Federal wildland firefighters to receive pay increase July 3, 2022

It will be temporary, until appropriated funds run out. New Wildland Firefighter job series created.

10 a.m. MDT June 21, 2022

Dixie Fire at Greenville, CA, 2021
Firefighter on the Dixie Fire at Greenville, CA, 2021. Photo by Jay Walter.

A statement issued by the White House today addressed changes in federal wildland firefighter pay that were required by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) passed by Congress last year. A temporary pay increase of $20,000 a year, or 50 percent of their base salary, whichever is less, was supposed to be implemented on October 1, 2021.

Firefighters will begin receiving the additional salaries July 3, 2022, with the retroactive pay due since October 1, 2021 to follow.

An unfortunately-worded section of the legislation said the temporary pay increase would only apply in locations where it is difficult to recruit or retain fire personnel. A Frequently Asked Questions document released today by the USDA, DOI, and OPM said it has been determined that it is difficult to recruit or retain wildland firefighters in every geographic area.

The FAQ document says Forest Service employees will begin receiving a series of three retroactive payments (due since October 1) within the next three pay periods. The supplemental salary increase ($20,000 a year, or 50 percent of their base salary) will begin July 3 (pay period 14).

Department of the Interior firefighters will receive the retroactive payments in the July 12 paycheck, with the supplemental salary increase beginning July 3 (pay period 15).

The hourly supplement will be used when computing overtime pay rates but will not count toward the high-3 average salary used to compute lifetime retirement annuities.

More details about the payments are in the FAQ document.

The Administration says they are “committed to finding a long-term solution to develop the more permanent, well-supported firefighting workforce needed to address the growing wildfire threat before the temporary salary supplements provided by BIL are exhausted.”

“New” job series

The legislation also required that a new job series be created for wildland firefighters, to replace the Forestry Technician or Range Technician series currently used. The statement says OPM released on June 21, 2022 the “new GS-0456, Wildland Firefighter series”. This series number previously existed 50 years ago, titled Fire Control Aids. Agencies will implement the series “in the coming months”. Modifications were made to the old series to reflect the changing nature of the fire season and the work. Changes included series definition, titling, knowledge required to perform wildland firefighting work, occupational information, and illustrations of work performed by wildland firefighters.

Current Federal firefighters will be able to choose whether to opt-in to the series or stay in their current occupations. The Administration said, “Creation of the new series will provide a clear career path for wildland firefighters with defined requirements for advancement. This will also facilitate mobility between wildland firefighter jobs… The new series does not make any changes to retirement.”

Other than “finding a long-term solution” there was no specific mention in the documents of a new permanent pay scale for firefighters in light of the new job series. But it is possible to modify grades within the series.

“Grades will change specifically as a result of the new position classification standard,” the FAQ document states. “The overall grading structure for the position classification standard includes grades 2 through 15. OPM, Interior, and Agriculture verified through the classification process that this grading structure is adequate. Agencies have the delegated authority to determine the work and grades supportable for their positions. Accordingly, the Departments will now apply the standard to evaluate specific positions within the occupational series.”

The Wildland Fire Management Series is aligned with OPM’s recently issued skills-based hiring guidance.

“While education institutions may offer associated college level degrees for this work,” according to the FAQ document, “the existence of degree availability and course content is not required for the performance of the work in the 0456 Wildland Fire Management series. In accordance with 5 U.S.C. 3308, OPM and Federal agencies are prohibited from prescribing education when the work can be performed without it. While training for this occupation is needed, the best training is on-the-job training. This correlates to qualification requirements and degree availability for the 0081, Firefighting occupation.”

Physical and mental health

Still another requirement in the legislation required the five agencies that employ wildland firefighters to increase their focus on wildland firefighters’ physical and mental wellbeing.

From today’s White House announcement:

The newly established joint DOI- U.S. Forest Service program will address mental health needs, including post-traumatic stress disorder care for permanent, temporary, seasonal and year-round wildland firefighters at both agencies, along with addressing environmental hazards to minimize on-the-job exposure for wildland firefighters. The joint program will also connect existing efforts and establish year-round prevention and mental health training for wildland firefighters and create critical incident stress management staffing response.  The Forest Service along with each of DOI’s wildland fire management bureaus — the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service — will also add staffing capacity specifically to focus on mental health and employee support efforts for firefighters.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly.