Dozens of lawmakers sign letter supporting an increase in pay for federal firefighters

In 2021 40% of the requests for hand crews and 29% of the requests for engines were unfilled

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U.S. Capitol building
The U.S. Capitol building. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A letter signed by a bipartisan group of 28 lawmakers urged that steps be taken to avert critical staffing shortages in the wildland firefighting workforce. The document was sent May 10 to the Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the Secretaries of the Departments of  Agriculture and the Interior.

It noted that years of low pay and other issues “have hollowed out the federal wildland firefighting workforce.” Last year 1,858 (40 percent) of the orders for hand crews were unfilled, and 1,853 (29 percent) of orders for engines were unfilled. In addition, the number of cancelled orders were 32 percent of crew orders and 22 percent of engine orders. There can be multiple reasons why orders are cancelled, but they can include the order sat unfilled and the requesting unit gave up, or finally the need no longer existed. The number of orders actually filled in 2021 were 27 percent for crews and 49 percent for engines.

“In one state, the U.S. Forest Service had 60 engines idle because of low staffing in the midst of the largest fire in state history,” the lawmakers wrote. “Such shortages exist throughout the West heading into the 2022 fire season, with officials estimating staffing will be below 75% in some regions. This is an urgent threat to natural resources, public safety, and taxpayer dollars, as the Federal Government pays a premium to contract and borrow firefighting resources from state and local authorities when federal resources are unavailable. ”

The lawmakers urged the OPM to use their authority for establishing special pay rates when staffing problems are caused by significantly higher non-Federal pay rates, remoteness of the location involved, or the undesirability of the working conditions.

One of the provisions in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed last year required the two Departments and the OPM to establish a new “wildland firefighter” occupational series. The lawmakers warned yesterday that “a new series that maintains the status quo could lead to a surge in resignations just as fire season begins.”

The letter linked the lack of “portal-to-portal” pay with recruitment and retention difficulties:

“Many state and local firefighters are paid on a “portal-to-portal” basis, meaning 24 hours a day, from the time they are assigned to a wildland fire until the time they return, and are reimbursed on that basis by the federal government. Insisting on scheduling and paying federal wildland firefighters in the same manner as other federal employees, rather than other wildland firefighters, is one way in which arbitrary policies are driving recruitment and retention problems.”

“The Administration must stop attrition and commit to rebuilding the ranks of our firefighting service,” the letter from the 28 Senators and Representatives said. “This starts with increases in pay and benefits. The situation is urgent, and we stand ready to work with you to ensure our federal wildland firefighters are fully supported and compensated.”

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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.

29 thoughts on “Dozens of lawmakers sign letter supporting an increase in pay for federal firefighters”

  1. Let’s quit the charade. The USFS and DOI are not capable of keeping up with the challenges in wildland fire in the 21st century. From workforce planning to equipment modernization, these land management agencies are woefully ill prepared. The days of the forestry/range tech doing a little bit of everything are over. Yet we have leaders stuck squarely in the past, the glory years of smoke jumpers, huge timber crews, and a large contingent of seasonals, when a large fire was 5000 acres. The requirements of modern day wildfire mean more training, better preparation, better equipment, and a new mind set to developing the workforce. We owe it to the citizens and the wildland firefighters to develop this new agency, with a 50 year plan, instead of a six month plan. The reluctance to communicate clearly and effectively on the issue of firefighter benefits outlined in the BIL, is a symptom of bureaucratic ineptitude of our USFS leaders. Time for congress to move forward without them and take wildland fire away from their control.

    1. “The requirements of modern day wildfire mean more training, better preparation, better equipment, and a new mind set to developing the workforce.”

      Do they really, though? I feel like the most conspicuous lack I kept running into in 2021 was just horsepower. We’d have a perfectly good division, but there was no plan that would have worked without another 20-40 guys, so fall back a ridge, start a check line, and pray for rain. A high-speed fully-staffed shot crew or two woulda been nice, but I don’t know that they would have been any better than good production contract crews. We just needed more guys.

