Stand up for wildland firefighters, and a bill to do so

Here’s an interesting essay on pay and working conditions — and a deficit of respect? — for federal wildland firefighters. It also mentions a proposed the Wildland Firefighter Protection Act. http://wp.me/a3AxwY-45f

 

Stand up for wildland firefighters

By Lindon Pronto/Writers on the Range

Federal wildland firefighters make up the single largest professionally trained firefighting force in the world. We staff fire engines and earthmovers, work from helicopters and jump from planes, and move as 20-person, well-coordinated crews of “ground pounders.” We also put together incident management teams to manage many kinds of relief efforts.

Our teams have dealt with emergencies like Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. But on paper — for bureaucratic reasons — we are not called “firefighters.” Instead, we are called forestry and range “technicians.”

To us, that distinction is a longstanding joke that’s not remotely funny. The failure to recognize who we are and what we do comes at a great price.

Few Americans see a green fire engine for what it is, have any idea what hotshot crews face on the fireline, or have even heard of helitack. Even those closest to us may not fully grasp the long shifts we endure or the risks we take. But we love what we do; anyone who doesn’t soon decides that the commitments are too many and the sacrifices are too great.

The dangerous conditions encountered in wildland firefighting, combined with the rush of adrenaline and a sense of duty and brotherhood, are exactly the reasons we love our jobs. We not only accept these aspects of our work, we live for them! There are, however, other aspects of the job that are harder to accept, particularly for those who rely on the work to support families. Few Americans realize this, but federal firefighters are treated and paid considerably less well than our counterparts in private, city and state agencies. 

For example, many non-federal firefighters are guaranteed hotel rooms and 24-hour pay when they’re working away from home. Federal firefighters, though, usually sleep in the dirt, like convict crews, and we are not paid for more than 16 hours per day on incidents.

Federal firefighters regularly work 112-hour workweeks for two or three weeks at a time, yet we are not compensated for at least one-third of that time. The nickel-and-diming we face goes further: Firefighters are often required to staff fires overnight without pay, and lunch breaks are seldom paid. On prescribed fires, hazard pay is not given even though we are required to carry emergency fire shelters with us. 

These and other discrepancies in treatment and pay contribute to dismal retention rates among federal agencies. Millions of dollars are wasted annually to hire and train new firefighters, though many will leave as soon as they’re offered fire jobs with better hours, benefits, pay and pensions.

Federal firefighters are generally hidden from public view. We are stationed in the outdoors, and we are (happily) grimy, dirty, smelly and hairy during those 16-hour shifts on the fireline. The media are seldom permitted to enter our hazardous work zones. Unfortunately, this low profile means that our job is easily misrepresented and misunderstood. The public remains ignorant about who we are and what we do. As wildland firefighters, our faces and stories rarely make the news — unless we die on the job.

The problems we face should be illuminated, but constructive dialogue is hampered by the old-school “can-do” work ethic — coupled with the “shut-up-and-do-your-job” mentality. The lack of public awareness means that our working conditions remain the same, and the problems I’ve described here go unreported, and therefore unresolved. 

Still, some stalwart supporters and lobbyists have fought for decades to improve our pay and working conditions. This year, for the first time, seasonal firefighters were given access to health benefits. A recent bill introduced in Congress would address some of the other issues I’ve described, but the Wildland Firefighter Protection Act (H.R.2858) is unlikely to be signed into law if no one knows about it. That’s why I’m breaking my silence on the subject: I hope that public pressure and support for federal firefighters will carry this proposed legislation into law. Here’s a way to stand with federal firefighters: http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/wildland-firefighter/?source=search

It hurts not to be recognized for the hard work we do, and to be denied the benefits and financial support systems that other “real” firefighters automatically receive. We have no shortage of personal pride in our work, but that pride often appears to be unshared by our own government, elected officials and the public we serve.

  • Lindon Pronto is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He has been a seasonal wildland firefighter for six years; the opinions he expresses here are his own. He lives in Auburn, California.

 

2 Comments

  1. I didn’t know that forestry technicians were called in to fight fire at the World Trade Center collapse. I sort of dislike Pronto’s arguments for this bill in that there are too many embellishments. He overplays his literary license seemingly converting ordinary citizens into superheros on a national scale by donning nomex clothing.

    I did fight wildfires for many years, including initial attack, helitack, back-burn, line, and mop-up. These were adventurous and challenging jobs to be sure, and I did hurry in a crowning fire situation more than once. I thought the pay including hazard & overtime was fair. Maybe things have changed? That is possible I suppose. But Mr. Pronto’s dramatic claims would not be my own.

    USFS seasonal firefighters are a mixed lot of folks, many who have other regular USFS duties, or with other organizations. Many are actually forest technicians who are called to duty to deal with fires when they break out. Crews can be youth corps, Native American/ethnic, prison, hot shots, engineers, and others. Some jobs are unskilled and some require the ability to fall burning trees or operate bulldozers. Risks vary widely from front line crews to fire camp service folks to mop up. Heck, I worked one fire where the outhouses were hauled out of fire camp when the rains came, but my crew remained for quite a while longer on mop up patrol.

    Maybe this bill is okay, and certainly no firefighter will turn down more money. It seems like it will be difficult to apply since it attempts to pin down a task for federal classification that is often mixed in with many other less dramatic tasks. Paying for it will require a higher FLAME fund, which is already depleted. I suppose they can just “borrow” the money from the recreation budget again, and then we volunteers can do that much more work. Volunteers were at the World Trade Center too.

    • With the downsizing of timber folks, there are less of them available for wildfires. The crew I was on last year were told that there would be no chance for firefighting. Our “trigger fingers” were just too important, and “the paint must fly”. I, also, have done quite a variety of fire-related jobs, in my long career. The lack of fire-ready timber crews has added to the costs and impacted responses to fire ignitions. Pronto does not mention that SoCal forestry techs get a grade bump, either. That was in response to the fact that other fire agencies, down there, offer a lot more. The Forest Service was more like a “minor league team, training players and supplying talent” to the Major Leagues. Apparently, some people think that pay bump wasn’t enough. The overall situation is similar to what forestry technicians in timber have experienced. I would argue that the skill set for timber folks is more complicated. Much of the time, these firefighters are raking needles, cleaning trucks and doing various maintenance tasks. Timber folks are pounding the ground, everyday, even in the rain and snow. Ever tried variable plot cruising?!? Ever GPS complex unit boundaries? Ever been a certified timber cruiser? Ever measure stream buffers? Ever approve landings and skid trails? Ever inspect logger’s work under the complex timber sale contract? Ever do all that as a GS-5 temporary?

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