Today the Government Accountability Office released a report about the difficulties the federal agencies are having recruiting and retaining wildland firefighters.
Congress requested the report, but apparently did not ask for recommendations. The 41-page document identifies numerous issues that adversely affect recruitment and retention, most of which are already well known to the five agencies that employ wildland firefighters — Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The report goes into detail about each of the major challenges, after receiving input from officials in the five agencies and a sample of 16 nonfederal stakeholders—including nongovernmental organizations representing active and retired federal firefighters and other organizations involved in firefighting issues, such as the National Association of State Foresters and the Western Governors’ Association.
Low pay was the most commonly cited barrier to recruiting and retaining federal wildland firefighters. Officials and all 16 stakeholders stated that the pay, which starts at $15 per hour for entry-level positions, is low. Officials and eight stakeholders also noted that the pay does not reflect the risk or physical demands of the work. Moreover, officials and stakeholders said that in some cases, firefighters can earn more at nonfederal firefighting entities or for less dangerous work in other fields, such as food service.
Some of the efforts being taken to improve hiring and retention are mentioned, including addressing pay, and offering slightly more time at home between fire assignments.
But much remains to be done, especially towards pay and a new Wildland Firefighter job series, which the five agencies have made very little progress developing.
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:
Legislation that passed in 2021 required that federal wildland firefighters be offered the opportunity to move from their present job series, such as Forestry Technician, into a new series configured specifically for wildland firefighters. This would affect employees in five agencies, Forest Service (FS), Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and National Park Service.
Groups have been working on building the blueprint for the new system — which requires selecting a job series, writing position descriptions (PDs), and classifying those PDs by assigning a grade level for each position description. The last step would be making a decision about the pay at each grade level.
Most federal wildland firefighters up through the GS-9 or 11 level have been in the GS-0462 Forestry Technician series. The federal agencies have decided that instead of creating a new wildland firefighter series they would just modify one that has not been used much for about 50 years, the Wildland Fire Management GS-0456 series.
The revised classification standards for the series were published in June 2022 and now the agencies have one year from that date to implement the “new” series.
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) describes it, in part:
“This series includes classes of positions which involve technical and specialized work in the protection of forest or range lands and resources from fire. This series includes general fire management work which is preparatory to the assumption of technical or specialized assignments, and which is accomplished as a part of specialized functional fire management programs including forest and range fire prevention, presuppression, suppression, postsuppression, fire research, and other specialized work relating to fire management programs.”
Right now the agencies are tasked with working with two groups, human resource managers and subject matter experts, to develop position descriptions that accurately reflect the jobs performed in 2022. They are also classifying each PD and assigning a grade level that will affect pay. They also have to evaluate all 286 of the PDs to determine whether they will qualify for firefighter retirement coverage. In a perfect world the refreshed PDs would describe what the employees actually do at that level, and the GS grade would be correctly and impartially assigned without bias or a preconceived agenda.
We have been in contact with several people who are closely involved with this process. One of them told us that the old GS-0462 PDs were basically copied and pasted into the new GS-0456 series with a few additional duties added. We were told that the FS Washington Office liaison for this project simply transferred the old point scores for grade determinations into the new GS-0456 series. There appears to be strenuous resistance to including duties in the PDs that would result in their being scored at a higher grade.
On August 31 the FS held an online briefing for some of its employees in the Western U.S. called “FAM to Boots,” with “FAM” meaning Fire and Aviation Management. One of the speakers during the one-hour call was Ben Elkind, a smokejumper who would fall into the “boots” category but was serving as a representative of the union, the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE). He has been involved in the process of transitioning to the new firefighter job series, including reviews of the PDs and classification.
“Over the next few meetings we learned that the process was basically a crosswalk,” Mr. Elkind said in the call. “I think a lot of people were expecting to get a higher grade or to have new duties added to their PDs. But what we were told is that the PDs are not changing grades, and that’s the direction from the Washington Office. As well as keeping the grades the same, they’re attaching the grades to the PDs to send them to classifications. So they’re not independently grading them. They’re just looking at the grade that is attached to them and stamping that grade on there. We’re just kind of wondering why aren’t they following a process independently and letting people grade these without kind of pre-setting the grades.”
“We’re debating internally whether or not to continue our participation,” Mr. Elkind continued. “We don’t want our participation seen as like a stamp of approval. And just to give an example of the grades, right? The Forest Service makes the grades, like a hotshot superintendent, 2,100 points would be required for the next grade up, and they’re scored it at 2,090. So less than half a percent holds them back from getting an upgrade. This is the kind of stuff that we’re concerned about, and it seems like they’re working backwards — the grades are set and then they’re just making a PD to match, and then they’re grading it arbitrarily to match what they want.”
Wildfire Today communicated with Morgan Thomsen, who is also participating in the process as a representative of the union. He speaks not for the union, but as a union rep.
“My biggest concern and reticence to remain involved in this process, is that the Washington Office management (not the FAM subject matter expert folks) are choosing to use terms like “may” in these PDs to willfully avoid any sort of meaningful classification,” Mr. Thomsen said. “As an example: the new Interagency Hotshot Crew Superintendent PD states that a Superintendent “MAY” perform as a Branch Director or Operations Section Chief. Another PD says: “MAY perform qualifications on red card.” While this is true, we certainly “may” and certainly do; I am a GS-7 doing Division Supervisor trainee. No PD even requires Division Supervisor below the Assistant Fire Management Officer level. Instead of trying to copy/paste 0462 PDs and sneaking in more duties using the term “may” as a cop-out, we might as well just be real here, go back to the drawing board, and produce some PDs that will actually work for the coming decades.”
The temporary pay increase funded by a specific Congressional limited appropriation is expected to last through September 2023. Beyond that, firefighters’ pay would regress to the previous paltry amounts, unless a permanent fix is developed by Congress or the agencies develop a new special rate pay.
Brian Rhodes, who was also on the call,works in the FS Washington Office and has a major role in the transition to the new series. He spoke for an extended time, but while verbally dancing around the issue of a long-term pay increase, he would not divulge what was being considered.
As it stands now, fire dispatchers are being reviewed for inclusion in the 0456 job series, but they could elect to remain in the 0462 series. Mr. Rhodes said at one point that OPM did not believe dispatchers “met the major duties of a wildland firefighter.” He said the FS hopes to revisit that decision with OPM.
At the end of the presentations in the FAM to Boots call, a dispatch center manager brought up the subject, saying “It’s a really big deal to us, [and, if it is not resolved soon] we’re going to have people walking out the door, people that have been with us for years that have dedicated their lives to the safety of all of our firefighters. … I think we’re an integral part of keeping people safe and making stuff happen. I don’t want my group to be an afterthought.”
“Hire to retire”?
There is an understanding among firefighters that one of the goals of the new job series was that a person could remain in the series from “hire to retire.” But there are indications that it will top out at the GS-9 level. One of the many issues that leads to difficulty in retaining experienced firefighters is that when they become a GS-7 or GS-8 they look up and see a narrowing career ladder with no room for them. That can lead them to quit, and they take their existing qualifications over to CAL FIRE or state or local fire departments, often doubling or tripling their pay.
The House of Representatives narrowly passed the legislation Friday. Now it goes to the Senate.
12:46 EDT, July 27, 2022
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.
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.
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.