This week Grassroots President Luke Mayfield sent a letter to USDA leadership and key Congressional members concerning the lack of movement on the Wildland Firefighter Pay Protection Act — here’s an excerpt from the letter.
“The debate over the remaining funds from the Bipartisan lnfrastructure Law is a distraction to conjure false narratives; one is administrative mismanagement and the other that the federal wildland workforce is not facing a fiscal cliff. Rather than action to address the crisis at hand, these arguments try to avoid accountability for the lack of leadership, which could bring thousands of wildland firefighters to the brink of a pay cliff.”
The federal wildland firefighter workforce can no longer be sacrificed without long-term and catastrophic consequences. Workforce and systemic reforms must become congressional and administrative priorities.
The purpose of the letter is to clearly outline and document our intent for agency leadership and Congressional decision-makers.
To read the entire letter for perspective on what’s going on in the Capitol, click [HERE]. Our organization wants to make sure stakeholders are not misguided by rumors or false narratives from named or unnamed sources.
Did you know federal firefighters are up for a big pay cut at the end of September? They are. You agree with that? We don’t either.
The federal government’s fiscal year runs from October 1 of one calendar year through September 30 of the next, and if Congress doesn’t act to pass legislation, then the current temporary funding to retain firefighters runs out! This puts federal firefighters and their families in a helluva bind — they will be forced to choose between staying in a job they love with dramatically less pay, or finding better-paying work to get by. The Forest Service itself has testified before Congress that without a permanent pay solution, somewhere between 30 percent and 50 percent of its firefighters will leave the ranks — triggering unsafe work environments for remaining fire crews and leaving many fires unstaffed.
Join with us and the GRASSROOTS WILDLAND FIREFIGHTERS and sign this petition to make sure Congress knows what’s at stake here. “We will give the signed petition to each member of Congress,” says Riva Duncan, the organization’s vice president, “and we’ll urge them to avoid the Firefighter Fiscal Cliff. Please share this petition with your family, friends, colleagues — and anyone else who cares about this nation’s beloved public lands.”
Learn more about the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters and how you can help here:
Finding time and priority for our health is key for firefighters and fire managers. This week, we offer four activities for you to pick and choose or preferably quadruple-up, starting with two online meetings on Jan. 26 that will highlight initiatives to improve firefighter working conditions.
The announcement notes that “The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recently updated its classification of the firefighting occupation to Group 1, ‘carcinogenic to humans,’ after conducting a new international study that found sufficient evidence linking cancer risk to the occupation. The danger is real, but there are strategies and resources that can reduce risk, enhance survival, and support firefighters.”
(2) Later on Thursday (and on Pacific Time), the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters offer their quarterly update starting at 5:30 pm PST. Register here or find out more at their home page at www.grwff.com. This quarter’s updates will likely discuss recent legislation concerning preemptive cancer coverage in the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act and other Grassroots WFF initiatives, as well as the announcement by outgoing president Kelly Martin of the incoming board, which features Luke Mayfield – President, Riva Duncan – Vice President, Bobbie Scopa – Secretary, and Jami Egland – Treasurer. Kudos to Martin’s work with GRWFF and wishing for continued success to the new board.
As the USFA notes, “By adding your information to the National Firefighter Registry (NFR), you can help researchers better understand how your work affects the risk of getting cancer and how to lower this risk. According to National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) research, cancer is a leading cause of death among firefighters, and research suggests firefighters are at higher risk for certain types of cancers when compared to the general population.”
A direct link to the NIOSH NFR website is at https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/firefighters/registry.html. Initially the Registry was anticipated to open this past fall; it’s now scheduled to open this winter for confidential sharing of cancer diagnoses and work histories. As the NFR notes, “The more firefighters who sign up for the registry through its secure web portal, the more information researchers will have to learn about cancer in the fire service and how to protect firefighters from developing cancer in the line of duty.”
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!