    2. Agreed. Long overdue. Has been talked about in the past but the land management agencies don’t want to lose fire and aviation- for various reasons- some understandable – some not- yet we as the workforce wanting this have no supportive voice. Our voice is controlled by the line officers not the fire fighters. Even our national fire director has no voice in the say. Buried in the agency- with the largest workforce and budget. It is a sad deal for all of us. Yeah we voice our concerns like we have over the past many years but we will still get shut down because the line officers control us and they decide who to be in power/ or get the next SES gig- with them so we have no voice- in the agency. So- we go off hours (. Eva use we can’t talk in the clock) and voice our concerns hoping somebody will eventually listen and help us to be better organized for the American public. CAL FIRE figured it out years ago- why can’t we? Love my job. Yet frustrates by lack of support on so many angles.

    3. What we need is not more stuff or even better (more expensive) equipment!! All that does is suck up budget that could be used to hire and train people. Wild fire, and consequentially, the job of fighting it has not changed. Most of the real, actual, work happens on the ground with hand tools and PEOPLE swinging them. What has changed is the number of people willing to do the job, and the entitlement of the newer generation of permanent employees. If we only work a 12 hour shift on a fire they insist that they automatically get paid for 16 hours. Why? It’s thanks to the type of BS that you are propagating, it’s thanks to supervisors that that think they are doing a favor or looking cool by wasting taxpayer dollars because everyone else is doing it or because it’s there. Cool is not Integrity, entitlement is not Respect, and giving in or following trends is not Duty. We need hiring/recruiting reform, we need people, and we need supportive leadership. Everything else is just a want.

  2. Although the inaction of this administration is not surprising, the blatant neglect to fix a public safety problem is infuriating.

    Im glad this letter was sent to the department heads, but is this how they hold them accountable for not implementing a signed bill and refusing to fix a public safety problem?

    I mean wouldn’t it make sense to at least communicate to the workforce and let them know the status of the Infrastructure Bill as to avoid further resignations and to be respectful to the workforce ? Has this happened yet?

    These people should really take the “This Is Who We Are” class. If they had this would never of happened.

    1. So far what I have heard as a FS employee is just little snippets here and there with nothing really concrete. We received an email from a Forest FMO that was trying to give an update on the implementation of everything and it was info from February with no new information, just a bunch of vague “we are hoping to have the job series done by May and then implementation to follow.” No good timelines, no updates saying this is what we have done so far, here is what we are working on now, here is what you can expect in the near future.

  3. Unfortunately, I don’t think an open letter to the two secretaries and one director will help. Their inaction, even when mandated by law, has shown their inability or uninterest to act. If congress wants something to happen they’re going to have to give these three specifics on what the pay raises and benefits look like, give them a timeline, and make it clear they will be removed if they keep dragging their feet.

  4. It’s too bad that Anonymous is probably right. We’ve been conditioned to expect, and are hearing whispers of how the Agency is going to figure out a way to circumvent the expectations of Congress (that the raise would apply to all primary fire personnel). The best evidence for this is the the slip by Jeff Rupert – DOI’s Director of the Office of Wildland Fire – when he said the agencies were struggling with “how we implement compensation increase, how it affects their retirement, how it affects the premium pay that they receive when they’re deployed to an incident.”

    Let’s unpack that: 1) USFS and DOI have problems with “how” to pay boots on the ground for the work they are doing with the increased budget Congress has allocated. The obvious question is “why”. The money is there, the raise is long overdue, and the mandate exists. It’s retroactive to the beginning of the FY, and there is zero transparency or accountability for “leadership” vis-a-vis the delay.
    2) It will bump anemic retirement benefits into an acceptable range when factoring in the raises to base pay. The Agencies will have to account for that in the future, but it’s not a reason to delay implementation of the raise today. It’s like the ES series is paralyzed by 4th and 5th order effects that we can’t know. This is unacceptable.
    3) Most importantly, Rupert lets the cat out of the bag here – the DOI and FS are ACTIVELY CONSIDERING ditching hazard pay for raises that are long overdue. It’s like they can’t help spitting in the face of the workforce. There’s nothing in the infrastructure bill that alludes to this, but they just can’t resist twisting the knife a little.

    Taken in concert with everything else that’s going on (blatant obfuscation of hiring numbers, employees living in vehicles, the atrocious worker’s compensation problems, and the overall out-of-touch attitude of the ES series) is there any question why we have no confidence in our “leadership”?

