Washington Post covers the failure of USFS and DOI to implement new pay structure for firefighters

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Firefighter on the Cerro Paledo Fire
Firefighter on the Cerro Paledo Fire in New Mexico, May, 2022 by Blake McHugh.

In today’s edition of the Washington Post Joe Davidson writes about the Administration’s foot dragging and failure to implement the pay raises that were signed into law by President Biden in November as part of his Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

One stumbling block the US Forest Service and Department of the Interior appear to be dithering over is the law stated that the new pay structure would only apply to firefighters in “a specified geographic area in which it is difficult to recruit or retain” them. However the conventional wisdom in the ranks is that all areas have serious recruitment and retention problems. In some locations, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said May 4 in Congressional testimony, the staffing levels are at 50 percent.

Below are excerpts from the Post article:


“Congress appropriated this money months ago, and yet, federal wildland firefighters have still not seen a dime of it,” National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) President Randy Erwin complained in a letter Wednesday to top Biden administration officials. “Congress intended this money to move quickly into the hands of wildland firefighters, a very large percentage of whom experience significant difficulty making ends meet on their current salaries.”

Aana Kulaas and her husband, Chad Bresnahan, are Forest Service firefighters in Washington state. Although she has a bachelor’s degree in natural resource science and 23 years of experience, Kulaas, speaking as a union official, said she earned $23,023.52 last year. She had no overtime pay because she had to care for three children.

Her husband did earn overtime pay. Without it, “we would not be able to afford our mortgage or my medical bills,” she added. “Our financial well-being is directly tied to how severe the fire season is. The busier the season, the more money he makes … While the overtime keeps us afloat, the downside is all the family time and mental and physical health that must be sacrificed.”

To make matters worse, “we work in an unsupportive environment, so there is no rest and recovery even during the brief offseason,” Kulaas, 42, added. “There’s just this constant cycle of being chewed up and spit out and the expectation to perform at a high level.”

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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.

55 thoughts on “Washington Post covers the failure of USFS and DOI to implement new pay structure for firefighters”

  1. The money is gone already. It’s been picked over from the top down and there is nothing left. Did we really think we were going to get our slice?

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      1. The conditions of dismissal with prejudice in Gleason v Bernhardt should shed some light on where and how our Fed tax $$$ is being spent by the agencies’ elite. My hardhat is off to Chris Wilcox for surviving that bureaucratic escaped prescribed burn.

        Go With Gravity And Watch What The Wind Is Doing,
        Eileen Ridgeline Grace CEO, OTR, CIT-E, PSIA
        TRY-G Consulting Services, Inc.
        RIVER TO RIDGELINE LCES™️

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  2. SR,

    I got PLI and it covers disciplinary actions and MSPB has been finding in support of retaliation more lately. I’ll lawyer up and be taking my chances if and when any of my protected activities get me in trouble. There is a much bigger lens on the LM agencies.

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      1. SR,

        It probably won’t, most of my attempts to save the world don’t seem to be taken very seriously by anyone above the GS9 level. Never hurts to hedge your bets though.

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        1. When I filed my first EEO complaint, it wasn’t to save the world, it was to stop my female boss from sexually harassing my male subordinate. I was retaliated against. Things escalated and my boss stabbed me with a pen. Long story short, I was punished and she got promoted. I was a GS-9 at the NPS. So, when a GS 11/12, opened up at the FS, I took it. Things got worse. I was harassed, promoted, and harassed again. I’m not trying to save the world. I just want the bad behavior to stop. Not for me, but for all of the people still working at the NPS/ FS. I hope the firefighters and supporting staff get the money that they deserve, but a 2 year band aid will not solve this problem. Supervisors and managers are the only ones who can fix the problem. Just be careful when something looks to good to be true, it usually is. The NPS/FS are really good at changing the story. They are also masters of the bait and switch. Here take a raise, but you’ll have to give up hazard pay, oh and by the way the raise will only last 2 years…unless they can stall and the time runs out and no one gets a raise. Good luck and stay safe!

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          1. SR,

            I was not refering to EEO complaints or whatever happened to you. I meant “saving the world” in a colloquial way to describe any efforts to challenge things in the workplace that mattered to me or peers of mine and the apparent apathy towards those efforts. I was also clearly talking about myself in the comment. I was cynically making fun of myself. That is about it.

