of parading around in a clown suit. I don’t think contractors should be totally excluded!..Lets all be careful what we wish for!

  3. Folks, i would love to retire at 57. Look around at a 65 year old. is that someone who is chopping line or an engine boss? By the time you’re 65, unless you’re in some “office job” or a “section chief” you’re used up. Many guys i know who are retiring are still coming back as AD workers. The 65 retirement age is bad.

  4. I think when you have CDF portal-to-portal pay going on and urban firefighters bringing there rigs to the fire and also getting payed portal-to-portal and signing their rigs up as a E # the cost goes up in a hurry. I think it’s a trickle down affect to the states and municipalities of Fed firefighting dollars.

  5. ……Continue to have to find outside work and compete with the government for work. I though that if there was a business that can provide the service that the government was to allow that small business the chance to work in a FREE ENTERPRISE system and not compete with them.

    1. Folks, keep in mind that every organization exists for the benefit of its OWN members. Some times I get annoyed with positions the IAFF takes towards volunteers (I am one), but I understand they exist to support the career guys, not us – that’s their job. The IAWF exists to support FED firefighters, not contractors. I would not expect the NWSA to introduce a bill to support local government firefighters. Etc. They are representing their own members, as they should. If NWSA wants to introduce legislation to improve working conditions and compensation for contractors, go for it! And I bet others won’t hold it against you for doing so.

      1. Eric-

        You may have the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF) confused with some other organization. The IAWF does not support any individual group over any other group of firefighters, researchers, contractors, or fire managers. From their web site, they represent:

        “..members of the global wildland fire community. The purpose of the association is to facilitate communication and provide leadership for the wildland fire community.”

  6. In regards to – 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.

    Contracted fire suppression resources are also extremely valuable resources here in the state of Montana. They are cost effective since we do not accrue cost unless we are dispatched to an incident. We do not need to be adding more Government employees!

    Why is it when the government is talking about helping small businesses, do they continue to find more ways to take work away from us by creating more FEDERAL JOBS?
    It seems that those of us that are private contractors, who have to maintain the same qualifications and equipment that the government DOES NOT have to buy

    1. VG — look again at Sec 6 part (a), (3)(A) and (B) — it’s not only for 401 series, they just have the option to transfer.

  7. I dont agree with the 401 requirement nor have I ever. So alot of really good firefighters the ones out in the field getting the job done will not be able to transfer to the new series? Should I go to TFM and get a useless 401 series and wast alot of money, oh yea and be unavailable to fight fier?

  8. Looking at the bill it gives the perception that there is absolutely no reason to contain spending in the wildfire program. Just find more ways to spend more and more and more. The wildfire program has always have had the blank checkbook philosophy. As long as I have watched the wildfire program, cost containment has NEVER been an option.

  9. Lovely little bit of pork that CalFire (CDF) has always had, portal to portal. It is a bad policy for them, and would be a bad policy for the feds to take. Obama is announcing a “freeze on non-defense budgets” tonight, so I wouldn’t expect p-t-p to be implemented. Raising the retirement age is a good idea. Mandatory retirement from primary firefighting at 57 is at worst discriminatory, at best too early. To deny agencies of the valuage experience that could be on the fireline an extra eight years only limits the mentors to young firefighters out there; we have effectie otj training preceisely because there are experienced primary firefighters willing and able to work until they are 65.

    1. Hey CJ:

      Nice swipe at CAL FIRE, unfortunately you are misinformed… Portal to portal is more than “a lovely little bit of pork”, in fact there are some sound management reasons for paying portal to portal.

      1. Under portal to portal, employees are immediately available for emergency response 24/7. When a Federal crew is on their 8 hr rest period, they may not neccessarily be available for emergency response.

      2. Under portal to portal, employees are subject to agency rules and regulations; if we pay them, we own them. While it is not a frequent occurence, unless the incident base is closed, Federal crews can theoretically drink alcohol or do whatever else they want during their 8 hours off the clock. The Agency does not control employees during the time they are off the clock. Most of the time our Federal brothers and sisters are too tired for mischief, but the possibility of for off-duty shenanigans exists and the Agency has limited ability to enforce rules and policies if their employees are off the clock. CAL FIRE employees can get into mischief during of duty hours as well, but the difference is that paying portal to portal gives us a “hammer” when requiring compliance with agency policies.

      3. Pay issues do not drive operational objectives. I have seen instances where operations have stopped while we waited for IC approval for a crew to work in excess of 16 hours. Further, working longer than 16 hours often requires special written justification and is frowned upon in the Finance Section. In addition, I have seen instances where the crew finishes and assigment early but lingers in the field to insure they get the full 16 hours of pay, instead of getting off the line and getting rest. It’s not a common practice, but we all know that Federal crews want to get a full 16 hour work day to maximize their daily pay. I don’t blame them, they deserve the pay.

