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.

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.

CBS probes recruiting and retention problems in the US Forest Service

Dixie Fire at Greenville, CA, 2021
Firefighters on the Dixie Fire at Greenville, CA, 2021. Jay Walter.

Saturday morning CBS broadcast an 8-minute piece on national TV that laid out some of the issues causing the recruitment and retention issues for wildland firefighters in the federal land management organizations. They interviewed several very experienced firefighters including some who resigned. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore was confronted about his statement before a Congressional Committee that 90 percent of firefighting positions were filled. It turns out he was assuming that 100 percent of the job offers were accepted, which was not accurate.

Survey of more than 700 wildland firefighters identifies 10 strategies for improving working conditions

“Recruitment and retention of qualified firefighters is a critical issue for national security”

Morning briefing on the Calf Canyon - Hermits Peak Fire
Morning briefing May 8, 2022 on the Calf Canyon – Hermits Peak Fire as firefighters break out into Divisions. USFS photo.

A survey of 708 federal wildland firefighters found that they reported dissatisfaction with recruitment and hiring processes, insufficient base salaries, poor mental health outcomes, elevated risks to health and safety, and significant effects of wildland firefighting on family status.

It was conducted by Robin M. Verble, Rachel Granberg, and Seth Person, the latter two of which are federal wildland firefighters. On their wildlandfiresurvey.com website all three are seen in photos wearing Nomex fire clothing.

“Given the ever-increasing length, extent, and intensity of wildfire season, recruitment and retention of qualified WFF is a critical issue for national security,” the researchers concluded. “Concentrated legislative, organizational, and agency efforts are needed to systemically address the issues identified in this survey: Our survey provides specific actionable items that can improve retention and recruitment, as prioritized by current federal WFFs.”

The majority of respondents  had a bachelors degree or higher, had a mean base salary of $28,545 to $37,113, and 75 percent worked for the US Forest Service.

Here are a few of the survey’s many findings:

  • 92% of the respondents stated that they needed more than 300 hours of overtime work annually to pay their bills. 27% needed over 900 hours of overtime work annually to pay their bills.
  • Most of the respondents disagree or strongly disagree that they have affordable childcare options.
  • Approximately 67% of respondents reported that they have experienced an injury or illness as a result of their work in wildland fire.
  • Wildland firefighters divorce at a rate 2.5 times the national average.
  • Approximately 60% said they have missed out on jobs because of mistakes that Human Resources made.
  • Conservatively estimated rates of suicidal thoughts and ideation among WFFs is 16.5%.
  • Respondents report rates of ADHD at approximately 4 times the national average.

Based on the survey, the researchers listed ten strategies that federal agencies can implement to improve working conditions for wildland firefighters. In the report each one is explained in detail, but here are the topics:

  1. Provide the right pay for the right job
  2. Recognize the strain on families
  3. Increase mental health care accessibility and resources
  4. Combat unhealthy and unsustainable work-life imbalance
  5. Rectify issues with workplace safety (rates of injury, violence, and sexul assault)
  6. Improve health insurance benefits and timely injury compensation
  7. Reimagine the hiring process
  8. Address chronic mismanagement at the Albuquerque Service Center (human resources and hiring)
  9. Promote a new deal for diversity
  10. Build organizational trust through empowering local units

 

Data from Granberg, R., Pearson, S., and Verble, R. 2022. Survey of federal wildland firefighters: working conditions, safety, morale, & barriers to recruitment & retention. Report. Available online at wildlandfiresurvey.com 

Federal wildland firefighter classification without compensation – wait, what??

firefighters Dixie Fire
Firefighters near the site of a venting propane tank on the Dixie Fire. August 4, 2021. Jay Walter photo.

By Kelly Martin, President of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a personnel specialist nor am I am classification expert.  When I worked on the inside as a federal government employee, I witnessed first-hand my inability to effectively recruit, promote and retain top talent.  I felt frustrated as a Fire Management Officer to see applications disqualified because of our conservative approach to human resource management.  301 versus 401 job series; two different Departments creating Interagency Fire Program Management Standards; lack of career ladders and developmental position descriptions; five different agencies interpreting personnel regulations; GSA policy which forces agencies to raise employee housing rents to be comparable with surrounding communities; and known higher morbidity and mortality among wildland firefighters.  I’m sure the reading audience here will add to this list.  There are many systemic problems with recruitment, promotion and retention that cannot be fixed by creating a new job series classification for federal wildland firefighters and implementing hourly wage increases, but it’s a start to a long game that people have been dedicated to for decades.

To say that Grassroots Wildland Firefighters started this effort to correct years of misclassification and addressing oppressive wages falls short of recognizing the many hundreds of people who have come before us.  As I read old reports and research, I can say there have been some very dedicated and persistent federal employees who tried to correct a growing concern about recruitment and retention who are now watching their original efforts come alive again.  They are there silently and some vocally stepping forward to advocate on their own behalf for much needed reforms.  All of us past, present, and future federal wildland firefighters feel like we have finally elevated our collective voice to our DC agency leaders who are willing to listen, sympathetic national media outlets, and most importantly the people we have elected to represent us in Congress who are interested in becoming more educated about federal wildland firefighters

We are on the eve of announcements from Office of Personnel Management through our five federal wildland fire agencies regarding Wildland Firefighter Classification and Compensation.  Grassroots Wildland Firefighters holds a hard line that any new classification shall include a job series that addresses all primary and secondary firefighters from “hire to retire”.  What gets announced from OPM is anyone’s guess. Not exactly sure why this classification process has to be so secret and opaque.

First let me start with what we can anticipate will be addressed as it pertains to Classification.  We will not likely remain in the GS-0462 Forestry Technician series as federal wildland firefighters, although you can choose to stay in that series.  In the late 60’s and early 70’s there was a series for entry level firefighters called Fire Control Aids as GS-0456-3,4 and 5’s.  Maybe it went higher than a GS-5 but I can’t seem to find any documentation of such.  Many people older than me who spent a career in federal wildland fire explained that there were no career ladders for wildland firefighters above the GS-5.  Enter 0462 Forestry Aids and Forestry Technicians.  In the 1970’s Regional and National leadership could see a career path for this new and emerging field of wildland fire management.  Problem was there was very little career advancement beyond a GS-9 technician.  Some of you reading this will remember the shift to a GS-0460 to get people in higher leadership positions but they needed a college degree in Natural Resources.  The GS-0301 and GS-0401 series for upper management positions is still in use today but was to be discontinued when OPM completed the new position description for Federal Wildland Firefighters.  I remain hopeful we will all be in one series.

So where does this leave us today?  We may see a re-tread of the GS-0456 series – the original Fire Control Aid of the 60’s and 70’s; we could see the GS-0081 series, a mostly Department of Defense structural firefighter series which would subsume wildland firefighters, or we could see a whole brand-new series devoted specifically to federal wildland firefighters.  Whatever gets announced will surely be welcomed by thousands of federal wildland firefighters, or maybe it will fall short of our expectations.  We do know there is no link between this new classification series and an increase in pay.  The new series will be the same pay as our current General Schedule pay rate; no change.

Now for compensation.  We know that an increase in pay is not the answer to all our proposed reforms, but compensation will certainly begin to address the oppressive wages we have been living and dying with for decades, to say nothing of our inability to secure affordable housing.

As you know the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has a provision in the law to increase wildland firefighter compensation.  Our original hope was to increase firefighter pay by 50% or $20k for all primary and secondary firefighters regardless of GS level.  The intent of the law, as broadly defined, would provide an hourly pay raise by 50%.  So a GS-3 making $13.78 in 2022, under the law, would essentially become $20.67 an hour for base pay and roughly $31.00 overtime rate.  Given the risk, exposure and consequences for these women and men on the frontlines as we speak, they are the ones most vulnerable to accidents, injuries, lifetime disability, and potential line-of-duty death. Hard to affirm if this compensation seems reasonable for federal wildland firefighters in an effort to better recruit and retain top talented individuals, but certainly better than we have now.

This is a once in a generation (or several generations) to get this right for the federal wildland firefighters who are on the firelines today watching us, expecting us to act deliberately for classification and compensation reforms, providing physical and mental health resources, and affirming presumptive diseases and cancers.  We are far from the finish line but we are making an impact due in large part to all of you who have and continue to support and put sweat equity into Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.

A sincere heartfelt thank you to all of you and to Wildfire Today for amplifying our collective voices!

LA Times writes about trauma, low pay, and morale among Forest Service firefighters

Fire crews on the Route Fire entrapped
Fire crews on the Route Fire in Southern California, 4:40 p.m. Sept. 11, 2021, about five minutes before they were nearly entrapped. Photo by one of the firefighters.

I have never seen anything like this. Over the past few months numerous politicians have been motivated and nationally recognizable media outlets have assigned reporters to dig through the opaque barriers established by the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service to expose the worsening working conditions of wildland firefighters. Even though Congress passed a law requiring improvements in several areas, the bureaucratic morass of inaction driven by the indecisiveness of leaders has led many of them to abandon all hope, and quit.

Reasons cited by current and former firefighters include very low pay, long hours, too much time away from home, too little time with families, limited opportunities for career growth, costs of housing, inadequate mental health support, and the temporary and sometimes life-altering physical injuries experienced by these tactical athletes. This has led to severe difficulties in hiring and retaining firefighters, resulting a large number of vacant positions at all levels.

One of the latest well-researched pieces about the decline of working conditions for federal firefighters was published today, written by Alex Wigglesworth, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. It is titled, “Hellish fires, low pay, trauma: California’s Forest Service firefighters face a morale crisis.”

In addition to documenting and elaborating on the issues above, their research found:

  • “Only 62% of federal firefighter positions [in California] are filled, according to a source within the agency. Before 2020, nearly all firefighter positions across the nation would typically be filled at this time of year.”
  • “Roughly a third of all Forest Service fire engines in California are on five-day staffing, meaning there aren’t enough crew members to operate them seven days a week.”
  • “Another 13% of engines are “down staffed” — essentially parked due to lack of firefighters.”

The reporter mentioned Chris Mariano who was a GS-6 Squad Boss on the Truckee Hotshots in Northern California until April 7, 2022 when he resigned. Wildfire Today published a letter he wrote at the time. He said drafting it was difficult —  the best part of his life was working as a hotshot on the Tahoe National Forest:

“I prospered — I was all in,” he wrote. “I wanted nothing more than to be a hotshot, to be a leader, to care for the land and to be of service. While the sense of purpose and camaraderie remain, I now feel hypocritical to recruit or encourage crew members to work for an agency that is failing to support its fire management programs and thus the public.”

“The agency is failing its firefighters on so many levels. Classification, pay, work life balance, mental health, presumptive disease coverage, and injury/fatality support. There are efforts to correct some of these issues but for many it is too little too late…We are losing people at a terrifying rate at a time when wildfires burn longer, hotter, more frequently, and with devastating severity.”