NBC News interviews Forestry Technicians about firefighting

NBC news article federal firefighters

The plight of the approximately 15,000 federal personnel who fight wildland fires and how they are being mismanaged and underpaid by the land management agencies has been receiving more notice in the last two months. The government will not call them firefighters while they perform one of the most hazardous jobs in the world, except when they are killed in the line of duty, instead preferring the title “Forestry Technician”.

The latest national news article on the topic was published today by NBC News, “Federal wildland firefighters say they’re burned out after years of low pay, little job stability.”

The piece frequently refers to the U.S. Forest Service and mentions the Bureau of Land Management, but three other federal agencies are just as guilty of the same types of systemic malpractice — Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and National Park Service.

Legislation that has been introduced could help mitigate conditions for Forestry Technicians and would actually describe them as “firefighters.”

Wildfire Today strongly endorses the Wildland Firefighter Recognition Act, S.1682 and H.R.8170 and the establishment of the wildland firefighter occupational series with a significant boost in their pay. These jobs are one of the most hazardous, and require a level of knowledge and skill that can take a decade or more to acquire and develop. Wildland firefighters are tactical athletes — special forces — some of whom work well over 100 hours a week with only a few days off each month, traveling around the country separated from their families missing birthdays, anniversaries, and soccer games. Recognizing them and paying what they deserve could improve retention which could enhance the overall quality of the workforce.

If you have an opinion about these pieces of legislation, contact your elected officials. If you support the Wildland Firefighter Recognition Act, feel free to borrow some of the words in the previous paragraph when you write to your legislators.

Typos, let us know HERE. And, please keep in mind our commenting ground 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. Google+

16 thoughts on “NBC News interviews Forestry Technicians about firefighting”

  1. I started in the business as a seasonal,”Forestry-Tech”, GS-462-03, Step 01 in 1976. I resigned a 18-8 smokejumper squad leader appointment in 1990, when I was hired as a full time firefighter with a municipal fire department. We had no benefits. Towards the end of my “career”, I did have a tiny stake in a Thrift Savings Plan that I cashed out for about $3500. We were routinely told that we had a “job”, not a “career”. I started every season borrowing from then”Smokejumper Welfare Fund” until my first paycheck arrived in 4 weeks. Careers were reserved for the bootlickers and the over educated with degrees in Forestry, Engineering, Resource Management, Biology, etc. Those employees were hired as “career conditional” right out of the gate, with benefits, retirement plans, relocation allowances, per diem. Can you believe, because me and my hotshot buddies were seasonal employees, we were not even entitled to per diem to cover the cost of meals and lodging when on assignment away from our duty station? It was not unusual to receive less than 24 hours in the fall when we were to be laid off, mostly when the weather changed and it began to snow or rain. Sometimes, they would change their minds after a week or so and demand we come back for an unspecified period “just in case”. We were threatened with a “no rehire” jacket if we refused. If you got injured you were more often than not fired for some pretense. Injuries were equated with poor motivation. They left it up to you to navigate the disability through the department of labor. At every turn we were shit on by USFS managers. We purchased all our own web gear and crew t-shirts. For two consecutive fire seasons on the Sequoia, at our duty station in Kernville, we were given paper sleeping bags and a designated area on the lawn at the work center as our living quarters. We were grudgingly given access to the visitors showers/bathroom. We slept outside, under the trees, no cots, no cooking facilities. All the “career conditionals” and permanents had single family residences that were complete with kitchens, two bedrooms, fenced yards for pets, air conditioning (you ever been to Kernville in the middle of the summer? – hotter than a two dollar pistol) etc. Yet we were charged the same $14 per pay period that they were, for lodging. We would routinely get sent on project work to locations on the forest that had no facilities. We would spike out, get the requisite paper sleeping bag as accommodation, and be given C rations 3X/day as our meals. We were always reminded by the District Rangers, AFMO’s, FMOs, and permanent USFS types were should just consider ourselves “lucky to have a job”.
    That being said, it was the best job of my life. I never had better friends, or did work that was more important to me. I took pride in being a hotshot, a helitack, a smokejumper. Every other endeavor in my life has been a sorry substitute. Why seasonal firefighters are treated with such contempt by the USFS professional class is an injustice.

    1. Joe –

      The injuries thing is still very much alive on the SQF. If you get injured, its because “You didn’t keep in shape over the winter” or “You’re just sandbagging it” or straight-up “You’re faking it”.

