Federal firefighter asks for six specific reforms

Firefighters holding Romero SaddleThomas Fire
Firefighters holding Romero Saddle on the Thomas Fire in southern California, December 13, 2017. Photo: Kari Greer for the USFS.

A federal firefighter has drafted a letter to U.S. Senators and Representatives in which they ask for six specific reforms. However, the person, who feels the need to remain anonymous, insists that they not be called firefighter, since the job description applies the label “forestry technician.”

Update August 12, 2020. For some of the statistics mentioned in the letter below, reference "A Quiet Rise in Wildland-Firefighter Suicides", The Atlantic, 2017; and, "Suicide rate among wildland firefighters is 'astronomical' ”, Wildfire Today, 2017.

Here is the letter. At the bottom is a link to sign a petition at Change.org.


To our US Senators and Representatives:

I am a Wildland firefighter with 14 years of experience fighting wildfires across the United States and Alaska with the US Forest Service. I’m writing this letter to open your eyes and to start a dialogue about the mental health crisis that is taking place amongst our firefighting ranks in the US Forest Service.

Wildland firefighters have a 0.3% suicide rate according to Nelda St. Clair of the Bureau of Land Management. This figure is shockingly high compared to the national suicide rate of 0.01%. In 2015 and 2016 a total of 52 Wildland Firefighters took their own lives. Why do wildland firefighters suffer from a 30x rate of suicides compared to the general US population? I detail my personal thoughts that are based on hundreds of conversations with wildland firefighters and my own experience below.

Any US Government official should find it unacceptable to have such high suicide and mental health issues amongst their employees. Unfortunately, little action has been taken by leadership in government to support wildland firefighters, resulting in this predictable and avoidable epidemic.

Wildland firefighters are some of the most driven, motivated and selfless workers. We miss our kids birthdays, friends’ barbecues, aren’t around to help put the kids to bed or make dinner, and this takes a toll on us. This causes us to lose social connections and friendships, to feel distant from our loved ones, and increases our divorce rates because we aren’t present to support our partners.

Throughout my time as a Hotshot and a Smokejumper I have seen people working through multiple injuries such as hiking chainsaws up the hill with a torn ACL, unable to have surgery due to a lack of health insurance, or a financial inability to miss a few fire assignments. The majority of wildland firefighters rely too heavily on overtime and hazard pay making time off financially unfeasible. When an on-the-job injury occurs, our workmans comp insurance is slow to approve claims, often does not authorize payment for doctor recommended care, and then only pays 40% of base pay to recover while away from work. This needs to change.

We often hear from local citizenry, news stations, a governor or senator that we are “Heroes.” I’ve had innumerable conversations with fellow firefighters how disingenuous this feels when many wildland firefighters are temporary employees who do not receive benefits and have an employer that refuses to call them what everybody knows to be true, that we are “WILDLAND FIREFIGHTERS,” not forestry technicians.

Our wages lag far behind standard Firefighter wages. We do not receive pay for our increasing workload within an increasingly longer fire season. It is common for us to be running a Division of a fire (typically a job for a GS-11)  while paid as a GS-6, have dozens of resources (personnel and equipment) under our command and be the lowest paid of all of them.

The job is so hazardous and physically difficult that we are supposed to receive the same retirement that the FBI, Law Enforcement, and other Federal Firefighters receive, able to retire after 20-25 years. The difference is that their career starts when they are hired, while our retirement plan doesn’t start until we are hired as a permanent employee, often coming after more than a decade of service as a temporary employee. Hotshot crews are typically staffed with 7 permanent employees and 13 temporary employees, doing some of the most hazardous and strenuous work.

Our overtime is not considered mandatory and therefore not part of our retirement annuity calculation, while other federal employees’ overtime is considered mandatory. This is a laughable premise amongst any wildland firefighter as we often have no say in length of work and are not able to go home after 8 hours of work when we are in the middle of an assignment. We typically work 14-day assignments, sleep on the ground, eat MREs and don’t complain. We are often out of contact with loved ones and thousands of miles from home, but have to fight with office workers tracking our pay to get paid for 16-hour workdays where we work from 6AM until 10PM. Other contracting resources, CAL FIRE, municipal firefighters, and other Federal Firefighters all are paid Portal-to-Portal, 24 -hour days, without the federal government blinking an eye.