  5. As a employee of a State Forestry agency, the reference in the letter stating that state and local firefighters are paid portal to portal while firefighters are not is misleading and these members of Congress should have done their homework. All the proposed wage increases to federal firefighters is great if you are a Federal employee, but this increase has and will continue to make recruiting firefighters to work for State Forestry agencies that fight wildland fires, especially in the West. Our firefighters are not paid portal to portal, only the fire service employees that work on wildland fires doing structure protection in the State of Oregon.

  6. The new generation needs to work and not worry when the next pay raises are coming. It will come with time and experience. I retired four years ago and I had seasonals coming to me when the next pay raise will be with only one Fire Season under there belt oh and when will I get signed off. So glad I’m retired good luck ?

    1. Your generation is why the “new” one is in this position in the first place. Getting replies of “suck it up and be happy you get paid anything” and apathy by supervisors and management for decades is what has directly led to the massive attrition at every level of the organization. How dare they ask for fair compensation? How dare they want to be able put food on the table? How dare they want to actually be able to afford a place to live that’s not the back of their truck or a tent in the back 40? How dare they want to be able live in the communities that they protect?

      But sure, it’s as simple as this generation being too entitled and wanting a fair shake at a career that should be one of the best around. And the pay raises aren’t coming with “time and experience”. My last pay check was $850. I’m a GS-6 with nearly 8 years invested in this agency, 4 in the US Army, and 14 total years of Federal service. And here’s a clue, it’s not just new FFT2s. This attrition goes to every level of the organization, including Hotshot Supts., and critical IMT positions with decades of experience. These can’t be replaced.

      Instead of calling us lazy, try being empathetic next time.

        1. Nooooo! Don’t get a different job. We barely have anyone left with experience. Too many people have taken mmmms advice. Thanks for hanging in there and voicing your concerns in an attempt to advocate for positive and deserved change. These “why don’t you just leave” people just don’t get it. Thank you all who are willing to speak up for FFs.

    2. We’re glad you retired as well, WMM. The days of “shut up and suck it up” are over. So are the 90 to 120 day seasons where big blocks of time were spent doing project work and helping rec and timber. Employee housing is non-existent. TOS is gone. Everywhere is a “had to recruit and retain” duty station now, and the only exception to that is if you’re fortunate enough to be working in a place where you grew up and have the benefit of family and home already. Your condescension mirrors the attitude of current “leadership” that still believes that we should be fawningly grateful just to have a job. That’s not how it works anymore, and while I won’t blame you (and me) for all the problems we have (like “new generation” does), we certainly took our sweet time addressing the issues that have reached a tipping point.

      20+ years of hard work to (maybe) be rewarded with a GS9. Rec and timber and facilities give away 5/7/9 career ladders – we don’t. Why? The average federal employee rates out as a GS12 – that’s complex FMO territory for us. Why? We have ALWAYS been underpaid and underappreciated “unskilled labor”. Just because you were cool with that doesn’t mean that the next iteration of forestry technicians has to be. I have seasonals living in cars. That means poor quality rest, a lack of ability to prepare meals in a decent kitchen, and no shower. It seems you’re cool with that though, so long as they build some character. I’m more concerned that it creates an entire lifestyle of not being fit for duty, and it tells them that the Agency doesn’t give a damn, despite the “this is who we are” platitudes we’re bombarded with.

      Bottom line: the system is a mess, and we’ve been trying to clean it up for years. Be a part of that or take your own advice and keep your mouth shut, and suck it up.

    3. That left us worse off. It was spineless yes-men like you that made this agency the way it is. They knew they could just keep the status quo because boot lickers would just stare at their feet and do as they were told, never daring to rock a boat. The status quo never got challenged with that kind of thinking.

      I’m glad we have the sand to stand up instead of standing back.

    1. I think your missing the math part. It’s not about a pay increase it’s about keeping current with today’s standards. Looking back at pay from 2001 to now, housing has gone up over 200%, gas is 400%, and food is up 200%, and our pay has gone up 75%. So your not talking apples to apples by your pay back in the day to our pay today.

  7. Will those lawmakers that signed the letter also vote on the floor of Congress to make the appropriations needed and pass the enabling legislation? Signing a letter is virtue signaling.