      I brought a doctors diagnosis with the issue straight to my sup, he called me a liar, and got three other crew members to write narratives against mine.

      Never mind that you can’t fake an ACL tear, herniated disk, rotator cuff tear, or any of the other ligament/tendon/bone issues that I have heard about over the years.

      Luckily for myself I lawyered up quick. Worth every penny.

  2. Norman Maclean wrote the tragic story about the 12 young men who were killed fighting the 1949 Mann Gulch, Montana fire. They were the cream of the crop and I suspect they were typical of the kind of courageous young men and women who perform this work today . I am in awe of them and they deserve the respect and pay that is due them. Imagine parachuting out of an airplane and landing on a mountain side in 105 degree heat and then fighting a raging fire with hand tools. And we treat them like temps? The U.S. Forest Service should be ashamed of itself.

  3. Joe Hill, that is quite a vivid picture of employee treatment back in the day! Thankfully many of those “policies” have gone by the way side since, such as no per diem and paper sleeping bags. Much of that was won by messy, in the weeds, grinding by fire leaders and the National Federation of Federal Employees, aka “the Union.” Unfortunately, there has been very little help from politicians in the way of meaningful legislation and even more importantly, a lack of increased budgets to support any lip service they give to improved compensation packages. The effect is, that Managers have inadequate budgets, and OPM has a web of archaic and convoluted rules that effectively block common sense measures no matter the support of Fire Managers at the highest levels. Agency HR departments are frequently caught in the middle with their own weak budgets and strict auditing of OPM regulations with a myopic view fitting of office work not firefighting and forestry. (Centralizing FS HR has only exacerbated previous problems by straining budgets, squeezed a massive amount of corporate knowledge out the door with forced duty station changes, and created a horrible work environment full of people with very little knowledge of the agency’s operations, let alone much depth in HR knowledge. The lack of connection to field employees actually getting the work done, has been the nail in the coffin. HR now continually pushes out policies these days that seem to only serve making processes easier and more efficient for the HR department while creating increased workloads and obstacles for the Ranger District staffs actually responsible for meeting targets and performing public service. I hate to join the party piling on and pointing fingers at ASC, as I know there are good people working hard there too. My take is more of a critique of the enterprise problems inherent with our current HR model, that is frustrating for our employees at ASC too.)

    The reason I am sharing all of these bureaucratic barriers to progress, is that I want to encourage the firefighters out there, to be careful what you wish for. Let’s take the current proposed legislation, H.R. 8170 as an example. First off, it is hard to get a bill sponsored to begin with, and I want to thank the hard work of folks like Casey Judd with the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, who works to keep the issues facing federal firefighters front and center with Congress and the public. Now we have new groups springing up like the Grassroots Firefighters helping to spotlight and apply political pressure for change and appear to have garnered the attention for the above national NBC article.

    H.R. 8170 in it’s current form is very simple and only assures two things. One, the creation and use of a new job series that will ideally have a more fitting name related to the primary mission most firefighters have. (It fails to adequately address fuels positions and the fact that many “firefighters” in FS regions 8 and 9 spend more time conducting fuels work and other land management functions than actually “fighting” fire.) Two, it asks to have our hazardous duties considered in our new classification.

    Thoughts on 8170: Personally, I could care less what they call me, as I have no problem explaining to people that I am a Wildland Firefighter and no, “I’m not a smokejumper.” I don’t see a new OPM classification changing this. What I believe people are seeking is respect. Listening for quite some time to employees, how they perceive disrespect is in poor working conditions, namely compensation, primarily surrounding pay and benefits on emergency assignments or “on call” periods where personal pursuits are limited. (I know there are a huge laundry list of changes that people are after, that are very important like workers comp reform. When it comes to the “forestry tech vs. firefighter conversation,” this is the only layer I have uncovered. As far as having hazard pay duties incorporated into a new classification, what I understand is that this would be a benefit for increased retirement benefits for those lucky enough to have career appointments, as it would take this pay into account in your base salary instead of treating it as “premium pay.” That’s all cool. What about a temp GS-04 on a hotshot crew who would normally earn 1,000 hours of extra pay a season? Here is the huge administrative barrier folks are missing, if we are still using the GS pay scale for the new job series, there may be no actual increase in pay. A former GS-05 forestry tech position, may now be classified as a GS-04 “wildland fire specialists,” even with hazardous duties accounted for in that rating. (I never laid eyes on the report, but apparently the federal fire community went to OPM and asked for their assessment and opinion of a new job series. Reportedly, OPM came back with the assessment that the proposed new firefighter series would likely result in less pay for most positions. From what I understand, this is where it died on the vines at the headquarters level of the federal agencies, where many, if not most support the idea of a firefighter series. I mean, on the most basic level it’s insane that there is a group of employees numbering 10,000 plus and a budget in the billions that don’t have an accurate job classification.)

