Today the Government Accountability Office released a report about the difficulties the federal agencies are having recruiting and retaining wildland firefighters.
Congress requested the report, but apparently did not ask for recommendations. The 41-page document identifies numerous issues that adversely affect recruitment and retention, most of which are already well known to the five agencies that employ wildland firefighters — Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The report goes into detail about each of the major challenges, after receiving input from officials in the five agencies and a sample of 16 nonfederal stakeholders—including nongovernmental organizations representing active and retired federal firefighters and other organizations involved in firefighting issues, such as the National Association of State Foresters and the Western Governors’ Association.
Low pay was the most commonly cited barrier to recruiting and retaining federal wildland firefighters. Officials and all 16 stakeholders stated that the pay, which starts at $15 per hour for entry-level positions, is low. Officials and eight stakeholders also noted that the pay does not reflect the risk or physical demands of the work. Moreover, officials and stakeholders said that in some cases, firefighters can earn more at nonfederal firefighting entities or for less dangerous work in other fields, such as food service.
Some of the efforts being taken to improve hiring and retention are mentioned, including addressing pay, and offering slightly more time at home between fire assignments.
But much remains to be done, especially towards pay and a new Wildland Firefighter job series, which the five agencies have made very little progress developing.
Jaelith Hall-Rivera is the Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry, and her boss is the Chief of the US Forest Service, Randy Moore. Jaelith’s department is Fire and Aviation Management, which houses the wildfire programs that firefighters work. There is no excuse for her testimony to differ from her bosses testimony, yet that is exactly what happened. It’s almost as if Jaelith’s press release came out before Chief Moore testified the previous day in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee. While Jaelith assured California representatives that they were on pace to have full staffing in California, just 30 days later Chief Moore testified that California, Oregon and Washington may be 50% staffed, something Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley called, “a scary situation.”
Multiple articles have been published since Jaelith’s testimony on April 5th, pointing out that she falsely painted a rosy picture to legislators when the situation was dire. Read excellent articles about the testimony fromNBC News,Thomson Reuters andBuzzFeed, andlisten to the audio of an NPR interview with the BuzzFeed reporter.
Jaelith testified on April 5th that their goal for staffing was 11,300 wildland firefighters, stating “and that is an increase.” But looking at amemo from Jaelith last fall, she claims that the USFS provided bonuses to 11,300 wildland firefighters (GS3-9 only) last year. So even if they are at 90% of that now, then that represents a 10% LOSS at minimum. Something is wrong here: either Jaelith lied about the numbers, or the USFS sent bonuses to a lot of people last year that should not have received them. Either way, it doesn’t instill confidence in the Forest Service Management.
There is a lie somewhere, and the misrepresentation to Representative Porter is infuriating for a workforce. Claiming we are on pace to be fully staffed when the spring fire hire event had not even started is misrepresenting the truth, at best. Especially when the same Fire Hire event in 2021only netted an additional 56 hires. Why would this year be any different when the work environment and pay have continued to devolve?
Finally, Randy Moore decided to do some damage control and admit that although they were at 90% nationally, in some areas such as California, Oregon and Washington, staffing was as low as 50%. Again, that’s a shocking statement, but the numbers still don’t add up.
California makes up about 50% of the USFS firefighting workforce, so if they are near 50%, as well as Oregon and Washington, then how can we realistically be above 60-75% staffing nationally? This is 4th grade math: averages.
As a workforce, we simply want truth and transparency. That’s really the minimum. There can’t be that many FMOs in the USFS. Tell each of them to spend 30 minutes entering in the data from their district so we know exactly what positions are vacant. And make this database public and searchable. This database would take a GS6 a day or two to complete, and another 30-60 minutes for each FMO to fill out. Until this project is completed, we can assume the USFS either has no idea what their staffing level is, or they are lying about it.
I want to offer solutions whenever I offer criticism, so here are a few more:
1. Explain very clearly what the holdup is with the funded infrastructure pay raises, and what your plan is for payments including backpay as stated by law.
2. Explain your goal for what a career ladder looks like, even if it doesn’t become reality. Will we be able to have a living wage? Or should we get out now?
3. Start showing some receipts. Show you care. Why are NFFE and Grassroots Wildland Firefighters lobbying the Secretary of Labor instead of our own agency? Why are senators asking for OWCP reforms instead of our own agency? My friend was seriously injured and the USFS told him to call a charity. Is that acceptable to those in the Washington Office?
4. Rebuild the credibility of the USFS Washington Office by including an average employee (GS5-7) on all planning and workforce related meetings. Allow them to represent the workforce, and to the workforce. This would be a detail assignment
5. Explain exactly how we can increase not only our female participation in the workforce (6% of Fire workforce), but other minorities as well as LGBTQ individuals and what actionable items are happening now to make that happen.
