CBS probes recruiting and retention problems in the US Forest Service

Dixie Fire at Greenville, CA, 2021
Firefighters on the Dixie Fire at Greenville, CA, 2021. Jay Walter.

Saturday morning CBS broadcast an 8-minute piece on national TV that laid out some of the issues causing the recruitment and retention issues for wildland firefighters in the federal land management organizations. They interviewed several very experienced firefighters including some who resigned. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore was confronted about his statement before a Congressional Committee that 90 percent of firefighting positions were filled. It turns out he was assuming that 100 percent of the job offers were accepted, which was not accurate.

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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.

25 thoughts on “CBS probes recruiting and retention problems in the US Forest Service”

  1. Just disgusting!! If you want to call him CHIEF, that’s on you ! But he and his Deputy either don’t know what’s happening or just don’t give a Damn about their people !
    The USFS is a FAILED agency, needs to be dismantled and a new National Fire Agency needs to be born to take OUR lands into the future!

    1. Rangers, Forest Supts, regional foresters are typically 401 series specialists with little to no OTG fire experience. I think stovepiping the federal fire programs would be amazing. At least we know our leadership would know what they are talking about. Where in the world does a fire chief work for a fish squeezer besides the US Gov! City and State Departments have to answer to elected officials who need to perform to keep their job that is a huge difference and those FfTR’s get paid more because their leadership knows they have to take care of their people to get re-elected! The whole fed fire system is pretty comical when you think about it. I can’t wait to retire.

    2. I agree For the most part here. But the USFS is Alot more than a firefighting agency. Solid change needs to be made but let’s not act like uses is only fire.

  2. “You can go to a fast food restaurant and make more.” -Randy. You’d think the homeowner’s insurance lobby would have an opinion on the federal programs imploding. Fewer federal firefighters with less experience equals more insurance claims. If they put some pressure on the administration to straighten things out, it would be done overnight.

  3. Instead of “owning” the problem this bueatrcrat deflects, defends, and worst is ignoring the issue…..a federal Wildland fire agency with a career ladder and appropriate pay……

    1. I so agree. But the WO has always been disconnected from reality. Complaints of spotty equipment, low pay, poor housing options have been ignored since I was a GS-03 Forestry Tech on the Sequoia in 1976. In my career, change was only effected in the face of catastrophe. There has also been a wholesale loss of onsite barracks, for whatever reason. We had cheap, adequate housing in the barracks in Redding when I was a jumper but the NCSC overhead razed them forcing everyone to seek housing in the community, which costs money in transportation, utilities, etc. The North Zone overhead just saw the barracks as a big headache because grown men and women had alcohol in the refrigerators. There were a ridiculous amount of restrictions imposed and we were treated as little children who should “just be thankful we had a job”. I am so empathetic with today’s firefighters. It makes me livid that hotshot superintendents, who used to be the pinnacles of wild land firefighting, quitting over. stress, low pay, and working conditions.

      1. “…change was only effected in the face of catastrophe….”spot on brother…. History Joe! Never forget the lives of those we speak for, present we defend, and future hope…..Never Forget…..

  4. The problems with the recruitments of Wildland Firefighting Suppression is that there are too many egos, bigotries, hostile work environments, politics, and negative attitudes associated with this.

    1. Lucian that is just wrong. How many years have you spent in fire. As a nerd, a weakling, and all around outcast growing up, wildland fire has been the most excepting culture I have ever experienced. If you work hard it does not matter what your race, ethnicity, politics,sexual preference, etc is, you will be accepted. Being lazy is about the only thing I’ve ever seen the culture shun…I’ve seen this replicated on every module I’ve ever worked on for the last 20+ years. Sorry try harder.

      1. I don’t think it’s fair to discredit what Lucian has said. I was a career fire fighter. 14 years altogether. Contracting, hotshots, rappelling, graduated the apprenticeship program. Even got to work for the New Zealand Department of Conservation one off season.

        I have experienced more than a couple toxic leaders. And I can say I learned more about how not to lead from them any book or class. I’m happy for you that fire helped you with your self confidence, as it did for me too.

        But there is no accountability for hazardous leadership or creation of toxic work environments. The person that files a greivence or complains is most often the one to suffer. I’ve seen it.

        I would encourage to take a look at your response to what this person said, and examine if you take listening to what others have to say seriously, or whether or not only your perspective is only one that has truth to it.

        Maybe think about how you felt as a self described nerd, weakling, outcast and whether or not your response here is what would have been a healthy for you to hear.

  5. When was the last time a person held the FS Chief position who actually deserved it and had the respect of his/her employees? That’s not a rhetorical question.

  6. Why would Randy ever want that position is beyond me. Who was the Chief before him and the one before that. I have to give him credit for jumping into a sinking ship and trying patch the wholes, that is a hell of a project.

