GAO agrees to evaluate hiring and retention of federal wildland firefighters

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Myrtle Fire burnout Song Dog Rd
Firefighters in Cold Springs Canyon on the Myrtle Fire in South Dakota, July 22, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) announced today that the Government Accountability Office has agreed to assess the hiring and retention of federal firefighters at the five agencies responsible for wildland fire management.

The senators requested this review in an April 27 letter. In addition to Senators Feinstein and Sinema, the request to GAO was joined by Senators Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Jim Risch (R-Idaho), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

“I applaud the GAO for agreeing to review the critical matter of wildland firefighter resources. Climate change is making fires in the West more deadly and destructive, and we need to do more to ensure we have the resources available to battle these fires,” Senator Feinstein said. “The federal government is responsible for managing millions of acres of lands in the Western United States, and ensuring we have enough firefighters and that they are compensated fairly will be an important part of planning for future wildfire seasons.”

In conducting its review, the senators urged GAO to:

  • Identify barriers to recruitment and retention of federal firefighters at the wildland fire agencies.
  • Assess the seasonal firefighter employment model used by wildland fire agencies, and make recommendations for transitioning to a full-time firefighting workforce.
  • Review the current job series and pay scale of Forest Service and Interior Department wildland firefighters to ensure their pay is commensurate with state firefighting agencies and reflects their training requirements and the hazardous conditions they must endure.

In the last year Senators and Representatives have shown interest in wildland firefighters:

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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.

19 thoughts on “GAO agrees to evaluate hiring and retention of federal wildland firefighters”

  1. This is just another example of KICKING the CAN down the the same old road, Nothing and again I say nothing will happen.

    In order to exact the kind of change needed there needs to be a complete break from the current decades old model used for pay for FED WF’s Get rid of the GS and use a professional FF Pay Scale.

  2. Federal firefighters need to be a part of the IAFF (International Association of Firefighters) and receive the same pay and benefits as structural firefighters. Period. Hopefully the GAO will come to the same conclusion. Until then, retention will continue to be a problem.

  3. I am extremely leery of the IAFF and any interaction they may have regarding Wildland Firefighter reforms. Their past efforts have only served to benefit structural departments. However, if they are willing to recognize wildland firefighters without ulterior motives, then I am all for solidarity

  4. Is any effort, legislative or otherwise, looking at 1039 seasonal time buyback?

  5. Just my opinion but the GAO, politicians, advocacy groups, unions etc. should look at DOD FF’s as maybe a model to go off of or at least as a base start. They’re GS and located everywhere across the country much like the fed WFF’s. Not sure Cal-fire is the model to always point at because there’s probably 45 other states (and not to mention countless counties) you can look at their WFF’s who make about the same or less than the Feds. DOD Fire just seems to be the better model to try and emulate or at least pull some comparison to.

  6. I think people are misinterpreting this a little bit. It’s not kicking the can down the road, it’s greasing the skids. New OPM Director (Nominee) Karin Ahuja has indicated she is willing to work on wildland firefighter issues. But She’s not in place, so getting this investigation going is a start. Many other state agencies have “compensation surveys” but curiously the federal land management agencies don’t. It’s really stunning how veiled and opaque the federal land management agencies are with hiring data, retention, mental health issues, pay comparability, etc… I know they want help, but they don’t publish or document the very deficiencies that would prompt legislative assistance. If I were running the department, I’d be screaming from the top of my lungs for help.

    We are making progress in the house Bipartisan Wildfire Caurcus. We have briefed nearly all the members and participated in their hearing. This prompted Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO) to invite Secretary Vilsack to tour the Cameron Peak Wildfire and urge reforms. I’m guessing Secretary Vilsack was understandably uninformed about fire issues (It’s a relatively small part of the USDA as a whole). Within 2 business days of Vilsack meeting with Colorado lawmakers, he has requested to speak with actual firefighters on the ground from each region. The regional agencies are still gatekeeping, but the cracks in the damn are spreading.

    Feinstein’s office just emailed us today that they are not waiting to move on this issue, as the GAO is just one avenue among many they are currently engaged in.

    I can’t tell you how important these next few months will be, and if you want to see change I would suggest supporting the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.

    Watch our monthly update (on the website), sign up for the newsletter, follow our twitter, facebook and instagram. Sounds lame, I know, but that’s how you support groups these days. If you have money I don’t actively solicit donations, the button is there, and our Tank Tops are really nice – just make sure to buy the next size up.

    We’re all in this together, no time for infighting now. Make your voice heard by emailing us, or joining in on the monthly update. Now is the time and I urge your support. We have a lot of support from all levels, probably even your FMO and Forest Supervisor. The time is now.

  7. I think “Smokejumper Bro” has it right.
    This should not be seen as “kicking the can down the road,” but rather exactly what you’ve all been asking for this past two or three years. This is how the process begins. Look into it rather than simply being critical of it. Being “collectively smart” about supporting his action is the way to go.
    Their is bipartisan support to make significant gains on this long-standing inequity for firefighters.

  8. DOD is one good avenue to look at, except that they are strictly firefighters, and nothing wrong with that. I would hate to see all of the good work that Forestry Technicians accomplish when not on fires. Keep them FT and increase the pay, year around crews, and get some fuels and other project work done also.

  9. Been asking for the last 20 years is more accurate. Pardon my cynicism, but this isn’t new. I’m on my 29th season, ex-jumper (when it was still fun) and love it for what it is and was. Inequity, really? To what? What do they owe you? Nothing.

    Y’all got onto it knowing the deal. Remember that.

    Entitled bs.

  10. So if structural firefighters make X, and you want wildland firefighters to not “just be firefighters” and do all other forms of manual labor, are you suggesting we make closer to 3X?

  11. ?. I don’t understand the logic. All these state agencies / municipalities work out, patrol, watch TV, BBQ or whatever unless there is a fire. Federal Firefighters (f. techs) have constant work with tree climbing, prepping units to burn, burning the units, etc… and because of that we should earn less?? Makes no sense.

  12. Thank you. Sounds like there is a strong effort. Appreciate your role in all of this.

  13. So you’re saying that you should earn more to sit around more? THAT doesn’t make sense. Municipal FD and Federal FF (F. Techs. ) are like apples and oranges. Are you proposing a 56 hr workweek also? How about keeping the same job description, but increasing the pay and raising hazard pay to 50%.

  14. John,
    The Federal Wildland Fire Service Association (FWFSA) has written legislation that has been introduced in both the House and Senate to achieve this goal. Legislation that we have also written which has or will be introduced this session is our (sadly) long standing effort to create a separate and distinct federal Wildland firefighter classification; H Pay for RX/prescribed burns; H Pay included as base pay for retirement purposes and the buy back of temp time post 1989. If you have any questions please feel free to email me at cj***@fw***.org or call us at 208-775-4577. Thanks

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