    I used to oppose creating a separate fire service. Fire considerations need to be an integral part of all natural resource management decisions and policy making. I felt splitting off fire from the land agencies would hamper that integration.
    I no longer feel that way. The Forest Service does not have the institutional will, skills, or ability to manage a 21st century fire organization. Too many in the upper ranks of the organization are still stuck in the mindset that fire employees are only disposable pulaski motors hired for the summer.
    Those days are long gone. The fire organization in the Forest Service (and the Interior agencies too) are rapidly evolving into an all-risk emergency service. Many units already are. There are green Type 3 wildland engines that are responding to more medical aids, structure fires, haz-mat, and traffic accidents than wildland fires. It is time the WO accept reality and stop living in the non-existent past. The fire organization has evolved. The FS has not.

  8. Just think of the equipment/crews we could staff from my current employer. We have 2 former ict3/tfld/engb/crwb/etc, several fft1/ emt/enop folks. This is in a career that is not fire related but we value hard workers. I made the jump first then started recruiting others. Of the folks I used to work with I think 2 are still with the feds in fire. Everyone else has moved on over the years. The gov needs to realize that the job market has passed them by.

  9. Y’all are fighting over crums. I know $15/hr sounds great, but it will only last for 2 years. (And you are not guaranteed to work 2 years.) As I said before, becareful what you wish for…read the fine print…you get a raise for 2 years, but then you lose hazard pay forever. If you’re not happy with what you are getting paid go somewhere else. I don’t say that to be mean, I’m saying because the FS/NPS will not change until they have too…and the only way they will change is if they figure out that they have to pay more. I do suppore a new agency, but I think that the states are going to have to take over. If women’s rights are going to the states, so should fire.

  10. I would say the lack of transparency in the lack of information is typical of the secrecy that the Forest Service now operates in. Direct questions to FS leadership for months have produced little in the way of any useful information. The lack of trust in leadership is apparent to all but the leadership it seems. When the one response we got from forest leadership when the question was asked amounted to “I thought everyone knows what is going on with the bill and pay” what little trust was there instantly evaporated. While I realize that housing and inflationary costs are hard to deal with, when private industry is offering more and more starting base pay and good benefits, the government workforce is not going to keep up with the demand.

  11. I was warned two years ago that if they created a firefighter job series, hazard pay would go away. But few in the group i was with seemed concerned, even though the WO person telling seemed to think we ought to be. Hazard pay or not though, we need to bring our wages up to match other agencies or the private sector. If i made $60 an hour i wouldn’t care about hazard pay and i could afford a house out west. Saw the FS is outreaching for a tanker base manager position: gs-9, salary in the 60-70k range. Thats insane for that level of responsibility when there are so many pencil pushers at the gs-12 level who really have little responsibility.
    As was said earlier, we need more bodies, and we need to get them experience. It looks like the FS is standing up a PFTC West, which will help people learn to be better burners, which is also desperately needed to increase the pace and scale of our restoration work. But again, we need more bodies. To get the bodies to do this work, the government needs to pay more. Its simple supply and demand.

  12. WMM, did you know that today’s firefighters are paying 3.6% more in retirement contributions than you did? It’s to help cover your lack of contributions. Just one of many facts that people like you choose to be ignorant to or worse just don’t want to consider. Glad things worked out to your satisfaction. Do some economics research and come back to educate the new generation how you had it worse.

    1. Could you please provide the exact figures relative to your retirement contributions? I’m curious. Thanks

  13. Cal Fires open exam’s right around the corner. What a hell of a deal for Cal Fire. I’m loaded with quals. ICT4, ENGB, CRWB, FIRB, RXB3, ENOP, EQTR, PTRC and FOBS. All free to Cal Fire considering the US Forest Service dumped about $300,000 into my training over the past 15 years. This is what happened when your agency slaps you in the face instead of trying to compete.

  14. Cal Fires open exam’s right around the corner. What a hell of a deal for Cal Fire. I’m loaded with quals. ICT4, ENGB, CRWB, FIRB, RXB3, ENOP, EQTR, PTRC and FOBS. All free to Cal Fire considering the US Forest Service dumped about $300,000 into my training over the past 15 years. This is what happens when your agency refuses to compete.

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