Federal firefighters to receive retention pay this year

The Administration to work with Congress on longer-term improvements in pay, benefits, and work-life reforms

Firefighter in Wind Cave National Park
Firefighter in Wind Cave National Park

The White House released a statement today in which several improvements are outlined to improve wildfire preparedness and pay for federal wildland firefighters.

Some are short-term, such as retention pay which may only be in effect this year, but the time frame is not clear. Permanent firefighters working on the front lines up to a GS-9 level will receive up to a 10 percent retention incentive and temporary workers who commit to continue this season would receive a $1,000 Spot/Star Award this year.

The statement also commits the Administration to work with Congress on longer-term improvements in pay, benefits, and work-life reforms.

Many of the initiatives outlined in the statement could, if followed up on, result in significant improvements for Federal firefighters. This is a great step in the right direction. Most of it, the long-term issues anyway, can’t happen unless Congress can be persuaded to assist in this effort to enhance our homeland security.

The document also says, “Increase aviation capacity to support immediate response”. Unfortunately it uses the often repeated number of “up to 36” when describing the air tanker fleet. That is misleading, at best. It implies that they are sitting on a ramp ready to attack wildfires. And “up to” could mean anywhere from zero to 36. Give us an actual, accurate number.

There are 18 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. This year, temporarily, there will be an additional 8 hired on a shorter term “surge” basis. Others may or may not be available on a more expensive Call When Needed basis, but without any guarantee that they are airworthy and have mechanics and flight crews ready to respond to a fire.

On March 23 Fire Aviation called for a large increase in the numbers of aviation resources:

Congress needs to appropriate enough funding to have 40 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts.

Several years ago the number of the largest helicopters on Exclusive Use contracts, Type 1, were cut from 34 to 28. This number needs to be increased to 50.

Below is the entire statement from the White House.

In addition to the statement, the White House released the video below about wildfire preparedness. It begins at 35:00. He mentioned the speech he delivered in 2013 at the memorial service for the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who were killed on a fire. This is extraordinary — the President hosting a 40-minute public event devoted to wildland fire.

The National Interagency Fire Center forecast predicts above normal fire potential for much of the West, in large part driven by severe drought conditions that are impacting nearly ninety percent of the region.  Since 2015, the United States has experienced, on average, roughly 100 more large wildfires every year than the year before – and this wildfire season is already outpacing last season in terms of the number of large fires to date. Climate change is driving the devastating intersection of extreme heat, drought, and wildland fire danger across the United States.  Decades of shifting development patterns, land and fire management decisions, and climate change have resulted in wildfires that move with a speed and intensity previously unseen.  This has created conditions in which wildfires overwhelm response capabilities, resulting in billions of dollars in economic losses, damage to natural resources, devastation to communities, and the tragic loss of human life.

In preparation for this wildfire season, the Biden Administration has convened a series of meetings on wildfire preparedness and prevention efforts to determine what more can be done to prepare for and prevent wildfires.  President Biden met last week with FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell and his White House Homeland preparedness team to discuss ongoing efforts to prevent, prepare for and respond to extreme weather events and to underscore the importance of prompt delivery of support to communities in need.

Today, President Biden and Vice President Harris will meet with Governors from Western states, Cabinet officials and private sector partners to discuss specific actions the public and private sector are each taking to strengthen prevention, preparedness, mitigation, and response efforts – and to protect communities across our country from wildfires and their devastating impacts.  During today’s meeting, the President will direct a number of actions, in close coordination with State and local governments and the private sector, to ensure the Federal Government can most effectively protect public safety and deliver assistance to our people in times of urgent need.

The President will also highlight the need to invest in wildfire prevention and risk mitigation efforts, including the nearly $50 billion in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework.

The Biden-Harris Administration Is Taking Action to Respond to Wildfires this Year:

Building a More Responsive and Resilient Wildland Firefighting Workforce

Bolster firefighter pay.  Firefighters must be fairly paid for the grueling work they are willing to take on.  From supporting COVID-19 efforts to fighting wildfires, our Federal wildland firefighters have been on nearly nonstop deployments since January 2020.  That is why today we are announcing that we are fulfilling the President’s commitment that firefighters will not make less than $15 an hour this year.  In addition, permanent firefighters working on the front lines paid at up to a GS-9 level will receive up to a 10 percent retention incentive and temporary workers who commit to continue this season would receive a $1000 Spot/Star Award this year.  These are short-term solutions to support our Federal wildland firefighters, especially due to the multiple impacts of COVID and climate change this year.  The Administration will work with Congress on longer-term much needed compensation, benefit, and work-life balance reforms for Federal wildland firefighters.

Extend hiring of temporary firefighters to ensure effective response throughout this year’s fire season.  To mitigate concerns about Federal firefighter capacity this year, today we are announcing that the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has approved an exemption to extend seasonal Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Interior (DOI) wildland fire employees to work additional hours beyond their term.  Because of climate change, wildland firefighting is no longer a seasonal endeavor.  Fires are burning later into the season and temporary employees often reach their limited hours earlier in the year.  This week, OPM also approved an extension of the Forest Service’s (USFS) direct hire authority for wildland firefighters and support personnel.  These proactive personnel management actions will help sustain the Nation’s vital Federal wildland firefighting capacity.  We also recognize the need for a sustainable long-term staffing approach into the future that offers more permanent, stable employment.

Continue transition to a more permanent firefighting workforce.  With fire seasons turning into fire years, it is imperative to have a year-round workforce that is available to respond at any time, that is supported and equitably compensated, and is available to undertake preventive actions like hazardous fuels management treatments during periods of low fire activity.  DOI has committed to hiring 210 new employees and converting 575 employees from career seasonal to full-time employees during this fiscal year.  Additionally, DOI is providing funding for 42 new tribal positions and the conversion of 153 tribal positions from career seasonal to full-time employees to support wildfire response.  USFS will continue to prioritize expanding its permanent wildland firefighting workforce.

Improving Wildfire Response Capabilities

Provide robust response through 15,000 Federal firefighters and additional surge capacity.  Wildland firefighting is a complex, multi-agency effort, and our Federal firefighters work side-by-side with their State, Tribal, and local counterparts on a daily basis.  USFS and DOI maintain a capacity of over 15,000 Federal firefighters who are able to respond to wildfires across the nation.  USFS and DOI can also activate up to 13,000 additional employees throughout their departments to support wildfire response.  These surge employees provide additional capacity to the response, ranging from firefighting capabilities for qualified employees, to critical response support through incident management, acquisition, and human resources.  USFS and DOI have additional capacity to call 11,000 administratively determined personnel from outside their departments to support the response.  These employees are generally retired agency personnel who can be dispatched to support incident management teams and other firefighting functions.

Train and equip military personnel to be ready to quickly support wildland fires as needed.  Congress made Federal funding available to train and equip the National Guard to conduct firefighting operations to support state response to wildfires.  All eleven states who requested this support have received the funding and training is underway.  The Department of Defense (DOD) has also pre-identified two military units, with 200 personnel each, to receive training and specialized equipment to support firefighting operations if required.

Increase aviation capacity to support immediate response.  Aviation assets are critical in the management of wildfires to slow or decrease the intensity of the fire and enable safe operations for firefighters on the ground.  This year, the USFS has increased the overall capacity of airtankers and helicopters to ensure their availability during peak fire activity.  USFS and DOI share aviation resources, which includes up to 34 air-tankers and over 200 helicopters to boost our Nation’s wildfire response capabilities.  When needed, DOD is able to provide aviation support through National Guard and Air Force Reserve C-130 crews and helicopter transport crews and equipment to support medical evacuation or water drops for fire response.

Provide critical financial support to assist in wildfire response.  This Administration is ready to assist communities at the start of severe fires with critical Fire Management Assistance Grants (FMAGs).  Issued through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), FMAGs assist states, local, and tribal governments with the mitigation, management, and control of fires which threaten such destruction as would constitute a major disaster.  FEMA has approved 9 FMAGs since the start of 2021.

Utilizing Data and Technology to Protect Communities

Leverage satellite and emerging technologies to rapidly detect new, often remote, wildland fires.  The Federal government has a number of new, innovative ways to detect and notify emergency personnel when wildfires start.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) uses satellite-based early wildfire detection to provide initial location information to first responders, allowing them to attack fires more quickly.  NOAA is partnering with other Federal Departments and Agencies and state governments to expand the use of this technology and its associated notification system.  The FY 2022 President’s Budget includes $15 million to support fire weather activities, including a new NOAA Fire Weather Testbed to provide improved operations, service delivery, and decision making based on the latest science and research.  This virtual and onsite infrastructure will bring together fire weather community researchers, operational experts, and emergency managers across Federal, state, local, territorial, and tribal governments, academia, and the private sector to develop new, impact-based decision support tools, products, and models to address wildfires. The President’s Budget also proposes a new wildfire applications program within NASA to develop innovative tools and applications using satellite data and the latest science to assist with wildland fire management. Working with the wildland fire management agencies, this program will support community-based consortiums to co-develop and pilot applications in all phases of wildfires.