6. Credibility only comes with transparency. Our workforce has never been more united and connected through shared struggle and technology. We have more knowledge of the situation than our predecessors and can see through the misinformation and deceit. We will not sit by idly or submit to threats from the DC office. Accountability, authenticity and transparency are not optional anymore.
I understand that the USFS did not ask for these new reforms in classification and pay, but they are here now, and our workforce needs them. But not just firefighters, the whole USFS workforce needs to be brought into the modern federal workforce that exists seemingly in every other agency.
I am optimistic that better times are ahead, but our leadership needs to show their hand a bit more, and offer some hope and motivation for those of us that are putting our physical and mental health on the line every single day for our employer and our country.
An analysis of their pay and costs of living found that federal wildland firefighters can’t afford to live in most counties in the Western United States. The study was conducted by a seasonal wildland firefighter with a background in government budgeting and financing who is currently pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy. It can shed light on some of the reasons firefighters are leaving the federal agencies in large numbers and why Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said last week that only 50 percent of Forest Service firefighter positions are filled in some Western areas.
The analysis for GS03 through GS09 firefighters assumed that they work 680 hours of overtime each year, which in a six-month fire season works out to 26 overtime hours each week. It is not unusual for them to work more than 1,000 O/T hours in what has become a normal year, but it can be much less in a very slow fire year. Working extremely long hours away from home with few days off is another reason why firefighters are getting burned out, suicide rates are very high, and family life is challenging.
If the analysis only considered base salary with no overtime, it is likely that the results would have been far different.
A county was considered affordable if it fell within what was described as the common “50-30-20” personal budgeting strategy. This strategy says that 50 percent of someone’s income should be spent on necessities, 30 percent on non-essential purchases, and 20 percent on savings / retirement.
Below are the first five paragraphs of the three-page analysis. You can download the full Microsoft Word document here.
Advocacy groups like the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters and National Federation of Federal Employees have spent the last several years highlighting the pay and retention issues facing the wildland firefighting workforce. These efforts were successful when a roughly 50 percent pay increase for federal wildland firefighters was included in the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure bill.
However, federal wildland firefighters have yet to see this money hit their paychecks. One reason for this delay is that the bill included language that the pay increase would only apply to “difficult to recruit / retain” locations. Although Congress intended this pay increase to apply to every wildland firefighter, there are reports that the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Interior are looking for a “data-based” justification that may cut some wildland firefighters out of the intended raise. The U.S. Forest Service reported they are conducting “initial analysis comparing average federal and state wages and house purchasing power for firefighters (delineated to common wildland fire geographic areas) … to determine a ‘specified geographic area that is difficult to recruit or retain.’”
This analysis [conducted by the firefighter] compared the salaries of the 2022 GS03 to GS09 pay rates to three cost of living factors: the price of a 1 bedroom rental, monthly food costs, and the total monthly costs of owning a car. Since wildland firefighters rely heavily on overtime and hazard pay, this analysis assumed a firefighter works a six-month season with about 680 hours of overtime but 0 hours of hazard pay. Counties were determined to be affordable if less than 50 percent of salaries went to cost of living. Healthcare, childcare, utility, and retirement costs were not included in this analysis. See end of report for details on methodology.
This analysis found that the average cost of living in western counties was $2304 a month. The most expensive county with significant federal public lands presence was Skamania County, just northeast of Portland, Oregon at $3137 a month (Gifford-Pinchot National Forest). Sierra County, south of Albuquerque, New Mexico (Gila National Forest) was the least expensive at $1742 a month.
The majority of Western counties were not determined to be affordable on a GS03-GS09 salary, since living expenses far exceeded 50 percent of wildland firefighter salaries. The following table shows what percent of income a federal wildland firefighter at different GS levels would expect to spend on basic needs across the Western U.S.
In a May 5 post published on the U.S. Forest Service’s “Leadership Corner”, the person who oversees Fire and Aviation Management in the agency, Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry Jaeligh Hall-Rivera, laid out a list of improvements she wants to see for Forest Service firefighters. Here is a summary:
“Ensure our firefighters are paid equally for the difficult job they do”
“Increase our firefighting capacity, this year and beyond”
“We must do something about the critical affordable housing shortages”
“We must also build sustainable career paths for wildland firefighters”
“A permanent pay increase, a job series that recognizes the unique and hazardous work firefighters do, upward career mobility, a safe, harassment-free work environment and a resilient work-life balance”
“Bringing more women into the wildland fire workforce and removing obstacles to help them thrive there”
“A sustainable, long-term solution for increased pay”
“I am personally committed to making these changes”
“I will be hosting a ‘FAM to boots’ session where I can share our most recent information and progress on these efforts”
Near the end of the essay Ms. Hall-Rivera wrote, “Please be assured, we are fully backing all these changes to continue improving our wildland fire system.”
