In the Line of Fire

19 February 2019

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USA – In life, they are treated identically: Wildland firefighters wear the same gear, drive the same trucks, dig the same fire lines, fell the same trees, hump the same grueling miles and face the same risks – even bed down in the same camps – regardless whether they’re employed as public employees or private contractors.

In death, however, some firefighters’ lives are worth more than others.

On the heels of one of the deadliest, costliest and most destructive wildfire seasons in U.S. history, with wildfires expected to grow even worse each year, the U.S. has come to rely ever more on contract firefighting companies to augment the ranks of state and federal fire agencies.

Last year, contract firefighters accounted for roughly a quarter of the nation’s 40,000 or so wildland firefighters. At least two died while battling blazes or shortly after returning from fires.

“They are called to assignments more and more,” says Jessica Gardetto, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center. “Because we’re having this longer fire season with this extreme fire season and fire activity, we’re seeing the frequency in these crews being called to fires increasing. The more fire activity we have, the more need we have for fire contract crews.”

Yet in spite of their increasingly vital role safeguarding U.S. homes and businesses, which have encroached ever closer to forests turned into tinder by things like climate change and underfunded prevention efforts, contract firefighters remain ineligible for the federal Public Safety Officers’ Benefits extended to state and federal firefighters. Those benefits include a payment of close to $360,000 in the event of a job-related death, plus scholarship opportunities for grieving spouses and children.

“It doesn’t replace my son,” says Martin Johnson, whose 19-year-old son, Trenton, a contract firefighter, was killed by a falling tree in July 2017. He said the benefits, however, would be helpful for someone with a spouse or with children. “That would be huge, because the loss of income. … The risks are exactly the same. It doesn’t matter who you’re working for, it’s just the danger there. It’s for the good of the same cause.”

Contractors, by contrast, are lucky if their company pays for their funeral.

The Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Act, signed by President Gerald Ford in 1976, specifically excluded public safety contractors. Anecdotally, the reason goes back to city firefighters’ unions, which heavily supported the bill and feared that private contractors were replacing municipal agencies.

“There are contract companies that come into towns and try to get rid of the city fire departments,” says Vicki Minor, executive director of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation. “If I was a city firefighter, I sure as hell wouldn’t want some contractor coming in to take my job.”

Yet such concerns have mostly faded. Private firefighting firms at the local level are typically hired to protect unincorporated towns, sprawling commercial properties and – as gained much attention during the California wildfires last year – individual homes. But the contractors they employ have also taken on a larger role in fighting wildfires.

Even so, the International Association of Fire Fighters – the profession’s main union – hasn’t taken an official stance on whether contractors should be covered by federal benefits.

“We have not taken a position. There’s no activity one way or the other,” says Rick Swan, a retired wildland firefighter with Cal Fire – a state agency – and director of wildland firefighting safety and response for the Health, Safety and Medicine division of the International Association of Fire Fighters. But, he added, “I would think that it would be a much-needed addition, because this does treat them like second-class citizens, where their value isn’t as valuable as someone else.”

Contracting companies have become a main entry point for Americans seeking to make a career in firefighting: The firms offer an opportunity to gain experience while preparing to join a city department or awaiting the slow churn of hiring at state and federal wildland agencies. And, unlike local volunteer firefighting outfits, the experience comes with pay.

“It’s just another way of most of them getting their feet in the door,” Swan says. “A lot of structural firefighters get experience someplace or another. They may become volunteers, or if they can get the experience while making pretty good money they’ll do that.”

Scott Charlson, 25, was an aspiring sports journalist and a member of the lacrosse team at Southern Oregon University when he took a summer job with a private firefighting crew to help pay for his last semester at college.

“Someone came to the SOU lacrosse coach and asked if he had any buff guys who wanted to earn some big money for the summer, and Scott responded,” his mother, Nina, says. “His crew boss said he thought Scott was seriously entertaining writing a book about wildland firefighting.”

Two months into his first fire season in August 2008, Scott Charlson and eight others were killed when their helicopter – later found to be 3,000 pounds overweight – failed to take off and crashed into nearby trees. All were being ferried from a fire back to base camp in Oregon. Yet only one person was eligible for benefits: Jim Ramage, a U.S. Forest Service inspector pilot from California.

The other grieving families knew they weren’t covered by the benefits program, yet they brought their own claims anyway.

“We needed to file and work for change,” Nina Charlson says. “Families that have young kids, a widow – it’s really hard. My husband retired early because he was not capable of doing what he was doing before. He was a manufacturing manager, and what happens to your mind is it just becomes gridlocked. It is so numb because there’s so much information, so much trauma, so much pain coming in, that you’re mind just locks up. And it’s hard to even think.”

The families’ appeal ended up before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But the court – ruling six years after Charlson’s death – ultimately denied the claim.

Under the statute, “employees of independent contractors do not qualify as ‘public safety officers’ for the purposes of the Benefits Act,” the court concluded. Any change would have to be made by legislators.

Lawmakers in 2017 passed up perhaps their best chance to make such a change. The Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Improvement Act eased some documentation requirements, extended age limits for the program’s education benefits and even inserted a presumption that officers or firefighters “acted properly at the time of injury or death” and were, therefore, eligible for benefits even in the case of “voluntary intoxication at the time of injury or death.”

Left out, though, was any new mention of contractors – and in that gap, a conspicuous silence.

A spokesman for Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who introduced the 2017 bill, said in an email that “as a general matter, individuals or companies that contract with the government are not considered public employees under federal law.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., in 2013 introduced a bill that would have changed the law’s text to include contractors. But it went nowhere in the face of partisan gridlock.

In the face of such seeming apathy, and more than a decade since Scott’s death, Charlson says it’s become a struggle to keep up the fight.

“I just told a friend yesterday that I walked away from it, from burnout and frustration,” Charlson says. “There’s a roadblock there, and I don’t know what it is.”

Meanwhile, climate scientists warn that fire seasons – in the face of warming temperatures, drought and inadequate funding for prevention measures – are getting worse. Wildfires last year scorched more than 1.6 million acres across California – an area larger than Delaware and the largest swath in 15 years. They destroyed more than 31,000 homes and businesses, according to the Insurance Information Institute. And they killed close to 100 people, including at least 11 firefighters.

“There’s no reason to say that that life is not worth as much as this life. It’s horrible to explain to a family,” Minor, of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, says. “When you look at what lives are worth, all the same people out there who are fighting fire need to have that coverage, because they do the same job.”

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