Time for a Change: Firefighter Fairness

Here is the letter sent to all FS employees:

Subject: Time for a Change

Hello my forest service coworkers. Please give me five minutes of your day. I know that this email is going to make me an unpopular employee by speaking out. My apologies to my forest supervisor for the phone calls you will most assuredly receive. My intent is not to embarrass you or infuriate you.

My name is Scott Mayner. I have been an employee of the USFS for 20 years. I have been a forestry technician my entire career and I have been heavily involved in timber and fire for two decades.

Recently I applied for a job as a supervisory fire engine operator. It was advertised as a primary fire position. That designation comes with an age restriction requiring the applicant to be no more than 36 years old unless sufficient time has been served in a primary or secondary fire position which can be subtracted from your current age to qualify you as less than 37.

This clause apparently has no provision for time dedicated to fire training, fire details, or prescribed fire or wildfire suppression work on your own unit/forest.

Despite the fact that I have served for many cumulative years in fire related duties and am highly qualified for many positions in our ICS system, I was deemed too old to qualify. I am 38 years old and only a short 14 months ago, I would have been considered for this position. My time working in fire related duties isn’t being considered at all. My years of training, years of service, and level of qualifications mean nothing.

It actually has little to do with a person’s age however. If I was 45 and had been a fire tech for 10 years, I could qualify. It is all because of the firefighter retirement system.

This system is completely screwed up however. A forestry technician who is arduous fire fighter qualified, assists with every prescribed burn, every wildfire, attends numerous trainings, attains numerous qualifications, and travels on details will never be considered for fire fighter retirement benefits. The fire tech from the same district who does no more fire related work than the forestry tech gets a 20 year retirement with additional financial benefits!

I feel this is wrong. Any employee who dedicates 20 years assisting this nation with fire suppression should be given consideration for fire fighter retirement, regardless of whether they are a forestry tech, recreation tech, wildlife tech, or professional series.

Some of you are reading this and saying, oh this is just “sour grapes” and that is fine if you believe that. But any system we have that discounts experience and discriminates based on age, regardless of the reason, is a system that has no place in our agency.

I may not be the most qualified person for the job, and if I am not then so be it, I can accept being beaten by a higher qualified person, that is the nature of competitive placement and the nature of life. What I cannot accept is not being considered because our agency will not allow anyone over 36 to apply for a job who isn’t already in a fire position. Regardless of the reasoning, it is wrong.

I know you fire fighter retirement designers and personnel managers will be saying that I don’t understand the intent of the 20 year retirement, mandatory retirement age, etc. Well I do, and I believe it to be a system that is heavily flawed. It favors younger, less experienced employees over those who have dedicated many more years and have much more experience. We are doing away with experience on the fireline and discriminating against the older employees with such requirements. The Forest Service should be ashamed of themselves.

I understand the taboo of sending a message All FS. Yet I have hit block after block by people above me who don’t care, aren’t interested, or have a fear of breaking a rule. I have said nothing in this message that is offensive, rude, or out of line. I am merely speaking about part of our agency that I feel is wrong. I expect that I am not the only victim of this discriminatory practice and I feel that this agency needs to change the rules regarding fire fighter positions and fire fighter retirement. I have heard the lousy excuse “rules are rules” way more than I can stand. The rules are stupid, discriminatory, disregard experience, and need to be immediately changed. Rangers, Forest Supervisors, Regional Foresters, Chief….this is wrong, let’s fix it.

Thank you,

Scott Mayner
USDA Forest Service

My take:This would be a good example of somethings that either 1) has good reasons for existing, not yet explained clearly or 2) no one feels that they can change it (do not know how fixing it could be done) Just a clear explanation of why this is the way it is would be helpful. With any decision, especially personnel, some win and some lose.

Here is my take on the way this works:

I think being clear about what you are doing and why makes some people unhappy with the choice. These are real people who can and do fight back in various direct and indirect ways.

Being unclear makes everyone unhappy and powerless because it looks bad and there is no apparent reason and no perceived way to fix- plus no one cares enough to give you a reason. Yet, no one decision maker can be accountable.. it happens in the HR ether somewhere.

And from the ether, sometimes you get a pellet and sometimes you get a shock.