    There is already a firefighter job series, 0081. It is written toward structure jobs and primarily used by the DoD to the best of my understanding. The comparable jobs are in the GS pay scale and they aren’t rated any higher. An Engine Captain is still a GS-08. They don’t get any premium pay for hazardous duty, they are required to take on all-hazard response like hazmat response because it is written into their job duties. Most notably, under the Federal Labor Standards Act, they don’t receive the same treatment as forestry techs for OT. They have special rules under FLSA that require them to work standard 56 hour work weeks. This is a critical specific that is missing from the new legislation that is being touted by so many as the “holy grail” fix for wildland firefighters. Longer work shifts while fire danger is low and 16 hours less OT when rolling week after week, don’t seem like a huge win. (I believe the FLSA rules would also permit some OT to be counted toward high 3 base salaries for retirement, but really how much this would get you in a retirement 25 years from now versus 25 years of lower net paychecks, doesn’t really sound all that great to me either.)

    I have a ton more to share on the topic, but I have to go put together a landscape Rx for tomorrow.

    The above opinions are my own and are shared here as the Fire Committee Chair for the National Federation of Federal Employees (the FS branch of this is called the Forest Service Council). You can reach me with comments or questions at nffe.1753@gmail.com, or if you are interested in joining the Union. I would love to keep the dialogue going to make sure we are all working as an effective team to improve the working conditions (and thus personal lives too) of our federal wildland community. Thanks for all the hard working going on out there, hope you all can appreciate my thoughts as a constructive criticism.

    1. Hey Hoby,

      Thanks for your comment. I don’t think we are talking about getting a 56-hour workweek. A 56-hour workweek is typically associated with a portal to portal schedule so not sure why we would get less OT? If that were the case, we would be getting 112 hours of OT per week and 224 per pay period instead of the current 144. On top of the higher OT hours (80 more hours of OT) there would also be 32 more hours of base pay.

      Please read Dianne Feinstein’s and Kamala Harris’s letter to the secretaries of USDA and USDI.

      https://www.feinstein.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?a=files.serve&File_id=08EA9E82-4D53-44E5-8456-1E7455D9441C

      The title matters, but the pay is the issue. We are asking for a new pay series and title, not tagging on to an existing series for structural firefighters. And yes our paychecks would increase now and our retirement would increase as well if the overtime was considered mandatory, which of course it is currently.

      http://www.grassrootswildlandfirefighters.com

      1. SMKJ Bro, in reply to your very specific responses to my post, here are some constructive replies for problem solving.

        First, as to the letter written by Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, that I grazed quickly. It asks for three things:
        1. To adjust the GS pay scale for firefighters. There is one GS pay scale. Do you know of employees of the same GS pay grade who get paid differently based upon their job classification? I don’t. I understand that to be written in legislation, which is in Dianne Feinstein’s department, not a cabinet secretary’s control even if they want to. GS = GS. The classification, title, and PD don’t automatically change the grade. It is what it is, once a qualified staffer rates the position. OPM is the only appealing body, and they aren’t prone to change. (Likely because it was delegated to them through law, although I haven’t set eyes on that U.S.C. that I recall.)

        2. They site lifting the GS pay caps. That’s great and mostly fair, but this only has to do with GS-12s or so rolling on fires all summer. I understand the pay cap to be approximately $180k a year. It sucks to not be paid for hours work, but this does nothing for on-the-line firefighters. I about vomitted hearing this as the big news in a recent meeting with WO folks recently. I am as at least equally disturbed hearing it as the second of three points in this letter. (Don’t get me wrong, this rule is mostly BS for emergency response for the service of our nation, but to hear it placed alongside others risking their physical lives and giving their personal lives on a regular basis for $30-$60K, it just gets under my skin. I can keep going on here, so I would love for some folks that are paid this highly to have the courage to step foreword, anonymously of course, and share their plight and consideration. Until that happens, it should be dropped from piggy-backing onto line firefighters.)