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  3. You have the right to whistleblow, but the consequences are that you will be fired and then be blacked balled from working in the government. You lose your salary, healthcare, and retirement. And then if you do fight it in the courts, the FS stalls until you run out of money and end up living in your car with 2 dogs. Oh, and for the person who said dispatch has 3 8-hr shifts
    …Hahahaha!!! I worked in dispatch. I wish!!! 3 8-hr shifts…Hahahaha!!! You are there until the firefighters go home! I think firefighting is a lot like the nurses shortage…There’s no shortage. The hospitals just want to save money. The same with firefighters. They’re not going to pay you, because they want to save money.

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  4. I want to start off by saying, I agree there are a lot of problems in the management of wildland firefighters. But the lady never said how much her husband made. It seems we are only willing to tell the part of the story that supports our agenda. I just want to know the whole story, so I can make a decision where I stand on that subject knowing all the facts.
    Wildland firefighting has always been a temporary job for the most part. Meaning no benefits. There have never been many full time career opportunities compared to the number of firefighters employed. The positions were filled with college students as a summer job and people looking for a good life experience, or like the freedom of not being tied to a normal job.
    We can’t all do a job that we love , but we can be content with the job we have. If our life decisions have made it impossible to earn enough to be a wildland firefighter then we should not blame others for that.
    When the government can’t find enough firefighters they will be forced to change things. That is how our government works.

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    1. MFA,

      At some point, the expectations of the job changed though. The same agencies have been adding more and more permanent positions and extending tours. After centralizing HR, we took a lot of administrative duties from a local specialist and added gave them to what used to be primarily field-going positions. We have added to the amount of qualifications required for positions and created another administrative workload of maintaining those qualifications.

      We have a work culture, fire and not that tends to add broad new additions to administrative duties whenever a simple mistake or avoidable problem occurs. Think about policies and new paperwork mandated for everyone based around an isolated incident.

      We have much larger and more complex fires, more WUI, more areas identified as needing RX treatment and mkre mission creep into all-risk response.

      There has been exponential growth in nearly every area of the job in addition to duties that were never part of it added and expanded. All while many of the field going positions that were not fire being stripped. That added pressure to have firefighters performing tasks we never should be doing anyway, trying to fix facilities problems because the engineer doesn’t have the money to hire tradesmen or enough skilled forest service employees doing repair work on underfunded buildings.

      Making any comparison to the transient sort of “lifestyles” seasonal job that firefighting was, is just not accurate. The agency has just not kept up with it, and we’ve been our own worst enemy over the years by failing to lead up and refuse to keep band-aiding everything.

      There is absolutely no reason that fireifighters or any other employees should not use the channels they are legally allowed to use as employees or citizens to make failing leaders accountable. There are a myriad of government agencies like OSC, OIG etc. that are funded specifically to prevent gross-mismanagement and extreme negligence. There is a union for employees that has an agreement that the management signs and agrees to as legally binding.

      You may be articulating how you *want* the system to work but your are not articulating how it was designed and funded to work.

      People do have the right to expect the job they are doing to be re-defined when it becomes a significantly different job. They have they right to ask for that, all of us are also tax paying citizens who have agreed to a rule of law. We have the right to whistleblow, petition our government as citizens, act collectively as labor when following agreements that congress has allowed and management has signed.

      The biggest problem the agency has now, that it didn’t when my dad was a firefighter in the 60s, is that we all have access to all of the language and information that holds a bureaucracy together.

      I can’t just make up arbitrary rules and tell my employees that it is policy any more. No one has to go find a library to find information now or wait to share it. Our government may adapt to an emergent shift in workforce by itself, but we may also choose to become involved in, and accelerate and influence that change and that is also how the government works.

      Things have been so dysfunctional for so long that it just seems aberrant to you or management when people start using the system to fix the system. Bummer.

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      1. Current supervisor
        I agree with you we have the right to try to make our jobs better. In my job I work 10 to 20 hours of overtime a week. I have worked my current job for 27 years. I have applied for 3 supervisor positions, and have been turned down all 3 times. The reason I was given is they can’t pay me enough. I would have to take a 15 to 20 thousand pay cut for a promotion, because of my overtime.Really? The only reason I am still there is my work schedule is very flexible. And I like my job, not all the time, but I really like what I do.
        I would like to support you all and do, but it would help me be sure of my support if I had an idea what you all gross a season after overtime. Maybe it does not matter, but I have a had time believing that with overtime someone can make more at McDonald’s in the same number of working days. But maybe I’m completely wrong.

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  5. I suspect the real problem in upper management with implementing the pay increase is trying to figure out how to not pay extra to all the 462 series employees who aren’t primarily firefighters without causing a riot. That and trying to keep from creating pay differentials between adjacent states where someone working in stations just a few miles apart get substantially different pay.

