On Thursday, January 21, Representative Bob Filner (D, California) introduced into the House of Representatives a bill, the “National Infrastructure Improvement and Cost Containment Act”, that would affect the pay, retirement age, and fireline liability of federal wildland firefighters. Here are some key points of the bill, which was given the number H.R. 4488 (the full text is HERE):
- Retirement age: The bill would change the mandatory retirement age for a wildland firefighter from 57 to 65.
- Outsourcing: It adds protection from outsourcing for the five major federal land management agencies, the USFS, BLM, NPS, USF&WS, and the BIA.
- Wildland Firefighter series: It requires that the Office of Personnel Management develop a “separate and distinct wildland firefighter occupational series that will more accurately reflect the variety of duties performed by wildland firefighters.” Anyone who is currently in the 401 series would have the option of transferring to the new Wildland Firefighter series.
- Portal-to-Portal: $25 million would be authorized to begin a pilot program in which firefighters would be paid for “all time the firefighter is away from their official duty station assigned to an emergency incident, in support of an emergency incident, or pre-positioned for emergency response”. Standard overtime rules would apply and employees would be exempt from premium pay limitations. The pilot program would begin “with the 2010 wildfire season”. The Department of Agriculture and Interior would participate in the pilot program which would not exceed three calendar years.
- Non-Federal resources: The bill requires that during the pilot program there would be reductions in the amount of fire suppression funds expended on non-Federal fire suppression resources.
- Hazardous Duty Pay would be treated as part of base pay for retirement purposes. And the following is a little vague, but it appears that firefighters would receive hazard duty pay for all the time they are “on the fire line of any wildfire or prescribed fuel treatment burn or fire“, regardless of the control status.
- Benefits for Seasonal Wildland Firefighters: there are some changes related to the availability of life insurance for seasonal wildland firefighters.
- Buy Back of Previous Firefighting Time: there are changes related to the buy back of work time and how it relates to retirement.
- “Sec. 8. Firefighter Liability”: The bill requires that for every fatality to a firefighter or other employee of the U.S. Forest Service and now the four Dept. of Interior land management agencies due to an entrapment or “burrower”, the department’s Inspector General (IG) shall conduct an investigation. This requirement has been in effect for the U.S. Forest Service, only, since the 2002 Cantwell-Hastings bill, and has resulted in witch hunts, attorney fees, and jail time for firefighters who make mistakes on the fireline. The bill would repeal the provisions of the 2002 bill regarding the IG investigations for USFS fatalities but replaces it with similar requirements that would apply to the USFS and the Dept. of Interior wildland firefighters. The bill does, however, require that IG investigators “have the necessary training, skills, and experience to competently conduct the investigation”, but does not specify what training, experience, and skills are required. It goes on to say “The investigations and accompanying reports shall be used by all land management agency fire programs to build upon the concept of lessons learned from the fire event. It is not the intent of Congress that the investigations and reports would be used to find fault or place blame for a fatality, but rather to recognize that wildland firefighting is an inherently dangerous occupation and to reduce the number of fatalities from due to wildfire entrapment or burrower.”
I will have to assume that a term that repeatedly shows up in the bill, “burrower”, is a typo, and they really mean “burnover”. An unexpected consequence of spell-check run by an intern?
It is interesting, ironic, and insulting that the portion of the bill that is named “Sec. 8. Firefighter Liability” actually adds to and worsens the liability problems for wildland firefighters, spreading the IG witch hunts further, now into the Department of Interior.
That section is worrisome. I don’t see the need to double down on the ill-conceived requirement of IG investigations on fatalities. Originally thought in 2002 that it would enhance safety for the U.S. Forest Service, it has had the unintended consequence of making it difficult or impossible to glean any lessons learned, since firefighters involved in a burrower burnover or major accident are now lawyering-up and refusing to speak to investigators.
The simple statement in the bill that the intent is not to “find fault or place blame” will not prevent the IG’s law enforcement officers, fresh out of Basic Wildland Firefighter training, who will be conducting investigations, from doing just that–finding fault and placing blame. That is what they do every day in their law enforcement job.
And more firefighters may go to jail for mistakes made in the heat of a wildfire battle.
The intent of the 2002 bill, now law, was to enhance safety, but it did the opposite. Intent means nothing. Intent is crap.
The bill has been referred to four committees:
House Oversight and Government Reform
House Natural Resources
House Armed Services
The bill has only been introduced in the House and referred to committees. Other than than that no action has been taken. But this is a huge and very positive step, and much credit must be given to Casey Judd of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association who has been pursuing this legislation for years.
The best case scenario is that the bill will make it out of the four committees unscathed (except for the removal of the Liability section), will be approved by the full House, similar action will occur in the Senate, and then will be signed by the President. The worst case is that the bill will die in the committees and never receive consideration in the full House. Or there could be something in between, with the text of the bill being changed or watered down.
If you have an interest in this bill you should visit the web sites of the four committees listed above and see if a Representative from your state sits on one or more of them. If so, a letter or a phone call to their offices could make a difference.
Wildfire Today supports this bill, but only if the “Sec. 8. Firefighter Liability” portion is removed, or completely rewritten to eliminate the Inspector General offices from the process and specify in their place a real professional-quality Serious Accident Review Team composed of subject matter experts, not cops.
The cops in the IGs’ offices should not be asked to step far out of their training and experience to make judgments about wildland fire behavior, strategy, tactics, and human factors. Nor should firefighters investigate the fatality of a law enforcement officer. It takes decades to become an expert in the field of wildland fire. It takes longer to become a Type 1 Incident Commander on a fire than it does to become a brain surgeon.
You can follow the progress of the bill HERE.
UPDATE at 9:40 MT, January 26, 2010:
One of the folks who commented, Michael, asked if the bill applied to AD firefighters. I pasted more information about that in a response to his comment below in the “Responses”, but to me this question is still up in the air. There is a possibility that nothing in this bill would apply to AD firefighters OR “militia” employees.
If that is the case, it is a shame for a number of reasons. If it did apply to them, it would have had a very positive effect on the number of people that would have made themselves available for fire and incident management team assignments. Wildfire Today covered HERE some of the problems caused by a lack of participation on incident management teams.
Live Discussion, Thursday night
We will have a live discussion about this legislation Thursday night, featuring Casey Judd, Business Manager of the FWFSA. More information is HERE.