USA — Better pay and benefits and increased legal protection for the nation’s federal firefighters are needed to help reign in the increasing costs of battling wildfires across the country, say proponents of a bill making its way through Congress.
Compensating firefighters for all the time they spend at fire scenes and extending year-round health benefits to part-timers would help curb defections from the agency, they say. By strengthening its own ranks, the bill’s supporters say, the Forest Service would have to rely less on costly assistance from local and state fire departments.
Additionally, the legislation seeks to recognize the dangerous nature of firefighters’ work by changing their titles from “forestry technician” or “range technician” to “wildland firefighter.” It also would raise the mandatory retirement age from 57 to 65 in an effort to keep more veterans within the agency.
“If we can retain some of the younger folks that have been hopping ship, and we can keep some of that brain trust around for a few more years, we have a better opportunity to fill in the missing gaps of those federal resources,” said Casey Judd, business manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, which represents federal firefighters nationwide.
In 2008, there were more then 2,000 federal firefighters in Southern California, according to a U.S. Forest Service report. Local residents said a strong fire protection system is critical, and that includes having veteran firefighters ready to battle blazes on the vast swaths of federal land in the Inland area.
The pay changes would begin in a trial program expected to cost about $25 million over three years. Based on the trial, officials would assess whether it saves money; the hope is that the extra pay and benefit costs would be more than offset by savings related to the reduced dependence on other fire agencies, supporters said.
Outside agencies have negotiated lucrative contracts to assist the Forest Service firefighters on federal land, Judd said. The contracts often include administrative fees and the cost of housing contract firefighters in hotels, while Forest Service crews sleep in tents in makeshift fire camps, he said.
Federal firefighting costs have risen steadily in recent years, now totaling about $1.5 billion annually. In 2008, the government had to transfer $260 million from other accounts to cover firefighting. Officials expect firefighting to consumer more than half of the Forest Service’s discretionary budget by fiscal year 2011-12.
Introduced in January, the pay and benefits bill now sits before several House subcommittees, and it remains unclear how soon it might move forward. Judd spent much of the past week in Washington to drum up support and identify senators willing to take up the cause.
Forest Service spokesman Joe Walsh said officials in Washington are assessing the legislation and have yet to take a position.
reversing the trend
The Forest Service’s difficulties keeping firefighters have been well documented in federal reports and congressional hearings in recent years.
In 2007, for example, nearly half of the agency’s first-year firefighters in Southern California, 46.6 percent, resigned at the end of the year, according to a 2008 Forest Service report. The San Bernardino National Forest was among those hardest hit.
“We hired a lot of Forest Service guys because we had better benefits,” said Gerry Newcombe, a former San Bernardino City Fire Department chief.
Lawmakers and Forest Service officials have tried to slow the exodus. For example, federal firefighters in California receive a 10 percent annual pay bonus, Judd said. The bonuses, along with a slowdown in CalFire hiring, have helped stem the losses.
But funding for the bonuses, secured in a federal spending bill by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is not permanent, Judd noted. And CalFire eventually will revive its hiring, he said.
“The underlying reasons for people to leave haven’t changed,” Judd said.
Competition for firefighters isn’t the only problem.
The Forest Service ranked 206 of 216 federal agencies in a report titled Best Places to Work in the Federal Government, released last year by the Partnership for Public Service and American University’s Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation. The agencies in the study were graded on more than a dozen criteria, including pay, benefits and department leadership.
To reverse the trend, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Filner, D- San Diego, proposed changes in how federal firefighters accrue benefits and a pilot program to test how extra pay will affect retention.
Federal firefighters would be paid from the time they leave their station until they are excused from the fire. Federal firefighters currently must stay in the fire camps set up near the fire line, even though they are not paid when they are resting. CalFire and other agencies are paid for all their hours at the fire scene, working or not.The bill also would add benefits for seasonal firefighters — those hired during peak fire danger, usually June to late November — who often lose seniority and benefits when they are not working. Notably, the bill would give the seasonal firefighters the same health benefits year-round, provided there is an intention to return for the following fire season.
legal clarity, recognition
The legislation also seeks to clarify the limits of investigations launched in the aftermath of deadly burnovers, like the one that killed five Forest Service firefighters in Riverside County during the 2006 Esperanza Fire.
Proposed language in the bill would create new deadlines for investigating fatalities and requirements to report changes based on the findings to improve firefighter safety.
The bill also would make clear that the intent of the investigation is not to “find fault or place blame” for the death, but to reduce firefighter deaths. Following the Esperanza Fire, federal investigators took three years to complete their probe of the burnover, leaving family members of the fallen men frustrated and the men’s colleagues anxious about possible criminal ramifications for fire personnel.
The change in firefighter titles would cost virtually nothing to implement but would help improve morale among Forest Service crews, Judd said.
Maintaining a seasoned force of federal firefighters is critical to rural communities in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, residents and local fire safety officials said.
Newcombe, the former San Bernardino chief, is now president of the Arrowhead Communities Fire Safety Council, made up of residents who discuss fire issues with local, state and federal officials.
“If we have trained guys that we can rely on, that makes it much better,” he said.