Bill passes to allow injured firefighters to remain in enhanced retirement system

Lightning near the King Fire, Yosemite NP
Lightning near the King Fire, Yosemite NP, June 30, 2022. Photo by Jessica Lane @wilderjess_views.

Late Thursday night just before beginning their state work period the Senate passed a bill that will allow injured or disabled federal firefighters to remain in a 6C enhanced retirement position. They will continue receiving federal retirement benefits in the same manner as though they had not been disabled.

H.R.521, the First Responder Fair RETIRE Act, had already been passed by the House so its next step is the desk of the President.

Currently, federal law enforcement officers, firefighters, nuclear material couriers, and others are enrolled in and pay into a system whereby they may retire at the age of 57 or after 20 years of service. After all, “These are by definition high risk jobs,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.).

Connolly, a former county supervisor, explained that federal first responders are qualified under the law creating enhanced retirement system for an annuity after serving 20 years, but their annuity amount is calculated at a higher rate than other federal employees, recognizing the risks they take. “Unfortunately, not all federal first responders can complete those 20 years of service,” she added.

On the House floor during a short debate, Connolly described the experience of a smokejumper who parachuted out of a plane in 1985 and landed in a tree, was dropped 80 feet and broke his back in five places: “He died twice before he could be revived and evacuated,” Connolly noted. Ten years into his career, the firefighter chose to work in another position “but the reward for his bravery and his injury and service was his removal from the retirement system.”

President speaks at the Summit on Fire Prevention and Control

Firefighters on the North Complex
Firefighters on the North Complex, Plumas NF, Sept. 9, 2020. USFS photo by Kari Greer.

Today President Biden made remarks at the Summit on Fire Prevention and Control addressing the nation’s fire service leaders, commemorating Fire Prevention Week, honoring the bravery and heroism of our nation’s Firefighters, and discussing efforts to protect our communities and ensure Firefighter health and safety amidst the ongoing climate crisis. The summit happened during Fire Prevention Week, which began on Sunday. It is the 100th year of the week’s observance.

You can read the full text of his speech and see the video. Below are excerpts.

…And when the impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly evident, we’re calling on you more and more and more.

Extreme heat and prolonged drought have turned wildfire season into wildfire years.  And local firefighters are being called in more to respond to the fires in the wildland urban interface where we’re moving out into the forest areas to develop and it becomes local and federal.

So I want you to know that my administration is doing everything we can to make sure you have the resources you need to do your job as safely and effectively and efficiently as possible.

You know, we invested $350 billion in the American Rescue Plan to help states and local — states and cities keep first responders on the job, including firefighters on the job when — during COVID-19.

And between the American Rescue Plan and my 2023 budget request, we’ve increased federal firefighting grants by $320 million, which includes money to fund 1,200 more local firefighters in the field, hundreds more emergency response vehicles, and thousands — thousands of sets of turnout gear.  A pioneer in research on issues from — including like cancer prevention.

You know, it’s close to my heart.  Cancer is a leading killer of firefighters.  Toxic substances you’ve been exposed to as part of your job are almost certainly — certainly connected to those cancer diagnoses.  And we’re doing — we’re going to do something about it.

We created a special claims unit at the Department of Labor to ensure that they’re processing federal firefighters’ cancer claims quickly.

And I’m urging Congress to send to my desk the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act — let me say it again: the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act — which are going to help federal firefighters and their families assess critical worker compensation resources, including making sure that several forms of cancer are presumed to be caused — presumed to be caused by the firefighter’s job. [Note from Bill: the legislation passed overwhelmingly in the House, but it is bogged down in the Senate.]

And I’m also — I’m also proud that last November, I signed into law Protecting America’s First Responders Act, which extends the benefits under the Public Safety Officers’ Death Benefits Program to the families of firefighters killed in training and made it easier to qualify for permanent disability.

The final point — I’m sorry to go on so long, but I feel passionately about this.  The final point I’d like to make today is that we’re doing everything we can to ease the burden on our firefighters by preventing fires.  This is the 100th — hard to believe — it’s the 100th anniversary of Fire Prevention Week.  And the landmark legislation I’ve signed into law includes historic investments to reduce the risk of fire.

