Legislation announced to raise pay for federal wildland firefighters to at least $20 an hour

Would also pay “portal to portal” on fire assignments and provide housing stipends

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3:53 p.m. MDT Oct. 19, 2021

Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act

Today federal legislation was announced that would benefit wildland firefighters in several ways. The Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act. (Update Oct. 26, 2021. The bill now has a number: H.R.5631 – Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act.)

The bill would increase their take home pay by raising firefighters’ salaries and would provide other benefits:

  • Raise federal wildland firefighter pay to at least $20 an hour, and add “portal-to-portal” compensation;
  • Create a federal wildland firefighter classification series, so wildland firefighters are appropriately classified for the dangerous work they are doing;
  • Provide health care and mental health services to temporary and permanent wildland firefighters, including:
    • creating a national “Federal Wildland Firefighter Cancer and Cardiovascular Disease Database” to track chronic disease caused by on the job environmental exposure throughout the lives of current and past wildland firefighters, and
    • launching a mental health awareness campaign, a mental health education and training program and an extensive peer to peer mental health support network for wildland firefighters and immediate family.
  • Ensure all federal wildland firefighters earn retirement benefits for temporary seasonal employment, retroactively applying to the last 10 years of service (this has been corrected, and applies to service since 1989;
  • Provide 1 week of mental health leave for wildland firefighters;
  • Provide housing stipends for all firefighters on duty more than 50 miles from their primary residence; and
  • Provide tuition assistance for all permanent federal employees in the wildland firefighter classification.

The bill would affect the approximately 15,000 firefighters that work for the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Forest Service. Their salaries are far below that found in some county, state, and municipal fire departments which has resulted in an exodus of trained and experienced fire personnel to other organizations, and makes recruitment of their replacements difficult.

Currently, wildland firefighters are primarily classified as “forestry technicians,” paid an hourly wage of $13.45 at the starting GS-3 level, and are often can’t afford the costs of housing while on the job. According to recent studies, firefighters nationwide commit suicide 30 times as often as the general public and have a 30% increased risk for cardiovascular diseases, and 43% increase for lung cancer.

The proposed legislation was announced during a virtual press conference Tuesday. Speakers in support included Rep. Joe Neguse (CO) and co-sponsor Rep. Salud Carbajal (CA). Other co-sponsors include Rep. Katie Porter (CA) and Rep. Liz Cheney (WY). Mr. Neguse is Co-Chair of the Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus.

The bill is named after Tim Hart, a smokejumper who died May 24, 2021 after a hard landing while parachuting into the Eicks Fire in New Mexico. Mr. Hart’s widow, Michelle Hart, was one of the speakers at the virtual press conference, expressing her support of the legislation.

“Tim would be humbled and honored to have this legislation be a part of his legacy,” she said. “These issues were deeply important and personal to him. Wildland firefighters deserve to be recognized and compensated for the grueling conditions in which they work and for putting their lives on the line every day. This legislation is a major step forward in achieving that goal.”

The legislation has not yet been introduced, and after that step it has to make it through several committees before it can be voted on in the full House of Representatives. One of those committees, the National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands subcommittee, is chaired by Mr. Neguse who said he will arrange for a hearing on the bill.

Mr. Neguse said he was reasonably certain that a companion Senate bill will be introduced in the coming weeks.

The bill is endorsed by Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, International Association of Firefighters, U.S. Hotshots Association, National Smokejumper Association, Wildland Firefighter Foundation, Eric Marsh Foundation, National Federation of Federal Employees, and Team Rubicon.

The Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, one of the organizations that provided input as the legislation was being formulated, issued a statement on the legislation:

“We urge all members of congress to support Tim’s Act, if you represent a district impacted by wildfire or any type of natural disaster, please understand how these needed fixes impact the well-being of the men and women responding to those incidents.” said Luke Mayfield, GWF Vice President, adding that, “simultaneously Grassroots Wildland Firefighters will work to keep firefighters and their families briefed on how the bill would impact their lives.”

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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.

37 thoughts on “Legislation announced to raise pay for federal wildland firefighters to at least $20 an hour”

  1. DISPATCH!!
    DONT FORGET DISPATCH IN THIS BILL!!
    Bill Gabbert – died this congressional bill include dispatch?? Cuz if it don’t … we left out a major portion of the much needed and depended on Wildland fire community.
    Just ask dispatchers how stressful their jobs are. Or better yet, ho work in there for a season. Let’s see how long you last.
    Without Dispatchers, operational wizards won’t last long or go far.
    FACT

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      1. Thank you for the information Jodi!!
        I’ve had some good folks in Dispatch query me on this in the past couple of days. It would be a travesty and tragedy not to include these very important people in this legislative reform.
        Thank you again!