As a 14-Year Veteran, I am qualified at the Crew Boss Level with many other advanced qualifications, but I have only accrued a total of 3 years towards retirement and make under $20/hour in an area where the median home price is over $400,000. When I go on an assignment, the babysitter makes more per hour than I do on a fire.

The current wage structure also limits diversity and keeps women and minorities out of firefighting positions. If women have plans to have children, then it is nearly impossible to pursue a career in firefighting because the option to miss a single fire assignment would result in a large percentage of yearly income being lost. People from lower-income demographics are kept out of this field due to the low wages as well. Increasingly I am seeing only privileged, white males able to work in this career with the most stable and supportive family situations. This is a shame as we all suffer when diversity is discouraged.

Why are we hailed as “Heroes” by the media and politicians but paid like second-rate cannon fodder that can be replaced easily?

I’m asking for real reforms from our elected officials:

  1. A psychologist with an office located in the forest headquarters of each national forest who is available to all Forest Service employees for mental health.
  2. A Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) paid leave category is created with 1.5 hours per pay period (roughly 1.25 weeks per year) to take time for mental health.
  3. Cut the crap, We are WILDLAND FIREFIGHTERS, not forestry technicians. Compel Land Management agencies to convert all wildland firefighters from GS pay scale to a new pay scale such as WLF. A WLF-6 (currently GS-6) should be paid at $30/hour or $60,000 per year. It took me until my 9th year of fighting wildfires to attain the level of GS-6, so this is not a starting wage.
  4. Eliminate any hiring of GS-3 in Wildland Fire. This wage is insultingly low and not acceptable for the type of risk taken.
  5. After we are called firefighters in our official Position Description, end Hazard Pay. Our jobs are inherently hazardous, and our lives should not be valued based on our pay rate as is the current practice.
  6. Eliminate Temporary Positions for any firefighter returning for their second year. If they are worth bringing back for a second season then they are worth paying benefits and allowing to contribute to their retirement plan.

This is a simple list of requests that can be done now. This job is already so stressful as evidenced and explained above. Firefighters and their families need some relief from the biggest stress currently, which is financial stress. Increasing wages will save firefighter lives, I have no doubt. It will also preserve a middle class job from sinking into the poverty level.

My final request goes out to the countless US citizens who have relied on us to save their communities, homes, favorite forested areas and to the media organizations that have used us to write compelling stories and report on some incredibly dramatic events:

Please stop referring to us as wildland firefighters. We are currently “forestry technicians” as described by the federal government position description and your reporting should reflect that reality. Don’t call us “Heroes” either because when divorces, mental health problems and declining wages are the reality, we don’t feel like heroes at all.

Thank you for your time and understanding.


(The author has also posted this on Change. org. Sign the petition there if you are so inclined.)

Firefighter suicide in Illinois — could it happen in your organization?

Rest in peace, Nicole Hladik

All suicides are tragic, but when it happens to a young firefighter who had been on the job for less than a year it is especially so. Nicole Hladik was not a wildland firefighter, but could it happen in any fire organization?

From FirefighterCloseCalls.com:


FIREFIGHTER TAKES HER OWN LIFE.
A family is searching for answers after a 27-year-old Hinsdale Firefighter (Illinois) who died by suicide. Firefighter Nicole Hladik was the only female firefighter at the Hinsdale Fire Department and the third in the town’s history. “Nicki was a bright rising star in the fire service, she was beloved by all of us of course and very happy early on,” Brian Kulaga, Hladik’s uncle, said.

But Kulaga said something changed recently.

“Then she traded shifts and suddenly just a lot of negativity and then leading up to today, which was obviously a complete surprise to all of us,” he said. Hladik died by suicide Tuesday and her brother Joseph Hladik said it was a complete shock. “Super active, super fit, a family person, a great friend, she’s my sister but my best friend,” he said. Hladik’s family said it doesn’t make sense. “Our goal is, we just want someone to look into this, it’s not an accusation. It’s just the facts are, how could someone who was so happy and loved what she was doing go from one spectrum to the other end? It just doesn’t make any sense,” Joseph Hladik said.


Newspaper stories about Nicole Hladik shortly after she was hired at the Hinsdale Fire Department:
–The Hinsdalean, October 9, 2019:  Village’s Newest Firefighter Is Happy To be “One Of The Gang”
–Chicago Tribune, October 20, 2019: Shout Out: Nicole Hladik of Willowbrook-Hinsdale’s newest Firefighter


Suicide rates among wildland firefighters have been described as “astronomical.