The Bipar- — the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes significant forest management, increases community resilience and — to wildfires, and harnesses new technologies to keep communities safe.  It’s also repairing vital infrastructure and — firefighters and other first responders rely on to quickly get to the — to those — those in need.

You know, the Inflation Reduction Act enables us to take unprecedented steps to confront climate crisis, which is going to protect forest health, reduce fire risk, and supercharge our clean energy future.

We’re also maximizing protections for people when fires do break out, through a national initiative to help states, local, and Tribal and territorial governments adapt and adopt the most up-to-date building codes that reflect the threats from the climate — from climate change.

Look, on behalf of my own family and every American, I just want to close by saying again: Thank you, thank you, thank you.  Fires will always be a fact of human life.  And when the worst happens, when those alarms go off, when everything and everybody you love is in danger, there’s no better sight in the world than that firefighter who’s ready to go to work.

So, thank you for being who you are.  Thank you for all the heroes you represent.  You are — you are on the alert and on call in communities all across this country right now as I speak.

So God bless you all.  And may God protect our firefighters.  Thank you for letting me have a chance to talk to you.  I wish our — I literally do wish I were there with you.  Thank you.  And thank you, Lori.

Senate unanimously passes bill to improve FEMA’s response to wildfires

The Camp Fire, November 8, 2018
The Camp Fire, November 8, 2018. NASA (Joshua Stevens) – NASA Landsat 8.

When most people think of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) what comes to mind is the assistance the agency provides before and after hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods. Part of their mission and the ways in which the assistance is supplied has been specified by the 1988 Stafford Act and before that, the Disaster Relief Act of 1974.

FEMA’s current procedures and requirements don’t always work for post-wildfire recovery needs, and a bill passed unanimously by the Senate Wednesday will help close some of those gaps. The FEMA Improvement, Reform, and Efficiency (FIRE) Act, S.3092, would help ensure that FEMA’s disaster preparedness and response efforts fully address the unique nature of wildfires and their impacts on communities.

If the bill is passed by the House of Representatives and signed by the President, FEMA would be able to pre-deploy resources during red flag warnings – periods of high fire danger, when catastrophic wildfires are most likely to start – just like they already do in advance of hurricane warnings.

The bill would also help ensure relocation assistance is accessible for public infrastructure in fire prone areas. It would improve FEMA’s response to wildfire-specific damage, such as repairing and mitigating contamination from damaged infrastructure.

If passed, it would have FEMA provide culturally-competent crisis counselors and case managers to ensure that underserved and disadvantaged communities receive equitable treatment when accessing federal disaster assistance. Tribal governments would be able to access financial assistance to upgrade their emergency operation centers, putting them on an equal standing with state and local governments.

Legislation could lengthen allowed federal wildland firefighter retirement break in service

It also addresses in a very limited way the rental rates of government housing

Firefighter bucks burning log
Firefighter bucks burning log. Northwest Area Coordination Center photo. 2022.

A bill to be introduced in the Senate would ensure that a federal wildland firefighter would not forfeit previously made contributions or eligibility for firefighter retirement if they have a voluntary break in service of less than 9 months. Some employees have been surprised after returning to their firefighter job after having to take care of children or other family members, to learn that the break in firefighter retirement coverage reset the clock. Their previous work as a firefighter no longer counted toward firefighter retirement and their 20-year period of covered work began again. It could be argued, why is there any limit on the break in service. Or, why couldn’t it be 5 years or 10 years?

Another provision will place a cap on a Federal wildland firefighter’s rent when they are required to occupy government housing. The maximum limit would be 40 percent of the person’s pre-tax salary. This is thought to affect a limited number of federal wildland firefighters, primarily in the National Park Service. The legislation says this change would be implemented “notwithstanding OMB Circular No. A-45R” which states, “rents and other charges may not be set so as to provide a housing subsidy, serve as an inducement in the recruitment or retention of employees, or encourage occupancy of existing Government housing.”

The rent for federal government housing is required by the OMB Circular to be “based upon an impartial study of comparable private rental housing.”

Nationally, rents rose a record 11.3 percent last year, according to real estate research firm CoStar Group.

The bill was announced Wednesday by U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and Chair of the committee Joe Manchin (D-WV). It is titled “Promoting Effective Forest Management Act of 2022.”