5 Comments

  1. I’m sure every recent Chief has had a goal of reducing work-related injuries and comp claims. This seems to be one heavy-handed way to reach those goals. Oddly enough, there’s a ton of old timber guys who have to do “arduous” work, everyday, on helicopter and cable ground. It will be interesting to see the outcome of his well-written letter. I’ve seen many similar responses from management about righting the wrongs involving temporary employees.

  2. Having retired many, many years ago, I don’t have a dog in this fight. But I do have an opinion.
    It has always been a frustration for me that certain “dangerous” positions in the public sector have a special early retirement of 20 years for select positions. Such as firefighters (wildfire or structural), police, certain military, etc. I don’t know who-all are included, but I am certain that many, many men and women are retired at or near age 40-45 with relatively high lifetime benefits who have rarely been subject to the extreme risks of injury or death that this program was designed to cover.
    For instance, a “fire control or fire staff officer” on a forest who manages the fire protection program, but only occasionally is actually on the fireline is eligible to retire after 20 years. Or a police officer who has spent most (or all) of his duty-years in some office position is out in 20. The same with firemen.
    Our community is full of retired police/firemen in their 40s or 50s who move to north Idaho to escape the big cities (don’t blame them a bit for this), receiving generous pensions/benefits that are bankrupting the communities/states they have left. I suspect that many of these folks spent very little time actually in harm’s way in their previous “hazard pay” careers. Seems unfair, doesn’t it, from the perspective of someone like this letter-writer who has months or years of actual fire experience.
    Don’t know what the answers might be, but the sheer cost to government at all levels, local, state and federal, should be justification for a serious overhaul of statutes and policies.

  3. I remember my brother being very upset that his next door neighbor in the California desert was retiring from the BLM as a fire person at age 42. Full retirement and benefits. His reasoning, (my brother’s), was that for him in the private sector to gain that same benefit, he would have to have about $2,000,000 in the bank at age 42 . Or so he concluded. I am not an actuary, but my brother is a doctor and knows his way around retirement planning and needs. Like the amount of money it takes to put a “tail” on your medical malpractice insurance to cover you long after you have retired and some attorney decides that you screwed up long ago and harmed his or her client. Or how much you have to have invested at a 5% return, to have the same benefit as a 20 year wildland fire fighter. Government for government by government. The new special class that makes more for the same work than the private sector, by a bunch in some cases. It will, I am sure, determine election results in the next decade. Like, how would you like to be serving, right now in Afghanistan, and get “pink slipped” by the Army. Yep. You are going home to get fired. That is happening, right now.

    How about being a USFS tech, a full time employee, actually getting a lesser benefit for his work than the part time fire guys and gals who get the full year health and welfare benefit, and retirement, even though they only work from April through October? And, draw unemployment in the winter while they play in the sun or ski away the winter, if they worked the requisite 26 weeks. That has to be part of what writer Javorka has rubbing sores into his psyche. I am sure there is more to this story than the writer has revealed. There is probably a lot of restraint in what he wrote, if what I have read in the past few years is, in fact, the true story.

  4. I completely agree with your concerns. I was a fire engine operator and crew supervisor by the time I was 23 in 1990. I transferred to Lemoore NAS to get a permanent career job. I was there only about 9 months and then they RIFFed 10 of us. I decided to complete my BS degree in resources management, and come back to the USFS more qualified, and perhaps be a resource manager.

    In 1994 I took a seasonal job as a ff on an engine…quite a step down, and 1998-2000 was a lookout in the NPS. I applied constantly for jobs in the DOD, USFS, BLM, and NPS. Once they even rated me as unqualified to be a lookout, although I had three seasons as a lead lookout training many assistant lookouts!

    Graduated with honors, top grad in major, 11 seasons of fire+ type work, and I have been rated best qualified in several apps, but never get an offer. I am 47 now, and too old to be re-hired as federal firefighter, though I know several who are in terrible shape, do not have a degree, or the experience I have. They continue to work because they stayed in by luck or circumstance and have become complacent and not proactive in their assignment anymore.

    This is age discrimintation. I would accept the challenge of any physical test, or knowledge test, skills whatever against any current employee of any federal fire agencies to prove my abilities, yet no such system exists. I will be backpacking, hiking in the Sierra’s shortly, and am sure I will give a few passing thoughts to the people on the ground at the current fire columns visible from there, and still wonder what the hell is going on.

    I really wish you luck, and keep telling your story. Inaction does nothing. You have my support!

    Sincerely,

    Darin Harshman

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