Federal wildland firefighter classification without compensation – wait, what??

firefighters Dixie Fire
Firefighters near the site of a venting propane tank on the Dixie Fire. August 4, 2021. Jay Walter photo.

By Kelly Martin, President of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a personnel specialist nor am I am classification expert.  When I worked on the inside as a federal government employee, I witnessed first-hand my inability to effectively recruit, promote and retain top talent.  I felt frustrated as a Fire Management Officer to see applications disqualified because of our conservative approach to human resource management.  301 versus 401 job series; two different Departments creating Interagency Fire Program Management Standards; lack of career ladders and developmental position descriptions; five different agencies interpreting personnel regulations; GSA policy which forces agencies to raise employee housing rents to be comparable with surrounding communities; and known higher morbidity and mortality among wildland firefighters.  I’m sure the reading audience here will add to this list.  There are many systemic problems with recruitment, promotion and retention that cannot be fixed by creating a new job series classification for federal wildland firefighters and implementing hourly wage increases, but it’s a start to a long game that people have been dedicated to for decades.

To say that Grassroots Wildland Firefighters started this effort to correct years of misclassification and addressing oppressive wages falls short of recognizing the many hundreds of people who have come before us.  As I read old reports and research, I can say there have been some very dedicated and persistent federal employees who tried to correct a growing concern about recruitment and retention who are now watching their original efforts come alive again.  They are there silently and some vocally stepping forward to advocate on their own behalf for much needed reforms.  All of us past, present, and future federal wildland firefighters feel like we have finally elevated our collective voice to our DC agency leaders who are willing to listen, sympathetic national media outlets, and most importantly the people we have elected to represent us in Congress who are interested in becoming more educated about federal wildland firefighters

We are on the eve of announcements from Office of Personnel Management through our five federal wildland fire agencies regarding Wildland Firefighter Classification and Compensation.  Grassroots Wildland Firefighters holds a hard line that any new classification shall include a job series that addresses all primary and secondary firefighters from “hire to retire”.  What gets announced from OPM is anyone’s guess. Not exactly sure why this classification process has to be so secret and opaque.

First let me start with what we can anticipate will be addressed as it pertains to Classification.  We will not likely remain in the GS-0462 Forestry Technician series as federal wildland firefighters, although you can choose to stay in that series.  In the late 60’s and early 70’s there was a series for entry level firefighters called Fire Control Aids as GS-0456-3,4 and 5’s.  Maybe it went higher than a GS-5 but I can’t seem to find any documentation of such.  Many people older than me who spent a career in federal wildland fire explained that there were no career ladders for wildland firefighters above the GS-5.  Enter 0462 Forestry Aids and Forestry Technicians.  In the 1970’s Regional and National leadership could see a career path for this new and emerging field of wildland fire management.  Problem was there was very little career advancement beyond a GS-9 technician.  Some of you reading this will remember the shift to a GS-0460 to get people in higher leadership positions but they needed a college degree in Natural Resources.  The GS-0301 and GS-0401 series for upper management positions is still in use today but was to be discontinued when OPM completed the new position description for Federal Wildland Firefighters.  I remain hopeful we will all be in one series.

So where does this leave us today?  We may see a re-tread of the GS-0456 series – the original Fire Control Aid of the 60’s and 70’s; we could see the GS-0081 series, a mostly Department of Defense structural firefighter series which would subsume wildland firefighters, or we could see a whole brand-new series devoted specifically to federal wildland firefighters.  Whatever gets announced will surely be welcomed by thousands of federal wildland firefighters, or maybe it will fall short of our expectations.  We do know there is no link between this new classification series and an increase in pay.  The new series will be the same pay as our current General Schedule pay rate; no change.

Now for compensation.  We know that an increase in pay is not the answer to all our proposed reforms, but compensation will certainly begin to address the oppressive wages we have been living and dying with for decades, to say nothing of our inability to secure affordable housing.