She linked to an update that was posted February 2 about the efforts toward addressing firefighter pay and classification, initiatives that are required by an act of Congress passed in 2021. The Office of Personnel Management ordered that the work on a new Wildland Firefighter occupational series be completed “by May.” The February update stated that concerning pay, the “Goal is to have increased payments into paychecks by this summer, either by implementing this provision or using the awards payments model employed last year if we can’t fully implement this provision in FY 22.”
Before a Congressional committee on April 5, Ms. Hall-Rivera testified that a firefighter hiring event “went very well” and that they were “on pace” to meet the hiring targets. It turns out that the event had not started yet.
Before a different Committee on May 5 her boss, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, testified that their goal is to hire 11,300 firefighters nationwide and the current level is at 10,200, or 90 percent. He said in some areas the agency has only reached 50 percent of their staffing goal.
In her May 5 post, Ms. Hall-Rivera addressed, to a degree, the conflicting testimonies:
The information on the status of our fire hiring events I used at that time left some wondering if we are up to speed here in Washington, DC. Let me update the record on the emerging picture from those hiring events. As of mid-April, we are at 90% of our planned 11,300 wildland firefighters (including those currently onboarding and offers pending).
“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry from his book "The Little Prince"
Few details were offered about how, when, and by whom this long list of initiatives would be accomplished, other than the efforts toward a new Occupational Series and firefighter pay. Using phrases like, “We must do something about…” can lead the reader to presume that very little thought has gone toward that particular goal. Although “goal” may be too lofty a description. “Wish” might be more appropriate.
Having been involved in many meetings and planning sessions where objectives were clearly articulated, I know that little gets done unless:
A person is appointed to lead the effort, and they are given the resources needed to get it done.
A completion date is specified, to which they are held.
Chief Randy Moore testified Wednesday before the Senate Appropriations Committee
In testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore was asked by Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley about the status of hiring wildland firefighters. Chief Moore said their goal is to hire 11,300 nationwide and the current level is at 10,200, or 90 percent. He said in some areas the agency has only reached 50 percent of their staffing goal.
“Fifty percent sounds a little scary,” said Senator Merkley, ” when you’re thinking about the fires that we’ll be facing in our various states.”
Chief Moore said many of the Forest Service’s firefighting positions are in Washington, Oregon, and California.
“We are making offers, and there’s a lot of declinations in those offers,” Chief Moore said. “There’s a lot of competition in the labor market for these skills. Because when you have county, state, and private firefighters often sometimes [making] double the salaries the Forest Service firefighters are making it’s very hard to compete with that.”
Chief Moore said they have a plan in place to make up for the shortfall that they are currently seeing. They will be hiring through July to try to fill the remaining jobs and will count on contracted firefighters and the use of Administratively Determined, or AD, temporary personnel. The ADs, if they are qualified, can be hired for days or weeks to staff fire engines and hand crews, and can also fill certain overhead positions at fires.
The Chief’s words were different from those spoken by another very high-ranking person in the Forest Service. In Congressional testimony on April 5, the US Forest Service Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry testified before members of Congress that a firefighter hiring event “went very well”. It turns out that the event had not started yet.
“We just completed an additional fire hire event in California at the end of March and those numbers are still coming in,” Ms. Jaelith Hall-Rivera said. “I do think we are on pace. By all accounts that hiring event went very well. Importantly what we are seeing is a very high acceptance rate in our permanent and seasonal permanent firefighting positions, which is what we want.”
In recent years the federal agencies with wildland firefighting responsibilities have had difficulties hiring and retaining firefighters, resulting in engines and hotshot crews that can’t respond to fires because there are not enough employees to staff them to minimum standards. The reasons cited for resignations, early retirements, and declinations of job offers include very low pay, extensive time away from home, failure of the government to financially support personnel injured on the job, and stress on family life.
On Monday National Public Radio’s flagship station in Southern California, KCRW, interviewed Brianna Sacks, a Buzzfeed News reporter who has been covering the hiring and retention issues faced by the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies that have wildland fire responsibilities.
“The burnout is really real for these firefighters who are making no money. They make their living doing thousands of hours of overtime and they still can’t afford to make ends meet,” Sacks told KCRW. “They’ve been leaving en masse, hemorrhaging firefighters to go to CAL FIRE, PG&E, or private sector jobs. And they’ve also been part of the great resignation with the pandemic.”
On Monday National Public Radio’s flagship station in Southern California, KCRW, interviewed Brianna Sacks, a Buzzfeed News reporter who has been covering the hiring and retention problems faced by the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies that have wildland fire responsibilities.
“The burnout is really real for these firefighters who are making no money. They make their living doing thousands of hours of overtime and they still can’t afford to make ends meet,” Sacks tells KCRW. “They’ve been leaving en masse, hemorrhaging firefighters to go to CalFire, PG&E, or private sector jobs. And they’ve also been part of the great resignation with the pandemic.”
You can listen to the entire 8-minute interview by clicking below.