Use research to improve early detection wildfire sensors.  The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is also focusing its research agenda on innovations that will improve the Nation’s ability to predict, detect, and control wildfires.  Just two weeks ago, DHS Science and Technology announced successful Phase II trials of four prototype early detection wildfire sensors.  Through a variety of sampling sensors and advanced algorithms, these technologies, once deployed, will provide early warning to fire-vulnerable communities, ultimately providing valuable time that will aid responders and save lives.

Use the latest science and technologies to enhance our wildfire response.  The Federal government manages all fires using a risk-based suppression strategy.  As we head into the peak of a long, arduous season, it is more important than ever we deploy firefighters when they have the highest probability of success.  USFS and DOI are using the latest science and technologies to enhance our operational capability and decision making so when firefighting resources are used, they are able to work safely and effectively and protect critical infrastructure and natural resources. USFS researchers have specifically created a mapping unit called “Firesheds” that aggregates areas that have similar fire behavior and community risk characteristics, allowing USFS to more effectively prioritize hazardous fuel treatments.  The Department of Energy (DOE), through the National Labs, have a variety of programs underway to develop sensors and patches to help prevent structural energy infrastructure failures that have the potential to ignite wildfires.

Prepare to address potential power impacts as a result of wildfires.  Approximately 10 percent of wildfire ignitions are sparked by faults on electrical grid infrastructure or electric equipment failures.  There is also a growing risk of intentional power shutoffs in anticipation of or due to wildfires.  In order to minimize rolling blackouts during extreme heat and wildfire risk, DOE is prepared to authorize utilities to run power plants at their maximum capacity to best meet emergency needs.  DOE also uses its Environment for Analysis of Geo-Located Energy Information (EAGLE-I) tool to give first responders and State Emergency Management Officials information on the status of the power grid, which is critical in facilitating response and recovery efforts.  Finally, DOE will leverage the analytical capabilities of the National Laboratories to provide tools for damage assessments, predictive analysis, and grid management to support response efforts.  This tool is available to Federal, state, local, tribal governments and first responders and will include wildfire data in its analysis in 2022.

Use research and modeling to protect firefighters and residents from smoke and dangerous air.  Wildfires can lead to smoke and water quality concerns that may impact public health, and the Administration is undertaking a number of efforts to mitigate these concerns.  NOAA uses satellite data and models to forecast smoke and communicate areas of dangerous air quality and low visibility.  During a wildfire, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also monitors and models smoke, develops smoke outlooks, and supports community public health notifications and guidance.  EPA is developing and expanding availability of the Vehicle Add-on Mobile Monitoring System (VAMMS) for use in heavy smoke impacted areas to provide ground truth on smoke plume and air quality models.  EPA is also evaluating how filtration devices, such as facemasks and portable air cleaners, can reduce exposures during smoke episodes.  With funding from the American Rescue Plan, EPA is piloting a project with Western states to use schools as clean air shelters and cooling centers during heat and smoke events.

Provide actionable information to help Americans stay safe during a wildfire. 
FEMA recently redesigned its Wildland Urban Interface website to highlight resources and information to assist states and local communities in preventing and preparing for wildfires.  EPA developed a wildfire smoke guide, in collaboration with a range of Federal and State partners, to provide specific information on the impacts of smoke and actions individuals can take to reduce their exposure.  EPA and the USFS launched the AirNow Fire and Smoke Map, which combines data from EPA’s air monitoring network with data from low-cost sensors, to improve air quality and smoke information available to the public during fire events.  In July, the EPA will add the Fire and Smoke Map to the AirNow mobile app, making this information more readily available to the public.