Help is available for those feeling really depressed or suicidal.

Wildland firefighters’ invisible injuries can be life-threatening

A real-life example after the line of duty death of a fellow firefighter

David Ruhl memorial service
Attendees at the memorial service for David Ruhl in Rapid City, South Dakota, August 9, 2015. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

During his 14 years working for the Bureau of Land Management as a wildland firefighter, a fire that Danny Brown responded to on July 30, 2015 changed his life in ways that most of us cannot fathom. Mr. Brown was one of the first to find the burned body of his friend David Ruhl who was entrapped and killed during the initial attack of the Frog Fire in northern California.

An excellent article by Mark Betancourt in High Country News describes the upheaval that occurred in Mr. Brown’s life, how he tried to deal with it, and how the government’s system for treating on the job injuries failed.

Here is a brief excerpt:

The trauma Brown sustained that day could happen to any wildland firefighter. It drove him out of the career he loved and the community that came with it, and to his agony it limited his ability to support his wife and their three children. He was eventually diagnosed with chronic PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder — and in his most desperate moments, he thought about taking his life. Adding to his suffering was the feeling that he had been abandoned by the government that put him in harm’s way.

A number of people bent over backwards trying to help Mr. Brown receive the professional help he badly needed, including a friend, a supervisor, the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, and Nelda St. Clair, a consultant who coordinates fire-specific crisis intervention and mental fitness for federal and state agencies.

Federal agencies that employe wildland firefighters (but call them technicians) hire them to perform a hazardous job. A percentage of them in the course of their career will be involved directly or indirectly with a very traumatic event. Many of them will power through it with no serious effects, at least outwardly. But others will suffer unseen injuries after having performed their duties.

These federal agencies do not have an effective system or procedure for helping their employees heal from chronic PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder —  incurred while on the job. Untreated, chronic PTSD can lead to suicide.

Ms. St Clair tries to keep track of how many wildland firefighters take their own lives each year. Her unofficial tally suggests as many die by suicide as in the line of duty.

I can’t help but think that if the job title of these “technicians” was instead, “firefighter”, it might be easier for the hierarchy to understand, and get them the professional support some of them so desperately need. Range Technicians have different job stresses than wildland firefighters. In some cases chronic PTSD is an issue of life and death, not something we can keep ignoring.

If you are a firefighter of part of his or her family, you need to read the article in High Country News. If family members recognize the symptoms it could be helpful.

If you are in an influential position in the federal land management agencies you need to read the article. Look at the firefighters in the photo above who were attending the memorial service for Mr. Ruhl. Do what you can to ensure that no other employees are forced to suffer like Mr. Brown and no doubt others, have.

If you are a federal Senator or Representative, you need to read the article. Then introduce and pass legislation so that other “technicians” do not have to suffer like Mr. Brown.

Read the article.


Help is available for those feeling really depressed or suicidal.

Federal employee suicide rate in 2018 was five times higher than private industry

Suicide Helping hands
St.Jude Progress

Wildland firefighters are not alone in their high rate of suicide.

From Fedsmith.com January 8, 2019:

Suicides accounted for 28% of the 124 Federal employee job-related deaths in 2018.

In contrast, suicides accounted for only 5% of the 4,779 private industry employees who died on the job in 2018.

It is OK to ask someone if they are thinking about suicide. Some people think this will spur suicide attempts but this is not accurate. Encouraging them to talk could be the first step leading them to safety.


Help is available for those feeling really depressed or suicidal.

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

Who has your back?

Football players and Vets help each other — maybe the program can be adapted for firefighters

Merging vets and players
Merging Vets & Players photo.

With the suicide rate of wildland firefighters being described as “astronomical” according to information developed by Nelda St. Clair of the Bureau of Land Management in 2017, we need to be situationally aware of any proven or innovative programs that can help mitigate the issues that lead firefighters to think that’s the only option they have.

Today I learned about a program designed to merge former professional football players with veterans of the military. The goal is to give them a new team to tackle the transition together. Called Merging Vets & Players, or MVP, it shows them they are NOT alone.