As you know the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has a provision in the law to increase wildland firefighter compensation.  Our original hope was to increase firefighter pay by 50% or $20k for all primary and secondary firefighters regardless of GS level.  The intent of the law, as broadly defined, would provide an hourly pay raise by 50%.  So a GS-3 making $13.78 in 2022, under the law, would essentially become $20.67 an hour for base pay and roughly $31.00 overtime rate.  Given the risk, exposure and consequences for these women and men on the frontlines as we speak, they are the ones most vulnerable to accidents, injuries, lifetime disability, and potential line-of-duty death. Hard to affirm if this compensation seems reasonable for federal wildland firefighters in an effort to better recruit and retain top talented individuals, but certainly better than we have now.

This is a once in a generation (or several generations) to get this right for the federal wildland firefighters who are on the firelines today watching us, expecting us to act deliberately for classification and compensation reforms, providing physical and mental health resources, and affirming presumptive diseases and cancers.  We are far from the finish line but we are making an impact due in large part to all of you who have and continue to support and put sweat equity into Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.

A sincere heartfelt thank you to all of you and to Wildfire Today for amplifying our collective voices!

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52 thoughts on “Federal wildland firefighter classification without compensation – wait, what??”

  1. Hi Kelly,

    Very informative article. Thank you and Bill for trying to inform us citizens of the USA.

    Have a good day, Jerry

  2. You folks ever consider forming a union and demanding fair compensation and if demands not met you go on strike? Nurses, pilots, police officers, prison guards, and regular firefighters have unions and do that. Are Ted Cruz and Tom McClintock going to come running and suit up to fight wildfires? What you do is every bit as valuable to society (arguably more) than lawyers, doctors, nurses, stock brokers, accountants, professional athletes, Senators, Congress people, project managers, thespians, and other professional jobs. What you do requires specialized knowledge and training, extremely high level of fitness, willingness to compromise your health and wellbeing for the rest of your life, risking your life, long hours, extended periods of time away from home and family, and probably many other skills and demands I am not aware of.
    Seems to me that starting wage for a job like this should be at least $75k per year and go up from there at pretty drastic rate. Experienced wildland firefighter should be able to earn $200k/year or more for full time work and attract the best and brightest to the job.
    I know, you are heroes and feel like the compensation is not why you do what you do, you love your work and feel a sense of duty to public and country. That is commendable and an extremely honorable way to think (very rare these days too), but you are accepting a lot less than you should and letting the government bureaucrats take advantage of your honor. Government wastes billions every year on stupid, worthless stuff, so why not give it to you instead? Lots of much lesser skilled folks are doing half of what you do and are making double that sitting around at their desk pushing pencils around making corporations lots of profit. Nothing wrong with that, but you deserve same. Another way to look at it is you are preventing billions of dollars of damage and economic loss that would adversely impact corporate profits and other peoples’ income and health (and in many cases their ability to stay alive). In that sense you are creating value like any other worker or professional and deserve compensation that is commensurate to that. A very smart tradesman once told me you need to demand what your are worth or people will not respect the work you do. Is perfectly reasonable for you to demand what you are worth.

    1. Hey I couldn’t agree more! There is a union for forest service permanent employees but I’ve seen little evidence that they do anything for anyone. They claim they also represent seasonals (the bulk of the workforce and the most exploited, no benefits, etc) but once again I’ve never seen any evidence, and seasonals are not eligible for union membership. No union rep ever spoke to me about the union or my rights as a worker in 6 years as a seasonal in the forest service. Someone needs to light a fire under them or form a broader seasonal worker union. Chris smalls of the Amazon Labor Union has spoken about creating an essential workers union, which I find inspiring…

  3. Well done Kelly. I was one of those GS456 Fire Control Aids in the early 70’s and never realized how and why the series was eliminated. Your article shed some light on that. Do you think another reason might have been that the federal government realized at some point they would have to compensate 456 employees similar to the 082 series like having OT be calculated in the High Three for retirement etc?

    1. Hello Bob – I knew friends out there would remember working as a Fire Control Aid… Yes, HR 5631 Tim’s Act has a provision in the Bill: SEC. 4. RETIREMENT FOR FIREFIGHTERS to include OT for retirement calculation.