Reducing the Risk of Wildfires throughHazardous Fuels Management and Mitigation Investments

Provide assistance to mitigate the impacts of future wildfires and protect communities. The Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program provides a critical opportunity for governments to invest in resilience before a disaster.  In FY 2020, $500 million was made available through the BRIC program to support states, local communities, tribes, and territories for pre-disaster mitigation.  In May, the Administration doubled FEMA BRIC program resources – to $1 billion – for FY 2021.  Today, FEMA is announcing that one of the FY 2020 BRIC projects selected will provide $37 million in federal funds for an innovative wildfire mitigation project in Sonoma, CA that focuses on mitigation activities at both the large wildland-scale and the neighborhood-scale in order to build more resilient communities.  FEMA will soon announce additional FY 2020 BRIC projects selected for Federal funding. FEMA also provides assistance to mitigate future wildfires under the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) Post-Fire for communities.  FEMA Regional offices are coordinating with state and tribal partners to highlight the opportunities made available through these grant programs.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework invests nearly $50 billion to build resilience to wildfires and helps western communities prepare for droughts.  Last year, the United States faced 22 extreme weather and climate-related disaster events with loses over $1 billion – a cumulative price tag of nearly $100 billion.  The bipartisan infrastructure framework will help the country prepare for those events by investing in forest management and upgrades to critical infrastructure — like elevating buildings, roads, and bridges, hardening physical infrastructure, and winterizing the power grid – as well as funding state and local infrastructure improvements and emergency response strategies, such as planning grants to support development of evacuation routes or upgrading community shelters.  The Framework will also make it easier for low-income families to buy flood insurance.  And it will help Western farmers, ranchers, tribes, families, and communities better prepare for future droughts. It will invest in ecosystem restoration, such as the restoration of wetlands that can reduce flood risk for communities.

Invest in extreme wildfire protection through the FY 2022 Budget.  The FY 2022 President’s Budget includes over $30 billion in FY 2022 to support wildfire management and related activities and disaster relief.  This funding is necessary in order to ensure we have the resources necessary to better prepare and respond to wildfires and protect communities.

More effective treatment of hazardous fuels.  This Administration understands the need to address forest management in the prevention of wildfires.  The President’s FY 2022 Budget has proposed a 62% increase in hazardous fuels funding across USFS and DOI.  This funding is used to reduce wildfire hazards by addressing the excessive accumulation of biomass (i.e., “hazardous fuels”) in targeted locations.  Investments in FY 2022 will be informed by a scientific, outcome-based national investment model that targets land treatments to areas where they can be most effective in protecting communities.  The USFS and DOI have identified more than 4 million acres that could be treated this year with the funding requested in the FY 2022 Budget.  The Administration looks forward to working with Congress to fully fund this critical program.

(end of White House statement)

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly and Riva.

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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.

16 thoughts on “Federal firefighters to receive retention pay this year”

  1. Yesterday I spent an hour of my retirement life in writing my senators and the president regarding pay and retention issues. It was an easy thing to do, the words just flowed onto the computer screen. It is your right as an American and I’d go as far to say a duty to your career (whether that be current or past) and current firefighters to tell the politicians what you experienced, how wrong it was and how to make it right. They won’t get it unless they hear it from you a thousand times. Otherwise they think that things like $15/hour are a good deal, which we all know will not solve a thing. If you are a state or county firefighter and started with the Feds, as many of you did, write to your elected officials and explain why you switched agencies. We all have a story, let’s tell it. Thanks Bill!

  2. Wow!!!!
    Fifteen bucks an hour – what an increase. That’s good pay if you live in a tent on the side of a road or under a bridge. Hoping this “raise” will stop the bleeding of good folks to other agencies and other jobs is nothing more than a political pipe dream. This isn’t a pay raise, this is an insult. Look at what Cal Fire, and the California contract counties – Los Angeles, Venture, Kern, Santa Barbara, Orange, and Marin pay their folks. It’s time to start paying these people what they should be paid. Knock off the hourly wage and go with salary. Then, per FLSA pay the overtime. In my 39 year career with Cal Fire I spent a lot of time working with USFS hotshots, engine crews, and dozers. Those folks were doing the same thing I was doing, i.e., humping hose, cutting line, and protecting structures. And, they were getting paid a heck of a lot less for it than I was. It’s time to stop using the excuse that they are “technicians” start calling them firefighters, and start paying them what they should be paid.

    It’s also time to wake up and take a hard look at aircraft, both airtankers and helicopters. Many of these are no longer just forest or regional assets. They have also become national assets as well as international assets too. Aircraft that are utilized on a federal or state fire one month may very well be used in Australia or Chili the next.
    Decisions made here regarding contracts with airtanker companies also affect other countries.

  3. The $15 for fire-fighters sounds like a really bad joke.

    Are there any cartoonists that are wildland fire-fighter sympathetic & knowledgeable ?