Fox Sports analyst Jay Glazer and Nate Boyer, retired NFL player and former Green Beret, created MVP in 2015 to address this important challenge.

So far MVP is active in four cities where once a week the former football players and military veterans meet for one hour and 45 minutes in gyms.

Here is how it is described:

The program starts with a 30-minute workout with a warrior to their left and right to get that familiar “burn” going again in them.

The magic of the MVP begins right after with The Huddle, an hour and fifteen minutes of peer-on-peer support, a group of badasses building up fellow badasses. It reminds us of our strength, even when it doesn’t seem clear.

Merging Vets & Players
Merging Vets & Players photo.

The Huddle is where they share their challenges in transition and offer each other support and resources. MVP coaches our vets and athletes to be PROUD OF THEIR SCARS, and to use what they experienced on the battlefield or football field to EMPOWER them through the transition. We don’t run from mental health challenges, we tackle it as a team.

Too many combat vets and former professional athletes think they are alone, MVP is here to show you’re not alone. Whether it’s combat camouflage or a sports jersey, our MVP members help each other find a new identity, — find greatness again — after the uniform comes off.

Wildland firefighters have some things in common with vets and professional football players. Wildland firefighters are tactical athletes, they are members of a team, they depend on each other for success and safety, what they do can be extremely mentally and physically difficult, they are often away from their friends and families, and there are times of the year when they suddenly transition to a much different life style away from their “team”.

Maybe the MVP program could be modified, merging vets with current or transitioned firefighters. Or, it could be just firefighters.

Take a look at the two-minute video that Fox aired on Thanksgiving before the football games.

I’d love to see a group of firefighters doing the “WHO’S GOT MY BACK” call and response.

Learn more about MVP at their website and Instagram.


Help is available for those feeling really depressed or suicidal.

US Forest Service Fire Director interviewed about suicide among firefighters

Marc Mullenix
Marc Mullenix

In January 2008 a few days after Wildfire Today was created I first wrote about firefighter suicide when someone I had served with on an Incident Management Team, Marc Mullenix, took his life. Some of his past jobs included Fairmont Fire Protection District, Wildland Fire Division Chief for the Boulder Fire Department, and Fire Management Officer for Mesa Verde National Park, all in Colorado. In 2007 Marc was a Type 1 Incident Commander trainee on Kim Martin’s Incident Management Team in the Rocky Mountain Geographic Area. He was married to Shawna Legarza, a former Hotshot who is now the Director of Fire and Aviation for the U.S. Forest Service.

In the last few 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.

In an article published at REI.com this week, Jenni Gritters interviewed Director Legarza about firefighter suicide. The piece is titled, “Reports show wildland firefighters may struggle in secret once the season ends.”

The article shines a light on the issue and is very much worth reading, but below are excerpts:

Back in 2008, Lagarza says no one knew how to react to firefighter suicides. She wondered what to say to people, and what people would say to her. She wondered how she had missed the signs. She wondered if she should go back to work at all. Eventually, she returned to school to get her Ph.D. in psychology, to try to understand suicide better. Now she runs fire programs for the U.S. Forest Service, with a special emphasis on firefighter education.

[…]

There’s no denying that there is a problem when it comes to suicide: Wildland firefighters are dying by suicide at startling rates each year, far more often than people in the general population. This is a fact that has been known within the fire community for years, often whispered and mourned, but not spoken about directly until recently, Legarza says.

Part of the reason for the silence—and lack of information—around death by suicide comes from an issue with reporting. Jeff Dill, the founder of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FFBHA), says that many firefighters experience mental health struggles after they’ve gone fully off-duty for the season, which means their deaths often go unreported within agencies like the National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and U.S. Forest Service (USFS).

[…]

In 2018, a Florida State University professor and clinical psychologist who studies military suicides released a study that ruffled some feathers when it showed that wildland firefighters, in particular, were more likely to report clinically significant suicide symptoms than non-wildland firefighters. In the study, 55% of wildland firefighters reported experiencing thoughts about death by suicide, compared to 32% of non-wildland firefighters. Both of these percentages are staggering compared to NIH suicide data on the general population, which shows that 20% of people, on average, experience some suicidal thoughts.


Help is available for those feeling really depressed or suicidal.

Suicide Warning Signs
Suicide Warning Signs

Other articles on Wildfire Today about wildland firefighter suicide:

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