      1. I know this calculation of OT and hazard pay towards retirement sounds great but the unintended outcome is firefighters chasing more overtime and hazard pay, thereby incentivizing more risk, fatigue, burnout, etc. Raising base wages is better in the long run. Adding OT and H to retirement calculations is not helpful in the long run for our firefighters.

        1. Point well taken. We thought about that too. We have not identified all the potential unintended consequences either, so stating them here is very helpful. I think the OT might have started with some federal structural firefighters and federal law enforcement officers who are able to include OT for retirement.

          1. Another unintended consequence I think if they don’t included all GS levels is that folks would be hesitant to go from say a GS8 to a 9 or a GS 9 to an 11. Crews will become stagnant and there will be lack of the leadership at the 11/12 level. Which can also block really skilled and great potential leaders at the GS 3 to 6 levels bc the 7 and 8’s don’t want to promote up to get less pay.

        2. I strongly disagree with that argument. You can make the same argument that increasing base wages will lead to people chasing OT for bigger pay checks leading to fatigue. Pretty much no one is arguing against a pay increase though.. Ultimately it’s always going to come down to personal responsibility to manage fatigue and burnout.

          1. That seems like an easier problem to address than the current problem of people working way too many hours because the wage is insufficient and the workforce is understaffed (once again because the wage is insufficient). Agree that fatigue is a major issue and that no one should be maxing out their overtime. I just think that it’s fundamentally a matter of undercompensation. With a better wage and bigger workforce maybe we could figure out a work schedule that’s less punishing that 14 or 21 days of 16s. The 14 isn’t the most efficient way to fight fire, it’s just the only way to get a good paycheck.

        3. We are already maxing out hazard pay and OT just to live a reasonable life.

          I think a lot of folks are already at the physical limit of OT. 1000+ hours just bakes people and sets fire to their lives not in a good way.

    2. I hope this is true … If you work the hours you should be ‘rewarded’ for the rest of your life on that high amount and NOT JUST base pay !!! This would be amazing for employees !!!! For everyone

  4. So if this the bill says that we are getting a salary increase, why do the USFS and DOI folks on these employee virtual town hall updates keep calling it an incentive????

    1. The comment we keep hearing is the language in the bill was not specific enough to affirm an hourly pay increase so the interpretation (is this an hourly wage increase or is this a base salary increase?) is left up to the Department lawyers to interpret. Consequently you will be seeing a ‘pay supplement’ arrive in your paycheck ‘sometime soon’ as a ‘base salary increase’. We are hopeful ALL geographic areas shall be considered ‘hard to recruit and retain’ wildland firefighters. Also, if you are on a work related injury/disability Continuation of Pay (COP), my understanding is you will not be eligible for the 2022 ‘pay supplement’ when your are in COP pay status. I could be wrong on this assumption….

      1. If OT and retirement calculations are not increased with this, there are going to be some very very pissed off folks out there. I personally know of a lot of people who are in “wait and see” mode with this bill implementation. If it does not fulfill expectations, there will be a lot of people hitting the exits from these agencies – myself included. I am holding out hope that this will be included for high-3 retirement calculations. If not, I am done with fire permanently after this season.

        1. Better get ready to be upset. This bill will never meet everyone’s expectations and we all know it. The expectations that we will all be paid like CALfire, PGE, or LA county are ridiculous at best. If you want that money, go after it, they hire all the time. Everyone has a choice, that’s the beauty of living in the USA. Guess we will see you on the other side.