    What could Doonesbury or Dilbert do with Mr. Biden offering a $15 what sounds like, starter wage.

    I could make that work if I lived in my truck.

  4. This is all great and everything. But until President Biden demonstrates his deep understanding of the root causes of our national wildland fire problem, as his predecessor did, and starts advocating for the purchase and deployment of tens of millions of rakes, we’ll never get ahead of the fire conflagrations to come.

    Our previous President offered the nation the real solution in August of 2020 when he said… “I see again the forest fires are starting, they’re starting again in California. I said, you gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forest. There are many, many years of leaves and broken trees and they’re like, like, so flammable, you touch them and it goes up.”

    Why have the agencies ignored his simple plan for ending catastrophic wildland fires!?!

    It’s not about VLATS and a living wage or new job classifications! It’s about rakes!!! Clean the floors!!

    If the USFS would just do a better job raking their floors, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

  5. All I have to say is this is better than nothing. It’s getting attention to the proper people and WILL take traction, sometimes a little faith goes a long ways. I do hear some of the horror stories of “been there tried that,” but with national news the way it is and how California is treated with wildfires, I believe something is going to happen. If they don’t get something done then, they will be a mad rush out and the government will have to take action. I always to tell people though, it’s not always about the money up front, you will get compensated in their retirement. The job conditions do suck sometimes yes, but if you don’t like it and complain that much, quit! Life isn’t about money, it’s about going to your job and getting satisfaction for what you so. This job does that for me and provides great benefits for myself and my family.

  6. Wow 10% or $1,000. Hopefully people don’t fall for the smoke and mirrors. The agency is imploding.

  7. A different paradigm.
    1. Pay firefighters a straight hour wage portal to portal. ( do the math. Comes out about the same as 16 hour day with “h”).
    2. Establish pay increases commensurate with red card ratings/skills. No more GS 5 division supervisors.
    3. Cross train to increase year round employment.
    4. Offer health care same as for pft.

  8. Adding more LATS just demonstrates how ignorant this Admin. Is on the problems.
    Adding a $15 wage for firefighters shows they are clueless onwhat comparable fighters in other agencies make.
    We’re in deep trouble if this is their solution.

    1. Ted, you may want to have your computer checked – it appears that it isn’t displaying the 3rd and 4th paragraph of this post.

      This is likely all the administration can do without Congressional approval at this point. Better than nothing, and hopefully a sign of progress moving forward.

      1. We do not need more LATS.
        To be clear, more SEATS are definitely needed, and strategically positioned for a quick response.
        The agencies need to testify directly on this
        LATS are backed by big influences but more of them is a waste of money.

        1. There is also a very aggressive effort in one segment of the industry to promote the use of SEATs and disparage LATs.

  9. Where and how did you come up with 40 planes and 50 helicopters Bill? You knock the FS for the numbers they have or propose and Im just curious how you came up with your number. Thank You

  10. “Surge” is this, this weeks buzz word? Looks like the Feds are surging just fine in Northern California. How many CWN LAT’s and VLATs are “rolling the dice” hoping the phone will surge. This business (wildfire management) isn’t Uber. Millions of dollars in equipment and trained personnel are betting on a winning role. As an past Forest Service employee of the ’60 and ‘ 70 I remember hearing the same story.

  11. I’ve advocated previously that we need to do a radical re-think on how the country approaches wildland fire management, especially the suppression side. I think there’s a way to do it without breaking the entire budget.

    1) Have a large enough full-time permanent core of wildland fire professionals to handle the year-round nature that fires have developed into because of climate change and mostly eliminate the seasonal fire positions (more on this in a moment). This core should be sufficient to handle pretty much all the fires in a low-moderate fire year and conduct prescribed burns at appropriate times.

    2) Use seasonal hires primarily for non-fire duties but have them cross-trained and available as Type-2 crews during moderate-high fire years. These would be the traditional forest technician series and would be focused on the normal stuff (i.e. silviculture, recreation, fuels management work, etc.). This core would likely be primarily from college students doing summer work or folks like teachers or ski employees looking for some summer work.

    3) Commit the National Guard to being trained and equipped as wildland firefighters as an integral part of their mission to be called up during high-extreme fire years. They already do some of this but let’s get the entire system on board with this. This includes having the air support already trained and available on-call. One of the big areas they could also be trained in that wouldn’t be a large shift would be logistics handling meaning they could manage and move the fire cache equipment needed during high fire years.

    Anyway, that’s my hare-brained idea.


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