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.”

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.

Department of Interior allows waivers of mandatory retirement age for firefighters

The maximum entry age and mandatory retirement age could be raised on a case by case basis for firefighters and law enforcement officers

Hot shot crew Ferguson Fire firefighters
Bear Divide Hot Shots on the Ferguson Fire. Kari Greer photo taken around July 23, 2018.

The Department of the Interior (DOI) has implemented a policy that allows Bureau and Office law enforcement and firefighting chiefs to waive on a case by case basis the maximum entry age and mandatory retirement age for firefighters and law enforcement officers who are covered by the early retirement system. Until the new policy was signed on December 21, 2018 by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke these firefighters were required to retire at age 57 if they had 20 years of covered service and had to begin their service no later than age 37. It is now possible for each of those requirements to be bumped up by three years — to 40 and 60.

The general justification for the change, as stated in Mr. Zinke’s memo, is to “speed up the hiring process”.

Specifically, waivers for the minimum entry age may be granted for those who do not have veterans’ preference if there is a shortage of highly qualified applicants for a specific law enforcement or firefighter position, or if there is a shortage of available candidates in a geographic area.

The mandatory retirement age could be changed to 60 in cases where the continuation of the employee’s services promotes the public interest. One of the examples given was if there is a skill shortage and a qualified replacement is not readily available to replace a highly skilled incumbent who is responsible for a vital program.

In 2001 the maximum entry age and mandatory retirement age were raised by two years, from 35 to 37 and 55 to 57 respectively, for both DOI agencies and the U.S. Forest Service.

“The goal here is to strengthen the ranks of our Forest Service firefighters,” said Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth on October 21, 2001. “Increasing the maximum entry age for firefighters will allow us to open the occupation to a wider group of candidates thereby increasing our ability to hire the best, the brightest and the most skilled.”

There are four agencies in the DOI that employ wildland firefighters: National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Fish and Wildlife Service. There is one in the Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service. All five agencies also have law enforcement officers.

“The Forest Service is aware of DOI’s initiative,” Sandra Lopez, a U.S. Forest Service spokesperson told us. “The Forest Service has not made any policy changes at this time and we are reviewing DOI’s initiative.”

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Doug. Typos or errors, report them HERE.