          1. We also have the choice to demand something better. That is the beauty of living in the USA with dignity.

      2. Exactly Jim, here is the text from the “infrastructure bill” I read it to to my understanding it is pretty “black and white” there is no mention of incentive, or bonus within the text.
        It actually says it twice in the text “base salary”
        Using the amounts made available under subsection (c)(2), beginning October 1, 2021, the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture shall—
        (A) seek to convert not fewer than 1,000 seasonal wildland firefighters to wildland firefighters that—
        (i) are full-time, permanent, year-round Federal employees; and
        (ii) reduce hazardous fuels on Federal land not fewer than 800 hours per year;
        and
        (B) increase the base salary of a Federal wildland firefighters by the lesser of an amount that is commensurate with an increase of $20,000 per year or an amount equal to 50 percent of the base salary, if the Secretary concerned, in coordination with the Director of the Office of Personnel Management, makes a written determination that the position of the Federal wildland firefighter is located within a specified geographic area in which it is difficult to recruit or retain a Federal wildland firefighter.

    2. Exactly Jim, here is the text from the “infrastructure bill” I read it to to my understanding it is pretty “black and white” there is no mention of incentive, or bonus within the text.
      It actually says it twice in the text “base salary”
      Using the amounts made available under subsection (c)(2), beginning October 1, 2021, the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture shall—
      (A) seek to convert not fewer than 1,000 seasonal wildland firefighters to wildland firefighters that—
      (i) are full-time, permanent, year-round Federal employees; and
      (ii) reduce hazardous fuels on Federal land not fewer than 800 hours per year;
      and
      (B) increase the base salary of a Federal wildland firefighters by the lesser of an amount that is commensurate with an increase of $20,000 per year or an amount equal to 50 percent of the base salary, if the Secretary concerned, in coordination with the Director of the Office of Personnel Management, makes a written determination that the position of the Federal wildland firefighter is located within a specified geographic area in which it is difficult to recruit or retain a Federal wildland firefighter.

    3. Its NOT a pay increase , its supplemental pay so overtime wont be included in the increase.

      *Not sure what they are doing for the folks that are getting the 50% if theirs is the same.. but the people getting the $20,000 then it will be added to to your paycheck.

  5. This question may be a day late and a dollar short, but is FWFSA still kicking around? Casey Judd was doing a lot of lobby work on a separate or at least “stove-pipe” type of fire org among other things and getting some traction with congress. That was admittedly back in like 2009 the last I remember hearing much about it.

    1. To my understanding the pay supplement is just that, a supplement. You will have to ask the agencies if this supplement will be subject to state and federal taxes; if the supplement comes to you in a large lump sum will this push you into a higher tax bracket? – I don’t have these answers either. This supplement will not apply to OT worked in 2022 and it will not add to any sort of retirement benefit. I hope I am not giving misleading statements here, but this is what we have heard. Maybe someone else on the inside might be able to confirm…

      1. Amazing. Simply amazing.

        The infrastructure bill was pretty clear in it’s intent and everyone I know is fully expecting this bill to raise their base pay by the lesser of 50% or 20k and that to then flow on to retirement and OT calculations.

        If think the firefighter exodus was bad now, just wait until after people realize how they just got screwed because rather than implementing the bill with it’s intent in mind, it gets lawyered by OPM, USDA, and DOI to a pay supplement that after taxes won’t amount to much of anything.

        Count me out – I am done with fire.

        1. We were pretty disappointed as well that our leadership did not push harder for hourly wage increase when the lawyers took over decided to make the most conservative interpretation when interpreting INTENT. The most important part of all of this is for everyone to know our agencies are formulating the 2024 Wildland Fire Budget request as we speak. This request to congress SHALL include hourly wage increases as originally intended in the IIJA. Needless to say agency statisticians, economists, budget analysts and decision makers need to be kicking into high gear if they are to be prepared after the IIJA funding runs out in 2023 (estimated)

          1. So now it is 2024 for maybe some real change.

            Won’t be much of fire service left by 2024 at the rate we hemorrhaging people and talent.

    2. To my understanding FWFSA is still around. I am unfamiliar with a “stove pipe organization” that he might have been working on with congress. But, FWFSA has been working with Rep Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) on the Federal Wildland Firefighter Recognition Act (classification WITHOUT compensation) which has been introduced and referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform every year for the last 4 years but has never had a hearing (to my limited knowledge).