    The solution would be to speed up implementation of the new wildland fire GS series and get folks moved over pronto. But this is a very large bureaucracy and nothing, I mean nothing moves fast when it comes to changes that large.

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  6. Our problem is that we’ve been trying to communicate issues like we would in the fire world, free flowing information up and down the chain of command to identify and solve problems (usually/hopefully). To solve pay and work condition issues we need to get the attention of the Cabinet heads of the Interior and Agriculture. Our attempts to send things up the chain have repeatedly failed so we need to change tactics. We unfortunately work in a top down organization so lets turn our disadvantage into our advantage. The NFFE and Grassroots Wildfire Fighters have shown us the way, let’s have Congress cram down on Ag and Interior for a while, that’s what the organizations understands. We tried to do it the right way but we are the part of an organization that make things happen, I’m tired of swimming upstream but not so tired I gave up trying to make improvements especially for those that don’t have as good as I do. I gave to GWFF and to this site today (embarrassingly late). If you want to talk about how dysfunctional our organizations are, knock yourself out. If you care about how many of our people are living in their cars in the parking lot, focus your energy on something that will move the needle.

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    1. Correction: Grassroots Wildland Firefighters
      Could have read it 20 more times and still screwed it up.
      Sorry GWFF you do a great job we are all in your debt.

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  7. I totally understand where people are coming from, but I also kinda sorta understand the interagency political difficulties in implementing a pay increase. The first being to define what a wildland firefighter is. We all know what a wildland firefighter is; they are people who are on the ground digging line and doing burnouts for 3 consecutive 24 hr shifts. And everyone was Ok with that definition until this giant bag of money got dropped from on high. Now everyone who is remotely connected to fire wants a slice of this pie. Everybody from HR Specialists to FS front desk folks to cache packers to dispatchers. A whole class of mostly either do nothings (cache workers notwithstanding) or no skill seat fillers with their hands out wanted to get paid for being firefighters. We all know they’re not, but in some areas there is some ambiguity. Fuels folks are not primary firefighters, but their primary job is fighting fire in their own way. Tanker base folk are not primary firefighters, but their primary job is fighting fire. It creates enough ambiguity that DOI and USFS do need to take a hard look and create some definitions on who gets this money and who doesn’t.

    Granted, there is no way this process should have taken 6 months, but it isn’t as simple as “give everyone who works tangentially in fire a giant raise”. Money isn’t unlimited, and for every dollar a no-skill do nothing dispatcher gets in this allocation a real firefighter who works 16s and doesn’t see their families for the entire summer doesn’t get. This is a zero sum game and we really need to make sure the money goes to the right people, and doesn’t get lost in the shuffle to people who don’t deserve a cent more than they’re making now.

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    1. Yes. The funny part is that the agencies listed 10,000 (USFS) and 5,000 (DOI) firefighters in their budgets and that’s what the BIL money was based on. 15,000 FF x $20,000 x 2 years = $600,000,000 for FF.

      So if they plan to increase the number of folks who get it, well again, that’s their error for undercounting their “firefighter” workforce.

      Hell, Jaelith signed a memo stating that they paid the bonuses to 11,300 FF last year and that was only GS3-9. So they were basically undercounting on their budgets, which cost their employees hundreds of millions of dollars…

      We aren’t sending our best to USFS DC…

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      1. It takes a special kinda person to leave a forest environment for the swamp in DC

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        1. Evidently you haven’t been to an interagency dispatch center or heard about the extreme staffing issues that are effecting the dispatch side. None of the centers I have been to have enough for 3 shifts let alone 1. Also dispatch doesn’t go home until the last firefighter goes out of service. Each of the functions you were banging on contribute to successful fire fighting and deserve to be included.

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          1. THANK YOU SO MUCH for highlighting what is going on in every single interagency dispatch center, last year and still this year. Most people have no idea.

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          2. Yeah, agree for dispatch. That is a pretty critical job and is doing predominantly fire support on-call. I feel a good dispatcher is life or death difference in some cases.

            I’d personally take a lower raise if they got the same one too and it came down to it. I am not a very high GS and it would still hurt me, but it seems fair. They are still having to do incredibly stressful work for long hours directly in support of WF.

            I would think Fuels, Supression and dispatch would all be no-brainers. Where I am at, the fuels folks all have a lot of collateral quals and are in the mix in IA season and on team assignments.

            Also, depending on the assignment, arguing that sitting a lot does not equal primary firefighting ignores the times when primary fire is on an assignment that happens to involve a lot of sitting. Aside from IHC rolls, there are a number of times I have spent a lot of time sitting as part of an assignment, hurrying up and waiting somewhere on pre-po or whatever. Then I suddenly get my ass handed to me. Just depends.

