During a hearing today before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee a number of issues important to federal wildland firefighters were discussed. The two witnesses from the agencies were John Crockett, Associate Deputy Chief, State and Private Forestry, Forest Service, and Jeff Rupert, Director of the Office of Wildland Fire for the Department of the Interior.
We don’t have time to get into the details, but here are the points at which some key topics were covered in the video above, which shows the entire hearing:
45:19. Three-day break in service which can result in a firefighter (FF) losing eligibility for FF retirement.
49:50. Forest Service counting the same acres of fuel treatments multiple times.
54:47. FF mental health.
1:00:00. Protecting Giant Sequoias from fire during their 3,000-year life span.
1:06:30. How many firefighting aircraft do the agencies have?
1:22:20. FF pay, and a long term solution.
1:27:50 and again at 1:37:30. A possible new requirement for air tankers to have pressurized cabins.
1:33:45. Why have the agencies not accomplished more acres of fuel treatments?
The Grassroots Wildland Firefighters clipped portions of the hearing, as you’ll see in the short videos below.
Senator Murkowski asks the USFS and DOI about long-term pay for Federal Wildland Firefighters:
Senator Heinrich asks the DOI what they are doing for Firefighter Mental Health:
Forest Service and DOI Respond to Three-Day Break In Service Issue for Wildland Firefighters:
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:
It will be temporary, until appropriated funds run out. New Wildland Firefighter job series created.
10 a.m. MDT June 21, 2022
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.
When you have been impacted by a disaster of any kind you are frightened, scared, often very angry and the last thing you need is to fill out forms and answer numerous questions from strangers clamoring to HELP you. So why is it that the majority of our disaster assistance and recovery programs at all levels fail to understand that emotional issues can seldom be resolved by analytical processes?
At a hazards mitigation conference I once attended, one subject kept coming up (albeit often in side conversations): how can we do better with natural hazards preparedness and mitigation? At all levels of government and private industry, the fact that billions of dollars are being spent annually often with very little result is becoming a major concern. That the largest risk companies now estimate that the cost of hazards damage is starting to become incalculable is scaring even the wealthiest countries. The big elephant in the room was the fundamental question of whether it is even possible to understand a subject with massive emotional dynamics through analytical means.
Should this be approached in a very different way? Any victim of a disaster in which their world has imploded in 5 minutes is naturally frightened, upset, and scared. To introduce a program of any kind, no matter how well-intentioned, that does not explicitly recognize this adds additional trauma, leading to complex issues lasting for years.
Two of the presenters at the conference made a huge impact: elders from the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana; and Sallie Clark, a Commissioner for El Paso County, Colorado. Their messages were different, but interconnected. In sum, they both stressed the importance of knowing your community and reacting in both a human and efficient systems way, or as Sallie stated so eloquently “Yes, indeed we need to be efficient in our response to a disaster — but let’s not forget that sometimes they just need a hug.”
The Chitimacha (Sitimaxa, “people of the many waters”) are famous because when the FEMA team got to their reservation three weeks after hurricane Katrina, they had already taken care of most of the damage. Communication in the tribe took place mostly by word of mouth, with CB radio assistance. Within 24 hours after the storm had passed, all 1,100 members of the tribe had been contacted by a tribal council team and all needs, both physical and emotional, were being attended to. Rebuilding had started, and in many cases was complete. A major focus of the tribal council was on emotional support, and this ran consistently throughout everything they were doing.
Sallie was doing something similar after the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire devastated her Colorado Springs community. That wildfire was one of the most destructive in Colorado history. It took two lives, destroyed 347 homes, forced tens of thousands to evacuate, and insurance claims topped $450M. Sallie’s response: identify everyone impacted, ensure they have a case officer attending their needs both physical and emotional, and simply make sure they have a shoulder to cry on. She personally drove to evacuation shelters and made sure this was being done and gave anyone a hug who needed it. A truly shining example of “WE CARE!”
The holidays at the end of the year can be tough for many people, including wildland firefighters. With that in mind we are re-running this article from a few months ago.