      1. Hi Kelly,

        I am probably even more unfamiliar with it, but the gist of stove piping is just sort of removing fire from the same org with line officers at the top and creating a parallel org while staying within the agency. Kind of a middleground of a full on fed fire service.

        So, I guess as example: crews/mods etc report to AFMO -> FMO -> Fire staff -> Regional Fire Staff and cut out all the (imo extraneous) line officer authority. Right now for example in my region, if we have a fire start and even want to decide to manage it without full suppression, we have to go all the way to the regional forester. That is kind a big deal when it comes to support, ordering, planning etc. for an IC or a DO.

        Instead, some sort of org chart where that decision stays within someone’s wheelhouse who has some actual quals. It would have a lot of impact on some of the silly hiring stuff we do as well, irellevant aglearn and in-person training and create a lot more transparent accountability up the chain of command.

        Otherwise, I see *some* FAM leadership just blaming an unpopular directive on the Forest supt or some other line officer above their head when we ask them to lead up.

        I guess someone could just draw up an org chart to start, but I can’t imagine it hasn’t already been brought up.

        Thanks by the way for what you are doing.

        1. Trust me, Kelly knows what a stovepipe org is. She was Fire Chief for Yosemite NP. She just meant she doesn’t know what FWFSAs proposed stovepipe org looked like.

          1. Copy, yeah I am not anywhere near being a fire chief, so just making sure I had it right too. I am not sure entirely if FWFSA was even looking to do that or just pushing for a seperate service. Not doubting her knowledge or anything.

  6. Unfortunately the Infastructure Bill will not increase the amount of pay for overtime.

  7. We last updated you all on the firefighter occupational series and the increased payment that is funded in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law on June 7. We’re committed to continuing to provide you the information we do have—even if we don’t know all the details or timing. We heard your feedback loud and clear.

    Announcements about the pay and series are close at hand. The Forest Service continues to work with our colleagues in the Department of the Interior, Office of Personnel Management and USDA to get these over the finish line. We also met with the Forest Service Council of the National Association of Federal Employees and the National Association of Federal Employees this week to share information on the status of these provisions. Our goal remains to provide this increased payment to as many of you as possible nationwide, at the highest rate possible, and make it retroactive to Oct. 1, 2021. We are doing everything we can to meet the goal of paychecks in firefighters’ pockets by the end of this month or the middle of next month. We know that’s critical as we enter the busiest part of the fire year.

    I want to reiterate what we said on June 7—we know you are frustrated that these key Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provisions have not been implemented. We understand your frustration and thank each and every one of you for your patience. Implementation has taken longer than any of us could have expected, but getting it right is important. And this increased payment will be a positive step forward—and a good stepping-stone toward long-term solutions. Congress provided enough funding for approximately two years—so now we can begin working on a longer-term solution. We want to work with you to build support for long-term solutions that address core issues including portal-to-portal pay, housing issues and firefighter health.

    When the announcement is made, we will send it far and wide as quickly as possible. We know firefighters will have questions on the particulars of the pay and the series. To answer those questions, we will provide FAQs which will be updated as needed. Our Human Resources team will also be standing by to help answer questions.

    Again, thank you for everything you all do to serve the American people. Together, we will get this done.

    1. Can tell you that if this does not come into play for all GS levels (stopping at the GS-9), then including fuels, aviation, and dispatch, I know of 32 individuals with a combined 477 years of fire experience will be looking elsewhere for employment. And that only accounts for the ones I have talked to. There are other series they are not talking about either such as 2101-Transportation Specialists that include Forest Aviation Officers and Unit Aviation Officers that are essential as well. Then back to stopping at the GS-9, how can there be management who would be making less then who they supervise. We have 20 year shot sups that go into the AFMO or FMO position, then after all their years they would get left out. They need to at least make sure they include everyone that currently collects Fire retirement for both primary and secondary positions.
      Hoping for the best but expecting disappointment. Then how hush hush they are being on this just leaves even less trust in our organizations. They leave us with speculation, uncertainty, and leads to rumors and disgruntled employees.