Congratulations to Grassroots Wildland Firefighters (GWF) for being selected as one of the recipients for the 2021 Paul Gleason Lead by Example award. Three individuals and one group from across the wildland fire service have been chosen to receive this national award.
The award was created by the NWCG Leadership Committee to remember Paul Gleason’s contributions to the wildland fire service. During a career spanning five decades, Paul was a dedicated student of fire, a teacher of fire, and a leader of firefighters. The intent of this award is to recognize individuals or groups who exhibit this same spirit and who exemplify the wildland fire leadership values and principles. GWF’s work in support of the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program has been a demonstration of motivation and vision.
The GWF organization is recognized for tirelessly advocating and lobbying legislators and members of the executive branch to create a better system of support for our valued federal firefighting resources. Their advocacy efforts have given a voice and face to the wildland firefighter, highlighting the challenges we face. Through it all, they have remained professional, never seeking credit, relaying simple facts, and respecting federal agencies during briefings and through press releases.
GWF is commended for successful efforts to establish a federal fire series, implement pay improvements, and bring about OWCP reform. These efforts are a welcome relief to a weary federal wildland fire service. Their vision through the Tim Hart Act, if enacted, would dramatically impact the wildland fire service in terms of pay, recruitment/retention, and the health and mental well-being of the federal wildland firefighter.
60% report that their partners have been impacted by an incident at work that resulted in mental health challenges
The Grassroots Wildland Firefighters (GWF) group has released information about their latest effort to focus on the issues of mental health and comprehensive well-being of firefighters.
In the summer of 2021, GWF made an anonymous survey available to partners and spouses of federal wildland firefighters. In completing the survey, 1,841 respondents shared their experiences as the loved one of a federal wildland firefighter, shedding light on what it’s like to raise a family, manage a household, and support firefighters battling mental health issues.
The results were astounding, according to the GWF. They revealed that:
73.1% of respondents regularly worry about the possibility of a tragic accident on the fireline. And 65.4% lack confidence in the agency to take care of them if something were to happen to their partner while on duty.
60.2% report that their partners have been impacted by an incident at work that resulted in mental health challenges. Of those respondents whose partners reached out for help, only 2.8% strongly agreed that the agency’s Employee Assistance Program was helpful.
Extended absence physically and/or emotionally was the number one stressor reported as “extremely impactful” to respondents.
For suggested areas of future support, wildland firefighters’ partners indicated that the top three areas they’d rate as “extremely helpful” were: higher pay to reduce financial stress (88.0%), year-round access to health care for seasonal firefighters (80.2%), and access to mental health professionals who understand fire culture (58.3%).
When given the opportunity to comment freely, survey respondents said things like:
“It is really hard being a partner to a wildland firefighter; his mental health has really deteriorated in the last few years. More stress with his newer roles and very little pay to compensate for it. There really aren’t enough resources for him to find help with the mental health issues he’s been having.”
“The mental health issues seem to have compounded over time with the nature of the job but also the loss of friends and co-workers to fire related deaths and suicide.”
The GWF said as another fire season begins it is urgent that Congress move forward in the House of Representatives to pass the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act. (H.R. 5631). The legislation bears the name of a firefighter who died while working on the Eicks Fire in New Mexico in 2021. It would address many of the heartbreaking issues wildland firefighters and their partners face, including raising firefighter pay, creating a wildland firefighter job series, providing health care and mental health services to temporary and permanent wildland firefighters, housing stipends, and other improvements. (More details are in the Wildfire Today article from October 19, 2021.)
“Tim would be humbled and honored to have this legislation be a part of his legacy,” said Smokejumper Tim Hart’s wife Michelle Hart. “These issues were deeply important and personal to him. Wildland firefighters deserve to be recognized and compensated for the grueling conditions in which they work and for putting their lives on the line every day. This legislation is a major step forward in achieving that goal.”
"We've given too much for too little for too long," said one survey respondent.
The video below has more information about the partners and spouses survey.