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      2. What about Fire Prevention? We are in the same series, investigate fires and still hold quals like ITC4, CRWB and ENGB.

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  2. As a state FF, I can tell you that this is going to crush our agency for recruitment and retention. I support my federal brothers and sisters but the ripple effect will be catastrophic to us as our legislators will never follow suit. Here in Montana we have never had competitive wages (no haz pay, differential, lower per diem, shorter season with less OT, etc. Not sour grapes, just setting the record straight that’s not all state agencies make more than the Jolly Green giant pays.

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    1. It’s not always apples to apples though. Federal employees do a different job. Hotshots, rappellers, smokejumpers aren’t provided by the states. Response across state borders, and the lands we manage are all different. I think Montana and other states wages will go up though if this passes, as they have to compete for labor.

      It shouldn’t be a race to the bottom; I’d be thrilled if Montana had a pay bump, because it would help out my next pay negotiations.

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    2. It will become an issue on all state fires (outside California) States don’t have the coffers the feds do. State fires will be reluctant to use fed resources=larger fires=higher cost. This could bankrupt some state agencies all together along with not having any firefighters of there own.

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    3. Add required EMT qualification as well, and you’re asking for harassment and bullying cases from many of todays federal force. The very management they decry on these boards are the same folks that instilled this reaction to anything that doesn’t suit the employees desires and it works.

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  3. Its going to be funny when they come out with a professional firefighter series that equates them with the same pay and rank as structure firefighters and they tell all the crews that they need to be wearing professional uniforms when not on the line, clean shaven, and short hair. Everyone loves wearing dress greens. If you want to be recognized as a professional, you might have to start looking like one.

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  4. All of this was talked about in the early years of my career 19 years ago. They said it was right around the corner. It still hasn’t manifested itself. I hope they Can make this happen but as SR said pay attention to what may have to be sacrificed. I’d assume the portal to portal will include “stand by” time which will be less per hour. When you do the average it’ll probably work out to around $15 an hour during a 24 hour period. As for Jeff’s concern I believe the reclassification includes provisions for firefighters to still conduct the project work forestry techs do today.

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  5. This is a drop in the bucket as to what you should be getting. Keep fighting for what’s right and for the benefits you should have as a firefighter. As a “red-truck guy”, AKA CAl Fire, I can tell you that we fought long and hard for years for what we have. We got it in dribs and drabs, but we finally got a decent pay, good retirement, and other benefits. At one time the State of California labeled us as being “conservationists” so we would not receive proper pay and benefits and even charged us rent for living at the station, which by the way we were required to do. Don’t forget for one minute that you are not being given this – you have earned it through sweat, tears, and blood.
    Stay Safe!!!!

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  6. I’m fully supportive of the pay raise, but the job classification change is still an issue for me. What people don’t realize is that standby at the station or on an assignment is the bulk of the job. Yes, when on a fire, the work is tough, and should be paid accordingly. But how many times have crews been staged somewhere for two weeks with nothing to do. Or standing by at the station waiting for that one fire they may get in a week, or month? The project work is productive and helps other functions in agency. I hope that changing the classification won’t take away from the everyday project or fuels work that still needs to happen. That is the work that needs to help justify the raise. That is part of the work of the Forestry Technician that attracted me in the first place, along with fighting fire. I would hate to see the job evolve into waiting around the station for a fire a majority of the time, with nothing else to do.

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    1. Considering the reason for the pay raise is supposed to reduce the number of feds running for some state and local agencies and the DOD….doesn’t seem like there needs to be a justification for the raise. Especially using the DOD as an example those peeps are sitting on bases full of a young and healthy population and stringent safety codes so they’re running nowhere near the call volume of their municipal counter parts. Nor putting in as much sweat and hours as the forestry techs so I think the pay raise is fair and equitable and changing the name won’t make project work and fuels reduction go away…those duties will still be in the PD I’m sure.

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  7. I assume that the remaining pay scale would rise proportionately to the 20 dollar min pay? I am currently a GS 7 FEO in southern Cal. Raising entry level pay is good, I support a pay increase, however, it closes a gap for employees who have served 20 years and whose pay should be reflected in the skills they have acquired, not just closing the gap on seasonal pay vs a captains wages.

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  8. I remember what my college Civil Engineer friend earned for her entry level Summer Job.

    $20 per hour + per diem.

    That was in 1976. With only one year of training.

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  9. I truly hope this passes and OPM jumps hard to get this implemented once they get the green light.

    Andrew I get where you are coming from, I doubt that folks like you and I will ever see a bump in our retirement benefits, but that’s ok…..I to spent 15+ years on shot crews and I am very certain that there is a price to pay health wise.

