The proposed legislation that would increase the pay and the professional liability for some federal firefighters is still waiting for action in several House of Representatives subcommittees. The bill is named the “National Infrastructure Improvement and Cost Containment Act”, H.R. 4488, and is being pushed by Casey Judd and the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association. Wildfire Today has covered it at length and also hosted a live discussion about the bill.
The Press Enterprise, which frequently does a great job covering wildland fire issues, has an article about the bill. Here is an excerpt.
By BEN GOAD and DUG BEGLEY
Better pay and benefits and increased legal protection for the nation’s federal firefighters are needed to help reign in the increasing costs of battling wildfires across the country, say proponents of a bill making its way through Congress.
Compensating firefighters for all the time they spend at fire scenes and extending year-round health benefits to part-timers would help curb defections from the agency, they say. By strengthening its own ranks, the bill’s supporters say, the Forest Service would have to rely less on costly assistance from local and state fire departments.
Additionally, the legislation seeks to recognize the dangerous nature of firefighters’ work by changing their titles from “forestry technician” or “range technician” to “wildland firefighter.” It also would raise the mandatory retirement age from 57 to 65 in an effort to keep more veterans within the agency.
“If we can retain some of the younger folks that have been hopping ship, and we can keep some of that brain trust around for a few more years, we have a better opportunity to fill in the missing gaps of those federal resources,” said Casey Judd, business manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, which represents federal firefighters nationwide.
In 2008, there were more then 2,000 federal firefighters in Southern California, according to a U.S. Forest Service report. Local residents said a strong fire protection system is critical, and that includes having veteran firefighters ready to battle blazes on the vast swaths of federal land in the Inland area.
The pay changes would begin in a trial program expected to cost about $25 million over three years. Based on the trial, officials would assess whether it saves money; the hope is that the extra pay and benefit costs would be more than offset by savings related to the reduced dependence on other fire agencies, supporters said.
Outside agencies have negotiated lucrative contracts to assist the Forest Service firefighters on federal land, Judd said. The contracts often include administrative fees and the cost of housing contract firefighters in hotels, while Forest Service crews sleep in tents in makeshift fire camps, he said.
Federal firefighting costs have risen steadily in recent years, now totaling about $1.5 billion annually. In 2008, the government had to transfer $260 million from other accounts to cover firefighting. Officials expect firefighting to consumer more than half of the Forest Service’s discretionary budget by fiscal year 2011-12.
Introduced in January, the pay and benefits bill now sits before several House subcommittees, and it remains unclear how soon it might move forward. Judd spent much of the past week in Washington to drum up support and identify senators willing to take up the cause.
Forest Service spokesman Joe Walsh said officials in Washington are assessing the legislation and have yet to take a position.