    2. Can tell you that if this does not come into play for all GS levels (stopping at the GS-9), then including fuels, aviation, and dispatch, I know of 32 individuals with a combined 477 years of fire experience will be looking elsewhere for employment. And that only accounts for the ones I have talked to. There are other series they are not talking about either such as 2101-Transportation Specialists that include Forest Aviation Officers and Unit Aviation Officers that are essential as well. Then back to stopping at the GS-9, how can there be management who would be making less then who they supervise. We have 20 year shot sups that go into the AFMO or FMO position, then after all their years they would get left out. They need to at least make sure they include everyone that currently collects Fire retirement for both primary and secondary positions.
      Hoping for the best but expecting disappointment. Then how hush hush they are being on this just leaves even less trust in our organizations. They leave us with speculation, uncertainty, and leads to rumors and disgruntled employees.

    3. Did I just miss it or is this comment about “maybe next month” new? Last I heard Randy told Senator Cortez Masto during the hearing “ this month for sure not hopefully” after she wanted clarification on when payments would happen.

      “We are doing everything we can to meet the goal of paychecks in firefighters’ pockets by the end of this month OR THE MIDDLE OF NEXT MONTH.”

  8. I’m going to take my “incentive” (if and when it even sees the light of day) and f____ quit immediately afterwards. I’ll consider it a severance.

    After I quit I will protest every NEPA decision and rally my local community to oppose the FS at every turn with every single thing it tries to do! I’ll be at every community meeting the FS holds. I’ll partner with local environmental groups and use my corporate knowledge to sue the FS and tangle it up in litigation.

  9. Quick question Kelly, I’ll have more to say on this subject, but first are you the Kelly Martin from TFM 10?
    Look forward to giving some insight I have on this subject after a 33 year career with the Forest Service!

  10. Anybody else get the sense they keep kicking the can down the road until fire season winds down and they can let everybody down then?

    1. I believe many of us are super frustrated it has taken this long as well. I can say Grassroots Wildland Firefighters saw an urgent need some 3 years ago. All of us – including many people here – self organized, contacted legislators, worked with major media markets who became very interested in our stories (especially all of your stories!) and for what it’s worth I am grateful the Fed agencies will pick up the phone when I call and they will meet with GWFs on a monthly basis so we can get clarification and updates. Last year we shared oppressive entry level wages with the media and elected officials and I believe we were instrumental in getting us to $15 an hour – not nearly enough for the risk and consequences but goes to show our influence. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is a ‘stop gap’ funding a ‘pay supplement” The bigger picture is a true hour pay increase beginning in 2024. Classification and Pay Supplements this year are one thing….yes, it’s coming but anyone’s guess as we have not been part of the deliberations with OPM even though we asked…. 2 of us would have provided over 75 years of true wildland fire experience for OPM to tap into…. I see things as hits and misses and I really felt our exclusion with OPM was a miss…. maybe I should have fought harder to be at the table…. In closing, please visit HR5631 “Tim’s Act”. It’s not a full and complete list of the reforms we are advocating for, but it comes darn close. If your elected officials have not signed on as a co-sponsor to this bill, you are certainly able to contact their office and ask for a meeting with them acting as yourself, a wildland firefighter, not representing any one particular federal agency. Be safe, enjoy the adventure with your colleagues this year and thank you for being on the frontlines!

      1. Did you say you got pay UP TO $15 an hour for firefighting? As a non fire person who stumbled on this site let me say – you gotta be kidding me! Triple that and I might think about that much danger and hard work. Who ever is running your outfit is screwing you.

  11. My bet is that the “difficult to recruit and retain” will all go to California to compete with CalFire. The rest of the country will remain as it has been for the last 30-40 years.

    1. If that happens and the rest of the regions drop just 50% of their support R5/Cal Fire will fold up. Anyone who has been around for the past 15 plus years and have supported them knows this will probably happen.

  12. The Bill money was nothing more than a false-promise scheme to get people to come back this season. Even the dummies in the WO could make this happen in seven months if they tried. Jaelith and Randers are going to stall until the end of the season then announce a new scam to try to attract seasonals next year.

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