Shutdown affects firefighter hiring, training, fire conferences, and many other programs

If the shutdown continues much longer, training and the hiring of seasonal firefighters will be seriously affected

Firefighters training Guernsey, Wyoming
Firefighters training at Guernsey, Wyoming. File photo.

The most serious effect of the federal government furloughing 40 percent of their full time employees is the fact that they are not being paid. Most of the 800,000 people will begin receiving nothing on their regular paydays this week or next. After political circus is over, Congress and the President may or may not arrange for them to receive lump sum payments for the laid off period, but until then many folks and their families that live paycheck to paycheck could have difficulty making payments for rent, mortgage, vehicles, medical bills, and food. In addition, health insurance premiums will have to be paid at some point, possibly after the furlough is over.

Firefighter hiring

This is normally the time of the year when federal agencies that fight wildfires are heavily into the hiring of seasonal firefighters and other workers. The process may vary a bit among the federal agencies and from region to region, but generally by the first part of January they have been accepting applications for several months — officials could have started evaluating candidates in mid-December.

A furloughed firefighter told us what will happen next under the current conditions:

[This time] there is no local contact at each of the districts for applicants to get more information about the location, help in using the USA Jobs site, and just general information. It will be a huge catchup game once the government does “reopen” in terms of getting interviews scheduled, seeing who is still available and interested in the job, and getting those new people scheduled for medicals, pack tests,  and rookie schools.

Conferences

We are aware of at least one fire-related event that has been canceled. A three-day workshop in Missoula that is part of a multi-year project titled “Identifying ecological and social resilience in fire-prone landscapes” was scheduled to begin January 29. Two-thirds of the 25 attendees who planned to attend were from the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management. Room blocks in hotels had been reserved and some had bought airline tickets. The organizers hope to reschedule the workshop when that becomes possible.

The five-day American Meteorological Society annual meeting that usually attracts thousands of participants is occurring now in Phoenix. Hundreds of employees from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (which includes the National Weather Service) and possibly some land management agencies as well, will not be able to have their travel expenses paid by the federal government. Last year NOAA sent more than 400 scientists to the meeting.

From the Washington Post:

This meeting is where scientists hatch new ideas for lifesaving methods and warnings, said Dan Sobien, the president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization. “Any delay in that research could someday cost someone their life, and that person could be you or me,” Sobien said. Not having NWS meteorologists there to collaborate “will likely cost many more lives than the absence of any border wall, anywhere.”

Some attendees at the meeting tweeted about the effects of the shutdown.

Wildland fire training is being affected

Firefighters in state and federal agencies have clearly defined paths to qualify for the career ladder of jobs, as well as specific firefighting positions defined in the National Interagency Incident Management System (NIIMS). Every position on the organization chart at a fire or other incident is supposed to be filled by a person who has advanced through previous lower level positions, and for the next position has completed all of the classes and on-the-job training that is required. If one step is missed, because a training class was cancelled during the shutdown, it can set the individuals back for at least a year until they can compete to reschedule the class. They will be told, “maybe next year.”

“Some (most) firefighters look at training as a way to further their career and some look at it as a reward for busting ass the previous season”, one firefighter told us. “It allows one to further their career  or branch out into a different area. If you are stuck as an Engine Boss because you can’t get into Strike Team Leader class, it wears down on you. ”

Most of the wildland firefighter training is conducted during the off season, from late Fall into Spring. One firefighter told us that the training calendar in some areas is scrubbed for the month of January, including at least seven classes in Boise.

(If you know of other effects of the shutdown on individuals, training, or events, tell us about it in 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. Google+

12 thoughts on “Shutdown affects firefighter hiring, training, fire conferences, and many other programs”

  1. Hiring will be a mess. We struggle as it is to onboard 50+ seasonal employees starting in January , including new hires, background checks, physicals, etc., all by our mid May start date. I can’t imagine how behind we’ll be this year. The national office for DOI has shutdown essential status for hiring…

    I will also not fight fire for free with the unknown prospect of “back pay”. Hopefully this doesn’t last that long, but the risk and liability is too great to be getting our ass kicked on a fire, as well as from the Gov. I’m still proud of the work we do, and the agency I represent, but that will only carry you so far. Pride doesn’t pay the bills.

    1. Kris not only that but only about half of the DOI PDs have been switched to be competitive seasonal positions. My position so far has not and as I understand it for FY2019 the old exempted positions descriptions cannot be used. As far as I know I might not even have a position to apply for or be rehired too. I’m also right there with you I will not fight fire for free.

  2. Hiring appears to be moving forward in the FS for fire positions. All temp hire lists were issued late November. Selections on my unit started getting OF-306 emails from HR yesterday, so should be as planned for units who got selections in prior to shutdown. Big question is still the MANDATORY background checks required this year, that weren’t getting completed in years past under lighter amount of requests…

  3. Also PFTC and WFAP Academy are moving forward. Unfortunately employees attending are doing so as excepted employees and won’t be able to receive paychecks, unemployment, or travel reimbursement. As opposed to the leaders making that decision who are performing work as exempt employees and from my understanding are still receiving paychecks.

  4. Hey all–such an important article. I’m looking to speak with a firefighter or someone who last property in last year’s fires to join us on Saving the West, a podcast about environmental and social issues in the West. We’re doing an episode on the shutdown and how it’s affecting disaster relief and preparedness. I’m at devan.schwartz@gmail.com. Any leads appreciated!

    Best,
    Devan

  5. January and February are the months of the year in California when fire and fuels staff are not training, out on a fire, or using their use or lose leave time to be with their families. This is the one time of year they are assured to have available to work with other staff and partners to plan and seek outside funding for fuel reduction projects that include prescribed fire, hand thinning, mastication, and mechanical thinning.

  6. Waiting anxiously to hear back from a number of temp positions applied for last year. Made roughly 15-20 calls and many emails with every single contact “furloughed until further notice”.
    Been a seasonal ground pounder for 5 years. It’s winters like this that make it easier to not feel bad about going back to school and obtaining a stable, decent paying job with real benefits. Not more anxiety and politics after a busy 2018.
    Also noticed that the Santa Fe NF and other surround forests aren’t taking advantage of all the snow and aggressively working their Rx targets as usual. 2019 will be an interesting season..

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