  7. Thom Harbor was the best National FMO we had. Thom told me after 18 months in DC you loose touch with reality….think about that…::

    1. If you knew “Thom” well enough for him to tell you that, you’d most likely know that his name is spelled “Tom.”

  8. The federal fire organization needs to be removed from the department of agriculture and re-built under the department of the interior. Working for fire chiefs just like all other fire departments. The current model is a complete failure and it all started when the district fire programs were removed from the forests fire cheifs line of authority. You have district rangers and forest supervisors trying to run the largest fire organization in the country that have zero fire experience. It’s all bad, let me put things into perspective for you, right now in the forest service you have college kids getting permanent GS-07/09/11 positions and 3 years after they begin a career they are gs-11’s. Now let’s look at the fire organization we have to risk our lives, to protect people and their property and be away from our families for 20 years before most of us make it to the gs-11 level. If that don’t tell you something is wrong and we work in the wrong organization nothing will. It’s sad to see an organization run the largest fire department in the country into the ground and turn what used to be a great career opportunity into something now I wouldn’t let my kids join. I have spent 23 years in this organization and I’m counting the days until I can retire.

  9. The current model is not working and will not work no matter how much money you throw at it. A fire organization or department needs to be managed like a fire department and the fire cheifs need to understand what’s taking place on the ground and understand its workforce. Having district rangers and forest supervisors that have little or no fire expierence and program understanding being our decision makers and removed forest fire chiefs be our voice to the regional and Washington offices is where the disconnect is. We need a federal fire service and a fire chief that leads the organization and their line of authority needs to run down to the first year firefighter. Get the organizational structure right and pay/benifits/facilities/equipment paired or close to it with our cooperaters and we can be successful.

    It’s sad to see how far this agency has let this program fall into disarray over the last 25 years. It’s imploding and I can’t with a strait face sit in front a group of young men and woman and tell them this agency is a good career choice. It’s going to take a a complete reset and sanitization for anyone to listen, and even then I don’t know if this agencies leadership will be able to make a course correction. The foundation of this organization is the implementers and untill we are allowed to be part of the solution the current course will be maintained and eventually their will be no more.

  10. Meanwhile, my region is talking about making the assistant positions 26/0. I keep just getting told about all this extra work we have coming because of the new crazy fuels targets.

    I have never seen an employer have so little to offer ask for so much. I mean really, I did a bunch of crap jobs in the private sector, from dishwashing to security guard to construction, cooking, janitor, whatever. But the FS is currently just blowing every one of those places right out of the water.

    It is comical. The sheer gravity of all the “serious” and “urgent” things that pop up in my emails all the time that are just purely trivial new and broken systems and the expectation that most people want to take that along with 1000 hour seasons and try to pay whatever crazy local rent to go do even more thinning and burning on the shoulders. It is collective madness.

    It isn’t just Cleveland Moore either, I mean, it is at nearly every level. My forest fire staff honestly just delivers what seem to me like new one-liners every week coming from whatever madness the region is pushing out. With the raises now getting pushed into next month?

    It is actually funny and with all the newer folks having smart phones and reddit and whatnot, it is even funnier. There is no way anymore that even the second year folks are going to swallow even a teaspoon of it, but it’s like no one even cares. I still get these corporate leadership style pitches on the absurd amount of things the FS is acting like we’re going to be able to do. It’s just pure bureaucratic Chernobyl.

  11. As others have shared the issues impacting wildland fire fighters have been building for many years. Take for example one aspect that has had a tremendous impact on pay, the annual COLA. This touches every federal employee under the GS pay scale. According to an article in FedSmtih the average COLA has dropped significantly since around 2010, https://www.scribd.com/document/490250711/Historical-Federal-Employee-General-Schedule-Pay-Raise-Percentages .

    Little to no COLAs since around 2010 has had a compounding impact of what all GS employees are paid today, not just firefighters. Doing some quick math, if, since around 2010, the annual COLA was at least 3% each of the last 13 years a CONUS GS-05 step 5 would be making about $5 more an hour today. This comes to around $10,000 annually, half the $20,000 bonus some firefighters are supposed to get some day. Think of how this plays into retirement calculations, overtime and hazard pay. This one factor that no Chief has any control over has and will forever have a great impact on all our pay and benefits. (Please note, this was some really quick math to come up with these figures. You should do your own research and verify these numbers.)

    I point this out to illustrate that the issues with firefighter pay are really a bigger issue. While I agree that the current Chief, last several Chiefs, and many other WO staff are failing on many levels there are other large factors that play into the state of affairs we currently have. The current President, past Presidents and Congress have a lot of the responsibility for where we are today.

    By in large pay issues fall squarely on the President’s and Congresses shoulders. We as citizens must collectively use our constitutional rights to advocate for change that only they have the power to make happen.

  12. From the ranger station to DC, one of the most ubiquitous line officer qualifications is a super-human willingness to ignore problems and marginalize employees who won’t.

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