        3. They ask for “seasonal” firefighters to be reclassified as permanent. First let me point out this common language mix-up. We have a lot of firefighters that are both seasonal and permanent. I believe, what they are talking about, is switching positions from temporary appointments to permanent appointments, and the accompanying increase in benefits. I will say right now that there is ample support for this within the FS FAM organization from ROs to the WO. Most of those folks have served as temp employees. They understand the injustice of a temp job for multiple seasons. The Union has made significant gains here recently, partly because of the sympathy amongst our leaders. About 5 years ago, there was no health insurance available to employees. Now, all temp employees have equal access to health insurance while employed. (Not a finish line, but support your Union if you like this trajectory.) Anyhow, this is a worthy movement. It is already generally supported. I believe we will be in the direction of 80%+ permanent shortly. The only shortfall is quality candidates and budgets. Don’t forget to pressure your legislature on budgets and how waiting to pass them December or later of the FY, affects the FS’s ability to recruit and hire a full workforce, let alone a permanent one that is treated fairly.

        1. Hoby thanks for your great points. I totally agree with you on #2 and #3. I am myself a PSE 13/13 GS-6 hired with the LMWFA. There are many people I work with who were hired with LMWFA because they were beyond the age of 37.

          To me where the LMWFA falls short is the documentation requirements like you say, they are cumbersome. And that the LMWFA should have come with an ability to “buy back” temp time. One of my friends was hired at 50 and now has to complete 20 years of service? It’s not realistic.

          The Grassroots Wildland Firefighters are trying to fill a gap where there may be good intentions by others, but they are missing key elements that are crucial to actual Wildland Firefighters on the ground (such as temp buyback when you are hired under LMWFA).

          About the wages and classification, I believe there are other pay scales to use. There are GS and WG. I think a WLF series would suffice. In the Senators letter to the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture, they state that the senate is standing by ready to assist.

          The legislation needs to be written, and it will. We are asking for input from people like you and others. We are seeking to make a monumental shift because that is what is required. We are not married to 8170 or any current bill in its current form. We agree with you that it falls far short. That’s why our group formed, we saw what was on offer from our current leadership (8170), and want to do better for our workforce that deserves better.

          Stay safe and again, thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      2. Well, trying to not write lengthy monologues, but while staring at fire on the side of the mountain in November, in Idaho, feeling my participation in this dialogue may be short and I wish to get wide consideration out on the table here.

        SMKJ BRO, here is my prime example of how the current bill focused on a classification could go wrong. First, the Grassroots Firefighters and others have many great expectations of what may be rolled up in a new classification of “wildland firefighters.” There are many great points toward our shared adversities we face and possible solutions. H.R. 8170, as it is currently written falls well short, despite it’s spotlight and good intentions.

        Let me give you an example of a hard fought bill that didn’t end up as planned. The bill is the Land Management and Workforce Flexibility Act. (LMWFA) This bill was championed and hard fought for by a Union rep for 4+ years. It passed. Great support and seeming success. The bill was intended to help out our long term temporary employees (with < than 24 months of competitive experience) to acquire a permanent position as they opened. Yet it was left up to OPM to implement. They took at least a year to develop their interpretation of the law and federal regulations. Their interpretation led to the regulations that we could only hire long-term temps if we advertised a job internally to an agency that employee had 24 months of service to. We all understand that to BS. OPM did not.

        It took the US CONGRESS to add language to a defense funding bill a year later, in order for them to recognize our long-term temp employees for any merit job announcement. It required upward of 50 documents to prove one's eligibility to be considered by a hiring manager for a permanent merit job announcement. (With still the same level of consideration of IQCS and specialized experience as their equally graded counter parts.)

        Now, for the last two years, the FS has been requesting and using a "Direct Hiring Authority," that essentially allows managers to squirt any merit candidates and gives no consideration to our long term temps. This wouldn't be a huge problem to quality candidates, but the LMWFA, gave our long-term temp employees a legal right to a waiver for the Maximum Entry Age (MEA.) This has come to block many of our well-experienced and qualified employees. Essentially, this entire law that was passed by Congress that was sympathetic to our plight, and long in the making, has been essentially rendered worthless for the FS.

