Who is “essential” during a possible government shutdown?

As a result of the failure of members of the United States Congress to do their jobs and pass a federal budget, there is a chance that hundreds of thousands of “non-essential” federal employees will be furloughed. At least one wildland firefighter who works for a national forest in California has received an official notification that he is not “essential” and will not be allowed to work if the government is shut down. If this is the policy throughout the five federal land management agencies, it is a change from the shutdowns in the 1990’s.

If you are a federal wildland firefighter, what have you been told? If there is a government shutdown, will you continue to work? Leave a comment or send us an email through the “Contact Wildfire Today” page; be sure and let us know in which agency and state you work. We will post updates here as more information becomes available today.

UPDATE at 9:28 a.m. MT, April 8, 2011. These are reports we have received from the field:

KIABAB NATIONAL FOREST in Arizona: An employee there told us that if there is a shutdown, helitack will continue to work, but Fuels and Prevention personnel will not.

BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT, CALIFORNIA: A BLM seasonal employee told us that seasonal firefighters will be furloughed, but permanents will continue to work.

UPDATE at 11:22 a.m. MT, April 8, 2011. More reports from the field:

BUREAU OF INDIAN AFFAIRS: An employee in the southwest region said they will not have full engine crews working, just “a few foremen”.

U.S. FOREST SERVICE in the southwest, according to an employee there, will have Fire Management Officers and initial attack engine modules working.

PAYETTE NATIONAL FOREST in Idaho, according to a very knowledgeable employee there, will keep the following working: Forest Supervisor, District Rangers, Fire Staff, two dispatchers, ten Smokejumpers, and all District / Zone FMO’s. They will also status some crews and engines available for national mobilization.

UPDATE at 12:27 p.m., April 8, 2011

We talked with Karen Miranda Gleason, the National Fire Outreach Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Boise, ID. She pointed us to a Department of Interior web page that has links to contingency plans for the DOI agencies. Here are some excerpts from those plans that address wildfire management during a possible government shutdown:

USF&WS: “Designated fire management staff are excepted for the purpose of protecting of life and property and to provide emergency services. The need for fire management staff varies across the Nation according to weather and season. Positions will be excepted for basic protection of life and property; however, these positions are not sufficient for regular fire management activities such as prescribed burning. Therefore, fire management activities will be limited to preparedness and wildfire suppression on Service lands. Units within their fire season will retain essential fire staff sufficient for minimal Initial Attack capability on site (per staffing plans and preparedness levels).” Ms. Gleason told us at 2:45 p.m. on April 8 that decisions about which employees on the local level will be furloughed will be determined by the local refuge or hatchery manager. All of their national fire management staff will be furloughed except for the national chief. This includes their fire planner, fire ecologist, budget and administrative staff, fire training staff, and the GIS and IT specialists.

NATIONAL PARK SERVICE: “A limited number of National Park Service employees needed to secure parks and provide law enforcement, emergency services, and firefighting are exempt from the furlough.” Another document includes this: “Emergency responders, including fire management, EMS, and law enforcement personnel, not required for essential activities will be placed on furlough but may be called back to duty if an emergency situation arises.” And this: “Wildland fire personnel required for active fires or for monitoring areas currently under a fire watch (currently 100 employees nationwide) will remain on duty.” UPDATE at 2:50 p.m. April 8, 2011: we talked with Roberta D’Amico, Communications Director for the NPS in Boise. She said the furlough of firefighters will vary around the country depending on which phase of the fire season they are in. Decisions about which park-based firefighters to furlough will be made by the Park Superintendents, after consulting with the Regional Fire Management Officers. In the NPS’s Boise office, only two positions will continue to be staffed, the national Fire Director and the Aviation Manager. The 83 NPS firefighters and 5 engines currently assigned on fires, prescribed fires, and severity assignments will not be affected by the shutdown until after they are released and return to their home unit.

BUREAU OF INDIAN AFFAIRS: Their “Contingency Plan Spreadsheet” shows some national and regional office personnel that will continue to work, as well as 26 field Fire Management Officers.

BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT’s contingency plan: “The states and centers would maintain about 500 FTE on-call for safety, fire, Hazmat/emergency services, support services, and other critical functions. The BLM has approximately 10,800 employees and would furlough 10,200 FTE during the funding lapse.” and… “The following officials will be placed on an on-call status: Deputy State Directors, Fire Management Officers, Budget Officers, Contracting, Personnel Officers, Safety Officers.” We talked with Jeff Krauss of the BLM Public Affairs Office who told us that some firefighters will be “on call”, which means they will not be working, but could be called in to work if it is decided that they are needed. Who knows, if laid off, they might be in Mexico and not available at the beck and call of their agency. We are trying to get more information about how many and which categories of firefighters will be furloughed. When we receive it, we will post it here. UPDATE at 2:20 p.m. April 8, 2011. We talked with Randy Earbley in the BLM office in Boise. He told us that some firefighters will be furloughed in parts of the country where they are not really in their fire season yet, but in other areas, such as in the southwest, fewer firefighters will be furloughed.

U.S. FOREST SERVICE office in D.C. is inundated with inquiries and refuses to provide any answers via the phone. We received an email from an agency official that included a link to this contingency plan, which states that one of the activities which will continue will be “Fire Suppression including fire fighters and all necessary equipment costs to protect life and property”. This is very vague. The San Bernardino National Forest in southern California normally staffs five engines on the forest at this time of the year prior to their summer/fall fire season. On one of their districts, of their 10 engine crews that normally have 50 employees this time of the year, all but 7 employees will be furloughed. On a hot shot crew, 7 of their 8 employees will be furloughed, and 3 of the district’s 5 Chiefs will be furloughed. All 4 of their prevention people will be furloughed.

UPDATE at 9:14 p.m. MT, April 8, 2011:

Thankfully, Obama and others in D.C. just announced that they have a handshake deal to fund the government through the end of this fiscal year which ends September 30. They still have to draft and vote on this new legislation, but it appears that this crisis was averted… until next time.

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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.

3 thoughts on “Who is “essential” during a possible government shutdown?”

  1. The “crisis” is “averted” for about a week until the next CR expires. If Congress fails to act before then, it will be groundhog day all over again.

  2. Alot of “someone told me” here. Everything is changing by the hour and no one really knows what will happen. We keep being told that we should hear by noon and then that slips to 2pm and then it slips some more. The problem is that the “official” word for a lot of federal workers will come after they have already left for the weekend.

  3. Thanks for this post and website. I am a college student at OK State and have been a seasonal for 4 years. I have been debating whether to hold out for a fire position or to take another job for about 3 weeks now and this is the first truly helpful resource I have found. Thanks again for wildfiretoday.


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