            The tricky bit is getting into militia. I think a good ask in the future would be a special differential for militia when on a p-code or rx-code. I can think of a number of militia folks that are already GS fantastics that have some low complexity quals who already get paid way more than I do to be FFT2s on a fire I am the IC of. Just saying. Sorry.

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          3. Not true ive been out in field many times un district 5, and Redding goes home anyways at 1830 sharp, no if ands or butter. If we roll a 24, they go home we do not, so don’t tell me sitting on ur ass behind a radio is work!!! Ur full of shit!!

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        2. Lol. Not *my* Interagency Dispatch center-we’re down several perm positions and those picking up the slack are newbies or injured FFs. Tell me how his isn’t a safety issue for field going people. Three shifts, lol……

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  8. Wildland fire fighters have been underpaid forever!!!! No wonder people are feed up with the system, and not wanting to fill positions!!!
    One thing that has baffled me in the 13 season I fought fire was “hazard pay”. It’s the same “hazard” for EVERYONE on the fireline, but not the same “hazard” pay for EVERYONE!!! WHAT A JOKE!!!!! Is this ever talked about?? Add “X” amount per hour to EVERYONES hourly pay rate for “hazard” pay!!
    Eliminate paying people from different departments their pay grade when on fire assignments. EVERYONE gets paid according to their fire experience, and qualifications !!!
    The people/persons that can change/fix these issues need to pull their collective heads out of their asses and take care of these people who lay their lives on the line at every fire!!!
    THE ENTIRE SYSTEM IS BROKEN!!!!! FIX IT BEFORE THERE ARE NO FIRE CREWS!!!!

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  9. That’s the problem. People don’t like their job because it doesn’t pay well so they ARE finding other jobs…..resulting in more people not liking their jobs because they are picking up the slack left behind so they ARE leaving too. It’s a problem making tax payers vulnerable and needs to be fixed…hence the comments.

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  10. I hate to say it but if you don’t like your job and it doesn’t pay well then go find another job.

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    1. That’s what’s happening and that’s why we’re so effing short staffed. Those of us that care about the mission know that if we don’t reverse this trend we’ll lose not only the mission but the ship.

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    2. That’s the end point here, people have been leaving in droves to the point where engines are downstate and Type 1 IHC are losing their qualifications due to lack of personnel.

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    3. Spoken like an FFT4 that that tucks his pants into his boots and trenches overslung line.

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    4. The only time I used the “if you don’t like your job, or you aren’t happy, then go find another job” phrase was when I was trying to get rid of someone who was either bad for morale, had a questionable work ethic, talked too much about themselves, complained too much or who didn’t have a true calling or care for the mission of the job.

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    5. You are the problem, not the solution man. Cant you see this is already happening?

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    1. It doesn’t really seem like they are… the bill has been signed into law for seven months. In that time period, the agencies have said very little on how the bill will be implemented. Essentially no new information was presented in the virtual town hall meetings at the end of May, with the exception of the information that OPM is developing the new job series with little to no input from the land management agencies. Further, as far as I’m aware, any deadlines stipulated in the legislation have passed with no definitive information, let alone implementation.

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      1. It’s time to put a check on the “can-d0” attitude and let the agencies fail at the mission, so long as it isn’t harmful to the boots on the ground. Not meeting the mission is the only route to get the attention of the decision makers. If folks keep “making it work”, then the DC swamp creatures will never see the truth completely. But, I’m retired, so what do I know???

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        1. I totally agree and I’m sick of “making it work” at the expense of the employees health and well-being.

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  11. Chief Moore and his leadership staff have no experience leading in crisis management- i.e. the fire line. An agency with mostly fire folks and an agency workforce who try support each other -mostly- and we fire to them- the fire guys- but No wonder this is a failure- Randy and staff have no experience on how to lead a complex situation because they have never led during a complex situation. They don’t understand fire culture and what we want to do to help each other. We know there is war between fire and line- and you Chief have added that even more with Jaleith all the others on your leadership team. No surprises here.

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  12. I’m really hoping someone from NFFE is reading this. From my perspective as a student of public administration, a 750 pay supplement does not meet the letter of the law as laid out by congress. In this regard, doing anything other than increasing the base wage by either of the two options presented is a clear violation of federal law unless amended otherwise. This should open up USDA and DOI to class action lawsuits which arguably the union should be willing to pursue.

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    1. I agree. How did we go from an increase in base pay to a pay supplement. I’m no lawyer but the language in the law is straight forward. I guess the agencies have more power than our elected officials.