      4. Lastly, CAL FIRE does not pay hazard pay and when you do the math, the total compensation in terms of hours of base pay received is not that much different in a 168 hour week. (Because of the difference in hourly compensation rates, the only true way to compare “apples to apples” is to look at total hours of base pay that can be earned in a 168 hour week.) Let’s look at a little example:

      A CAL FIRE Captain works a 72 hour work week at base pay. The remaining 96 hours are paid at time and a half. So in a 168 hour week the CAL FIRE Captain can earn an additional 144 hours (96×1.5) of base pay.

      A Forest Service Captain earns forty hours of base pay. In addition, the Captain receives a 25% differential for hazard pay or an additional 10 hours compensation. On each of the 5 regular work days, the Captain also receives an additional 8 hours at 1.75 times his/her normal hourly rate. (H-Pay plus time and a half.) This works out to an additional 70 hours (5x8x1.75=70) of compensation. Now, on days 6 and 7, the Captain can earn an additional 32 hours at the same 1.75 rate, which equals an additional 56 hours of base pay. Add the three numbers up and you get an additional 136 hours of base pay in a 168 hour week.

      The bottom line? The CAL FIRE Captain can earn an additional 8 hours of base pay on portal to portal during a 168 hour week. But, the benefit to the employer/IC is that the CAL FIRE employee is immediately available and under the Agency’s control for the entire 168 hour week. In the same time period, the Federal employee is not necessarily available for 56 hours. As an OSC1 on an Incident Command Team, it is a small price to pay to know that the CAL FIRE resources are immediately available.

      Federal firefighters fully deserve portal to portal pay. They work long hours and I have nothing but respect for the work they do. It is time that Federal firefighters get the respect and compensation they deserve. Bashing another Agency for their pay and benefits packages is counterproductive espcially when you don’t have all the facts or understand the logic behind it.

  10. Comment referring to – 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.

    Contracted fire suppression resources are extremely valuable resources in the state of Oregon. They are also cost effective since we do not accrue cost unless they are dispatched to an incident. We do not need to be adding more Government employees!

  11. Keep in mind that if we keep raising the mandatory retirement age, we could be sending the wrong signal that we don’t need firefighter retirement benefits…
    (“To promote a young, vigorous workforce”)
    …My stove up knees are protesting already!
    We should be hiring fresh blood while training and developing them- not emphasizing old dogs like myself. Give the youngsters a chance to continue the profession.

  12. Don’t hold your breath on this one.
    Within the context of the overall receptivity in Congress to any truely new initiatives, this one will be DOA as a “budget buster”.
    As a matter of fact- start looking for reductions in domestic spending to subsidize the military portion of the budget. Been here and done this.

  13. What does this bill say about AD Firefighters? Will they get OT and Portal to portal, benefits, etc?

    1. Michael-

      Good question. Maybe not, but it’s not clear to me. It also may not apply to “militia” employees, whose primary duties are NOT wildland fire. The bill says it applies to “Wildland Firefighters”, and here is how it defines that term:

      “For the purposes of this Act–
      (1) the term ‘wildland firefighter’ means an employee of a Federal land management agency, the duties of whose position are primarily to perform work directly related to the prevention, control, suppression, and management of wildfires, including–
      (A) an employee of a Federal land management agency who is assigned to support wildland fire suppression activities; and
      (B) an employee who is transferred to a supervisory or administrative position from a position of wildland firefighter (as defined by the preceding provisions of this paragraph);

      (2) the term ‘Federal land management agency’ means–
      (A) within the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Park Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service; and
      (B) within the Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service; and

      (3) the term ‘employee’ has the meaning given such term by section 2105 of title 5, United States Code.”

      The term “employee” is defined HERE.

      Is an AD firefighter a contractor or an employee?

      If AD firefighters are not considered an employee or at least a “federal fire suppression resource”, there may be far fewer of them used on fires if this bill becomes law. Here is a section of the bill:

      “(F) ADDITIONAL REQUIREMENTS- To ensure adequate funding and to realize maximum wildfire suppression savings, the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture shall take appropriate measures to provide that total funding for non-Federal fire suppression resources by their respective Departments–

      (i) for the first year of the pilot program, do not exceed 90 percent of their combined non-Federal fire suppression costs for the 2008 and 2009 wildfire seasons;

      (ii) for the second year of the pilot program, do not exceed 75 percent of their combined non-Federal fire suppression costs for the 2008 and 2009 wildfire seasons; and

      (iii) for the third year of the pilot program, do not exceed 65 percent of their combined non-Federal fire suppression costs for the 2008 and 2009 wildfire seasons.”

  14. Bill,

    Thank you for your review of HR 4488 and your excellent comments.

    As the legislative process unfolds, alternative options for Section 8 will be discovered or uncovered as the legislative process unfolds and folks get more involved.

    Overwhelmingly, folks are mostly pleased with the language in HR 4488… even the WO bean counters. It is obvious, more work needs to be done on Section 8.

    Take care.


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