    But we would not do anything else if given the chance for a do over……Right…….

    Let’s just hope they get it done…….Way past time…..time to dump the Forestry Tech title once and for all…..DONE!!!!!!!

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  10. This of course is late for me, but it is well needed and deserved, this was my 40th fire season, retired ex- hotshot of 15 years and retired as an FMO and still going out as an AD for almost a month then shut down because of laws saying I can only make a certain amount per year. The last two years I went over specified amount and my social security supplement amount decreased. This year I stayed under so hopefully I’ll get my full amount back…I wished us retirees could also be compensated for are now worn out bodies ..

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    1. Martin, thanks for the link. I read it and I stand by my comment…this is a bait and switch. Yes, you get a $1,000 sign-on bonus, $4,000 for school (which isn’t a lot) and a $20 hr job, but the stuff about unpaid leave, cancer, and mental health is very scary stuff. I would not support this bill. I mean look at what happened under the HART program. Men and women reported sexual harassment and got fired and now they want you to report that you have a mental health issue or cancer…It just seems to me that this is a trap.

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      1. SR,

        I have never seen anyone so negative as you are. Have you done one thing to improve the fire community’s work conditions? I suspect not. Your attitude on here shows that you expect things to get handed to you without working for them? Everyone has the opportunity to seek higher education. There are millions of dollars in grants and scholarships available out there. You have to have a little drive to pursue them. I suggest you find another career that accepts poor attitudes and throws out race as an excuse that you are failing.

        Please find that now because I don’t want to work on the fire line with you.

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        1. BA, sorry you feel that way. I have done a lot for the fire community. I have spoken to the Chief, Secretary, Congress, Vice President, and the President 3 times. I started this bill, but over time things got added to it. This bill was suppose to be a bill that raised everyone’s pay, not just entre level firefighters, EVERYONE’S pay. This bill was suppose to fix the problem not just be a bandaid. I also lost my job because I spoke up. I spoke to Congress in a hearing and was attacked physically by Forest Service employees and almost died, just so men and women like you could have a safe place to work. But, I guess your right. I fell on my sword for nothing. I agree with you everyone should be able to go to school, but $4,000 is not enough. It cost $40-$80,000 to go to school. $4,000 is only 5-10% of the cost. Plus this money would be taxed, so your not even getting the full $4,000. Oh, and for your information…I am a white woman. I have a BS and MS and NOTHING I have was handed to me. As my sexual harasser use to say, I had to worked twice as hard for half the money. I’m sorry, you don’t want to work with me, but the people I have worked with, the people I have saved, the people who really know me do. But, I do want to thank you. You’re harsh words have given me a lot to think about. Maybe I should stop helping people like you. Maybe I should find something else to do. Thanks!

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  11. “Provide 1 week of mental health leave for wildland firefighters” Is this 1 week paid? Because I have seen the NPS and the FS say you have to take time off (a week, a month) and not pay their employees. On the surface this bill sounds good (to good to be true) so I advise people to ask questions about this bill…dig deeper…What will you have to give up to get more money? Your privacy? Your time? Your job? Your career? Come on tuition assistances? When do you have time to go to school? (Who gonna qualify – white men only!!! I say that, because the only people who qualified for management classes are white men!!!) I think this is a switch and bait…Here take $20 and hour, but when you tell them you have cancer they fire you. Please wake up!!! See what they are doing!!!

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  12. After starting out as a GS-3 in 1964 @$1.87 w/o OT or H-Pay, all I can say is “WOW”. Long overdue.

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    1. GS 1-1973 for me. Thanks to you and Dick Smith I had an amazing career, with a bunch of amazing people in the fire organization.
      Thanks much

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  13. Yes it’s past due so that’s a good start way past due I got screwed for 30 years and now I’m retiring but hurrah for those in the business

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    1. Came close to retiring a GS 6 step 10. Much to do with my choices but felt I was a second class employee for my whole career. If it was a dirty job or dangerous I was pretty popular. For much of the year, when no smoke in the air, felt like the professionals would rather I just disappear. Loved my job and my crews. Not so much my agency.

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  14. How will creating a national “Federal Wildland Firefighter Cancer and Cardiovascular Disease Database” to track chronic disease caused by on the job environmental exposure throughout the lives of current and past wildland firefighters, stop the Forest Service from firing people who get cancer?

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  15. I would say that it is, “About damn time!”, that these wildland firefighters are recognized and rewarded for their very challenging work.

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    1. I’ll second your statement, and raise you 10!
      I’ll bet this frosts a bunch of those culls who were dragging their feet, lo these many years!

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