Lawmakers Get Earful on Need for Far-reaching Firefighting Reform

Lawmakers Get Earful on Need for Far-reaching Firefighting Reform

06 June 2014

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USA — In 2010, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Inspector General (IG) predicted future shortages of qualified firefighters in the US Forest Service (USFS) largely because too few were being trained to replace those retiring.

“That prediction is now coming to fruition, and it is a major problem,” National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) National President William Dougan told the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Emergency Management, Intergovernmental Relations & the District of Columbia Thursday regarding the funding and training available to federal wildland firefighters.

“Many federal firefighters begin their careers on temporary appointments. Many return year after year, acquiring valuable training and experience. However, firefighters looking to advance their careers face a critical barrier,” Dougan said. “Current regulations do not credit their service, regardless of how long, as qualifying for acquiring ‘competitive status.’ Because of this barrier to career advancement, many skilled firefighters eventually leave, taking their valuable skills with them,”

According to the 2010 USDA IG audit report on the Forest Service’s succession planning for firefighting, USDA’s IG “noted that training and other challenges were ‘setting the stage for future shortages of qualified firefighters,’” Dougan said, adding that, “They noted that 64 percent of essential fire command personnel would be eligible to retire in 2014, increasing to 86 percent by 2019. They also noted that there were only 5,199 trainees for 11,129 critical firefighting positions.”

Dougan said, “Wildland firefighting agencies have done tremendous work to improve interagency cooperation [and that] the development of a consistent certification and training system, administered by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, is an outstanding achievement [and the] union is proud to be a partner in the Wildland Firefighter Apprenticeship Program, which we hope will take consistency in training to the next level.”

“Unfortunately,” he said, “this program has been under-utilized in our view.”

“Funding for wildfire suppression is … a problem,” Dougan explained. He told lawmakers that, “The expense of fighting wildfires often exceeds the funds appropriated for wildfire suppression. When this happens, agencies transfer funds from other programs into firefighting accounts to cover the shortfall. This so-called ‘fire borrowing’ results in cancellations and delays in the agency’s on-the-ground program of work. Ironically, many of the cancelled projects are those designed to reduce the frequency and severity of catastrophic wildfires. It’s ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul,’ and it costs taxpayers more.”

Dougan stressed that “wildfires are a bigger problem in this country than they were a decade ago,” and that “Drought and other factors have contributed to creating hotter, drier and longer fire seasons, on average two months longer than in the previous decade.”

Dougan said, “Six of the worst fire seasons since 1960 have occurred since 2000. This is not an anomaly. This is the new normal. Unfortunately, we are still doing business the old way and it is not working. In some cases, the problems are complex and the answers are not easy to come by. However, in other cases, the answer is straightforward and the time for it to be implemented is long-overdue.”

We face “significant funding challenges … in order to pay for wildfire suppression activities,” agreed International Association of Firefighters Assistant to the General President for Public Policy Kevin O’Connor. “As you know, for years the Forest Service and Department of the Interior [DOI] have transferred money from vital agency programs and services in order to fund wildfire suppression. This method isn’t simply bad public policy, as wildfire suppression costs continue to rise, it is quickly becoming unsustainable. In his budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2015, President Obama unveiled his plan to fund the largest wildfires, those which are truly threats to the homeland, from disaster funds. The President’s proposal will provide the federal agencies responsible for managing wildfires with the tools and resources they need to succeed, and it has our full support.”

“Consistency in training across agencies is essential,” Dougan said, noting that, “In any discussion of the challenges we face, we must first acknowledge the tremendous work of wildland firefighting agencies to improve operational interagency cooperation across jurisdictional boundaries. The development of a consistent certification and training system administered by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) is an outstanding achievement. However, jurisdictional and agency cultural barriers still exist.”

Dougan told the panel that, “The purpose of the Wildland Firefighter Apprenticeship Program (WFAP) is to take this consistency in training to the next level. NFFE is proud to be a founding partner in this interagency agreement developed to create the WFAP. The WFAP is a national interagency program registered through the US Department of Labor and in partnership with the major federal land management agencies. The WFAP is designed to be complementary to the purpose of the NWCG regarding consistency in classroom training and certification. It was established to enhance consistency and a joint operations atmosphere between the federal agencies in both the classroom delivery and on-the-job training experiences of their employees initially entering career positions as firefighters.”

“Unfortunately,” he said, “the WFAP has been under-utilized and I am hearing reports that firefighting agencies may be turning away from it. This would be a step away from consistency, and a step in the wrong direction.”

“Another area of concern regarding training is simply ensuring that funding to support training and ‘trainee assignments’ (in addition to classroom training, firefighters must work alongside fully certified personnel before achieving full certification to serve in a given position) is reaching the field in an adequate and timely way,” Dougan said.