Wildland firefighters on crews that are often deployed on endless 14-day assignments far from home may become acclimated to the high energy adrenaline-fueled environment. They are part of a team working toward the same clear objective, constructing fireline, installing hose lays, or mopping up. The goal is usually very obvious, and when done they can look back and see what they accomplished while part of a group that over months together could complete each other’s sentences. They know what each would do when faced with a pulse-elevating situation, or how they deal with boredom while waiting for a ride back to fire camp.
When the fire season is over, their environment goes through a metamorphose. Almost overnight they may find themselves with their spouse, significant other, children, parents, non-fire friends, or, alone — a completely different situation from the previous six months. Some firefighters adapt more easily than others. Those that don’t, may experience mental health issues and mild or severe depression. Spouses or children of the often-absent firefighter may also show symptoms.
In the last five years we have learned that the suicide rates of wildland firefighters is “astronomical”, according to information developed by Nelda St. Clair of the Bureau of Land Management in 2017. It is high even when compared with structural firefighters, which is also higher than the general population.
As we approach the slower part of the fire year, especially for those who are employed less than full time, if you know someone who seems very depressed, it is OK to ask them if they are thinking about suicide. Some people think this will spur suicide attempts but that is not accurate. Encouraging them to talk could be the first step leading them to safety.
This video encourages that communication. (I’m told that some of the people in the video are YouTubers. It features Hannah Hart, Liza Koshy, Markiplier, Meredith Foster, Orion Carloto, Remi Cruz, Shannon Beveridge, Tyler Oakley, and Tyler Posey.)
Members of the military returning from deployment can also have difficulties readjusting to life back at home. A Department of Defense webpage has information on the subject that appears to be directed toward the spouse. Here is an excerpt.
Depression and Suicide Prevention
Depression can happen to anyone – resulting in long-term feelings that affect an individual’s mood and daily activities. Service members may be facing challenges during reintegration that seem completely overwhelming, but understanding the warning signs for depression and suicide can help you intervene and get the them the help that they need. Signs to be aware of include:
–A range of emotions and changes in personality, including repeated and intense feelings of sadness, anxiety, hopelessness or pessimism
–A loss of interest in life or hobbies and prolonged periods of crying or sleeping
–Substance abuse or withdrawal from friends and family
–Displays of emotional distress in online activity
–Excessive feelings of guilt, shame or a sense of failure
–Physical symptoms like weight loss or weight gain, decreased energy, headaches, digestive issues or back pain
–Talking about dying or seeking information about death.
Help is available for those feeling really depressed or suicidal.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255. Online Chat.
Anonymous assistance from the Wildland Firefighter Foundation: 208-336-2996.
Would you rather communicate with a counselor by text? If you are feeling really depressed or suicidal, a crisis counselor will TEXT with you. The Crisis Text Line runs a free service. Just text: 741-741
Three months after it was removed from YouTube, today the National Wildfire Coordinating Group restored a video about mental health for firefighters. Previously it had been available for two months but not publicized. We learned about it on September 29, 2021 when @DOIWildlandFire encouraged people on Twitter to view it. Seeing that it was an excellent video that could potentially help thousands of emergency management personnel, we embedded it right away on Wildfire Today. Within 24 hours it was removed from YouTube, because, as @NWCG explained, it was “accidentally posted” and was not “finalized.”
The National Wildfire Coordinating Group has published a video for firefighters about mental health. It features several former or current firefighters who have been trained as critical incident stress management peer supporters or CISM Clinicians.
@DOIWildlandFire tweeted about the video today, encouraging everyone to view it. The video was posted July 19, 2021 but as of today it has only been viewed 83 times, perhaps because it is “unlisted”. We suggested to them that the status be changed, which should make it possible to search for it and also show up on lists of NWCG videos.
The presenters make an interesting point comparing physical fitness and mental fitness. As a firefighter you have to work at both of them, and they lay out several ways to stay mentally fit.
If you are a firefighter or the spouse or family member of one, spend 18 minutes watching this video.
It really is a very good video. Check it out before it is removed again. It’s below.