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  13. 100% agreement with the earlier comments. What will really suck is that when the WO folks can finally produce something, it will then have to go through the totally dysfunctional Albuquerque “Service” Center. I know of current seasonals in the SW who have been on for 3 pay periods and are still being paid as AD’s because the ASC hasn’t processed their hiring papers yet. The whole outfit is broken folks—-and there is absolutely no leadership to get it fixed.

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  14. As a former publicist, I’ve been trying to get even one New Mexico journalist interested in this story, but to no avail. Whoever got through to this guy at the Post has my undying gratitude.

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  15. This entire damn ordeal is caused by ineptitude, apathy and finger pointing!!!! During our absurd “briefing” with the chiefs all they did was repeatedly blame OPM time and again!!!! If our “leaders” are that ineffectual they should be DEMOBED!!!! Sign the petition and let them know we’re pissed!!!!

    https://chng.it/pVjWczJb

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  16. When things were really bad with CDF/CalFire, we used to say that the powers that be felt that nothing was too good for the boys in the field – that’s what we got – nothing too good. This latest ? is just one more hurdle to keep you from getting what you richly deserve. Keep the faith and hang in there.

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  17. I think any of us could fix this real quick: “a specified geographic area in which it is difficult to recruit or retain” = United States of America.
    Typical FS bull$#!%, hand-wringing, and foot-dragging once again!

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    1. firebrand – I am thinking that: “a specified geographic area in which it is difficult to recruit or retain” might be the DC area, and that makes sense since we all know how difficult it is to be a wildland firefighter in the DC area…

      All joking aside, I feel sorry for anyone that thought this would actually go through quickly, or at all. I mean, unless you’re the son or daughter of a congressperson or senator on a related budget committee, what are the odds??

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  18. Aana Kulaas, with 23 years experience, earns $23,000. That’s the reality. So while these Administrators in DC earning $175,000 dither about if they should use the funds for their employees, kids are going without food, employees are homeless and communities are unprotected.

    This is unconscionable. Time for people in DC to either get out or do their damn job and stop making our agencies look like complete laughing stocks. The USFS and DOI is now seen as the most heartless and abusive agencies in the federal government. What a shame.

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    1. That’s the bottom line in USFS Management. “It’s not a problem because it’s not a problem to me personally” mentality. Randy Moore was/is a big reason why Region 5 has the retention issues it does. He’s the poster boy for “failing forward”.

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      1. Does anyone remember the year Randy Moore’s biggest priority was for all the FS “firefighters” to wear the same uniform type shirt? They were talking about investing tons of money on yellows with a sweet FS emblem. Bigger priorities out there huh?

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        1. When sn organization worries about “organizational clothing” that barely meets mission values and pretends they are a line org patterned “after the military” …then one knows there are serious problems.

          Some uniforms are just not as well respected as others

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    2. Some details illustrate more than others,

      Maybe it’s time for Fire-fighters to go On Strike.

      That’s what many other labor categories do.

      In the long-run, better paid fire-fighters will benefit the rest of society.

      If the US gov. is too stupid to get a clue … well perhaps they need an Educational Experience – when the un-availability of fire-fighters makes them realize HOW MUCH THEY NEED fire-fighters.

      If these fires seem difficult to deal with now, wait till fuel un-availability combines with fire-fighter un-availability.

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      1. I believe that there is value to this in concept but it’s problematic for a number of reasons.

        1. There is no truly unifying labor movement amongst fed fire fighters and neither Grassroots nor NFFE would sanction a strike as it would compromise their standing to advocate within the government and potential lead to the termination of their members and prosecution of their leadership. It would than also become illegal and a terminable offense to become a part of a union organizations that had previous advocated for a strike against the government.

        2. It’s fairly easy to turn the dime politically on firefighters who stay home and allow homes and lands to burn. Assuming the public will be on the side of fed workers goes against most historic polling data in this situation.

        3. This assumes labor flexibility on the part of a large segment of the remaining workforce. If they can and ultimately might very well be terminated for striking, striking workers would all need to make their peace with losing their job and be able to support themselves outside of federal work or in another career entirely.

        Civil disobedience is an excellent option to confront a government that is not working well but in many ways the hands of labor and the unions are tied by both policy and public perception.

        The best option continues to be to be speaking truth to power, utilizing our right to speak freely to the media and the public about our contemporary situation, and work through and around existing institutions to have our voices heard. Eliminating the fear of retaliation within agencies by challenging the status quo and speaking openly and honestly to the media when the chain of command fails is the best option for most employees.

        If you want to help, get involved with Grassroots or NFFE, and aid in their campaigns.

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