But, “This is not happening as consistently as it needs to.” He cited several examples of how this “ongoing problem is occurring:”

An engineer on a fire engine crew in Southern California reports that primary fire personnel on his forest are unable to attend training classes that are only offered out-of-state and unable to go on trainee assignments because of lack of funding.
A purchasing agent in Arizona reports she just received the fiscal year 2014 budget in March, but she was recently informed that the cut-off date for significant procurements (which is normally August 30) has been moved up to June 15 because of the anticipated need to transfer funds to cover fire suppression costs. In other words, for 8-9 months of FY14, there is substantial uncertainty in the field about availability of funds.
An interagency dispatch center manager describes the outcome of budget uncertainty on training decisions as follows: “The timing of the budget has a huge impact on our training. Training must typically be scheduled prior to getting the budget, but our managers don’t know how much money we will have for training. Then, when we do get the budget, we may have training money but it is too late to get into classes. Plus, fire season has started and our firefighters are in the field fighting fire. This happens every year.”

“As even this brief description illustrates,” Dougan said, “the training challenge is complex and infringes on other topics (e.g., funding). However, Congress can improve the situation by doing the following:”

Exercising appropriate oversight to ensure that the action items developed as a result of USDA-OIG Audit Report 08601-54-SF are properly implemented and the WFAP is used to its fullest potential.
Appropriating funds in a timely fashion so that funded training opportunities are not scuttled by budgetary uncertainty.

“Generating highly trained and exceptionally skilled firefighters is an important part of the capacity puzzle,” Dougan continued, noting that, “An equally important part is retaining those valuable employees in whom so much has been invested. Unfortunately, the attrition rate for wildland firefighters is alarmingly high.” And there are a number of reasons for this.

He said “the career path of seasonal firefighters is blocked by flawed and dysfunctional federal regulations,” but that the “good news is this problem may be simply addressed, at little to no cost, by simple legislation to reform the offending regulations.”

“Because of the seasonal nature of the job, wildland firefighting positions are typically filled using seasonal appointments. Typically, leadership or more technical positions are filled using the permanent seasonal appointment authority under 5 CFR 340.402,” Dougan told the subcommittee. “These firefighters’ tours are six months or greater, depending on the need during a particular season. These positions come with the same benefits as full-time permanent positions, except they are prorated based on the length of the tour.”

Furthermore, he pointed out, “Entry level firefighting positions, and on some units intermediate positions, are typically filled using the temporary seasonal authority under 5 CFR, Part 316, Subpart D. These firefighters’ tours are limited to six months, at which point they must be sent home regardless of whether or not fires are still raging. These positions come with very limited benefits and no job security — firefighters are terminated at the end of their tour and may or may not be reappointed in subsequent seasons.”

“Typically, the GS-3 and GS-4 firefighters are hired under the temporary authority and the superintendents and assistant superintendents under the permanent seasonal authority,” Dougan added, saying that, “Some senior firefighters and squad leaders are hired under one authority, some under the other.”

He said, “Many firefighters accept their initial temporary appointments as a ‘foot in the door,’” and that “Many return to their positions, year after year, for many seasons, acquiring in the process valuable training and experience. However, those firefighters looking to advance their careers face a barrier that has nothing to do with their skills. They face the fact that current personnel regulations do not credit their service, regardless of how long, as qualifying for acquiring ‘competitive status.’”

And “Without competitive status,” he said, “they are barred from competing for jobs under the merit promotion procedures, authorized at 5 CFR Part 335, that are available to other federal employees. Many skilled firefighters eventually leave, taking their valuable skills with them. The flexibility to fill positions from current employees under merit promotion, or from among civilian applicants under the competitive process of 5 USC Chapter 33, is a fundamental and necessary flexibility. This flexibility applies with respect to the roughly 2.7 million other federal employees. Yet, in spite of the fact that the kind of experience necessary to make a good hotshot superintendent is earned in the smoke and ashes, this flexibility does not apply with respect to seasonal wildland firefighters. This foolish regulation must be changed.”

“As the primary agencies responsible for managing wildfires at the federal level, the Forest Service and several agencies within the DOI are uniquely positioned to make deep inroads into the wildfire problem. Unfortunately, as wildfires and the communities they threaten have evolved, the federal government has not,” said O’Connor.

“The Forest Service and DOI are hampered by an outdated philosophy focused on land management, which, while appropriate for the wildfire problem of thirty or forty years ago, is simply insufficient to face today’s challenges,” O’Connor said. “The starkest evidence of this fact is that the Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management [FAAM] has routinely accounted for approximately half of the USFS’s total expenditures. Yet, the director who manages fire fighting operations is not part of senior management. Conversely, within [the] Department of Homeland Security by comparison, the role of the FEMA director and even the subordinate position of US Fire Administrator hold far more prominence. The stature and authority of the FAAM director should certainly be elevated.”

“It is time for Congress to take action to provide the resources and the flexibility necessary to protect communities across our nation from wildfire,” Dougan said. “Reforms cannot wait until next year. They need to be acted on immediately.”

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