        Anyhow, be careful what you ask for, and keep aiming for the moon. Especially, when it comes to federal legislation. Many good intents involve altering a hefty layer of federal regulations to have the effect you are seeking. Good day partners!

    2. Really good comment. Thanks. I’d like to see that OPM analysis you mention, if there’s a powerpoint or something floating around.

      1. Pam, if you are speaking to my comments about analysis of a new firefighter classification by OPM, I have seen absolutely zero in writing. My comments were made based upon a conversation with an FS Regional Fire Director. I had their comments basically affirmed through another channel. My further research of U.S. Codes and the Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.s), led me to believe the same understanding. If their seems to be a quick and relatively simple fix to firefighter pay, for me, it seems to be moving toward a WG pay scale. While looking at individual sacrifices of firefighters, it is easy to see compensation arrangements as unjust. The bedrock of comparing similar positions outside the federal workforce seems to be CALfire. Why are they so much better paid then us? Well, they compared themselves, and thus associated with structure fire and their Unions. (We are different nationally in our duties and missions. R5, probably the same.) That is why they are the best paid wildland firefighting force in the country, if not the world. Anyhow, if we looked at wildland firefighters like we looked at heavy equipment operators, our pay rates would be made quickly commensurate with other firefighters alongside us. Federal budgets would be forced to follow. The FS Union is working toward achieving this goal. Always looking for support. Email me at nffe.1753@gmail.com or join other groups and voice your thoughts.

        Thanks for reading and considering.

  4. One of the first things I heard when I came on was that “Temporaries are like flies. They eat s**t and bother people. I assumed that was just a smart-alec comment. But by 12 years later, I understood why the USFS has so many divorces and suicides among its ranks.
    BTW: there are a LOT of “hurting units” who never get so far as to pull the trigger on a divorce or suicide. These are the walking wounded … the ones you’ll never know … the ones who are only half way to “postal.” The USFS is one dysfunctional “family.” As in other places, the viewpoint from which one sees the outfit makes a lot of difference. Does it have a “good side?” Certainly! That’s why people will continue subjecting themselves to dysfunctional, even abusive supervision. They hope. And the layoff gives them some respite.
    But if someone shows any signs of difficulty, the response is often “Get rid of them” for the breakdown those same overhead have created.

  5. The biggest insult to forestry/range techs (Fire) is the non existence of long term health support. Your lungs, among other things, often take ‘life time’ impacts. No legislation regarding that issue?!?!?! (1 year engine, 3 years shots)

  6. Roberto, Jesse, Smkjmpr Bro, thanks for the replies. First off thanks to the Grassroots Folks for organizing speaking up and gathering folks in, love it. Keep going. I am a rather critical person who dives in to the web of reality of current regulations and bureaucracy. While that is important to understand, it is also important to having folks shooting for the moon.

    Jesse, great point. The FS has, itself, invested in some great research to show there are definitely potential issues and some reasonable mitigations that could be implemented rather quickly. My primary proposal is annual lung function tests. Using a spirometer is a great baseline from my lay understanding, and could be implemented cheaply. I have been pushing that one up for a few years now and have it on my top three administrative fixes.

    Roberto, I feel you. Sorry you have been exposed to such a culture of poor leadership. If you can, try different locations and encourage others to. (Realize you have probably figured this out after 12 years, but I am speaking to others more junior who may be just starting out.) Unfortunately, temp and local FS culture aside, divorce and suicide are real amongst us. My father who was a lifer, just took his life a month ago. I have gone through suicide prevention training prior, because I have worked with 3 other firefighters who have already taken their own lives, and have been engaged with a few others in various capacities on the verge. Divorce, among many other less visible signs of personal struggles of the walking wounded, very real too. These are a huge onion to unravel when looking for a cause and potential solution. Obviously, having less financial strain can give a nice buffer to extra stress and depression. I think we all need to work a bit more internally, with help or however it works best for you, to understand the true drivers. I personally believe it is a bit deeper than just financial strain and time away from family. Those are clearly important drivers to stress. We share a common bond with other first responders and military. Our experiences differ in intensity and frequency, but they are very much similar. It would be great to get some more understanding of wildland specific factors and well established mitigations. Ones that reach protocol level, instead of well-intended warm and fuzzy documents emailed out once a year, or speeches telling us we aren’t worth trees burning. (When obviously we are, after examining actual management decisions. Old stuff, that we moved on from the last few years, but waiting on a new Fire Director…)

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