The Grassroots Wildland Firefighters played a part in getting these provisions into the proposed legislation. Kelly Martin, President, said she looks at them as placeholders or starting points.

There will be opportunities as it is being considered to modify the language, perhaps for example, to eliminate the break in service restriction for firefighter retirement coverage, and determine a method for setting housing rental rates that GS-3 firefighters making about $2,200 a month can afford, whether or not the employee is required to stay in government housing.

With difficulties in recruiting and retaining federal wildland firefighters, and hundreds of vacant positions, it may be time to modify the OMB Circular to allow rental rates to “serve as an inducement in the recruitment or retention of employees.”

The bill has not been introduced in the Senate yet and could be subjected to changes and amendments if it makes it that far through the process. It has several provisions that could garner votes from Republicans, such as quadrupling mechanical thinning targets, streamlining environmental reviews, and increasing grazing. Half a dozen organizations associated with logging submitted statements supporting the bill.

Other provisions in the legislation:

  • The FS shall develop a program that provides incentives for employees to grow in place without relocating.
  • The FS will be required to reduce the number of relocations of line officers, in order to increase the period of time that they work at a duty station.
  • The FS and the BLM are required to double their mechanical thinning targets by 2025 and quadruple them by 2027.
  • It allows counties and local governments to intervene in lawsuits intended to stop wildfire prevention projects on nearby National Forests.
  • It places a $100,000 cap on employee relocation expenses.
  • Job applicants will be solicited in a manner that does not limit eligibility to current Forest Service employees.
  • The FS shall work with States to develop a universal, tiered program to train people to enter the logging workforce, and to examine ways to facilitate apprenticeship training opportunities.
  • Within three years of passage of the legislation, every FS and BLM unit must use at least one of six streamlining methods for environmental review on a forest management project.
  • The Forest Service and the BLM are directed to develop a strategy to increase the use of grazing as a wildfire mitigation tool.

President signs legislation to recognize suicide as a line-of-duty death for first responders

Firefighter on the Cerro Paledo Fire
Firefighter on the Cerro Paledo Fire in New Mexico, May, 2022 by Blake McHugh.

Last week President Biden signed H.R. 6943, the Public Safety Officer Support Act, into law. The legislation expands death and disability benefits under the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) program to include first responders who die by suicide or are disabled by traumatic experiences.

The new law will:

  • Allow public safety officers to seek disability benefits for PTSD linked to severe trauma by directing the PSOB to designate work-related PTSD and acute stress disorders as a line of duty injury for eligible officers as well as those who are permanently disabled as a result of attempted suicide; and
  • Allow families of public safety officers who die by trauma-linked suicide to apply for death benefits by directing the PSOB to presume that suicides are a result of job duties in certain traumatic circumstances where there is evidence that PTSD or acute stress disorder would be the cause of the injury.

The bill states that first responders or their survivors may qualify for benefits if their suicide or post-traumatic stress disorder was related to being exposed to “a harrowing circumstance posing an extraordinary and significant danger or threat to the life of or of serious bodily harm to any individual.” There are other requirements and details which are in the copy of the five-page bill below:

[pdf-embedder url=”” title=”H.R. 6943″]

CNN covers legislation that would increase pay for federal wildland firefighters

Updated at 9:20 a.m. EDT July 31, 2022

The House of Representatives narrowly passed the legislation Friday. Now it goes to the Senate.

12:46 EDT, July 27, 2022

Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act
Rep. Joe Neguse interviewed on CNN July 27, 2022 about the Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act.

In this video from CNN, Brianna Keilar interviews Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse about the Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act, H.R. 5118, which would benefit wildland firefighters. It boosts their pay and benefits, helps the Forest Service fill gaps in fire management staff, and promotes bigger forest management projects to reduce hazardous fuels.

The bill is a conglomeration of half a dozen pieces of legislation,  including the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Pay Parity Act (H.R. 5631), all rolled into one. It would require that the minimum basic pay for any Federal wildland firefighter position be no less than the pay for a GS-6 Step 3, which is $42,946 a year ($21.29 an hour).  It would also stipulate that the salary be adjusted annually by not less than the change in the Consumer Price Index.