GAO Report on Barriers to Recruitment and Retention of Federal Wildland Firefighters

Here’s a link to the report.

I don’t know how many TSW ites are involved in fire or fire hiring, but I’d be interested in your impressions of the report findings.

Also, I wonder which of these barriers are also barriers to other FS (and possibly BLM) hiring?
The FS retiree rumor network circulated that the FS was trying to hire 800 slots and at the end of the day would only get about 500 reporting (anyone with better info, please add). So it’s possible that there are barriers to hiring all kinds of folks; perhaps not the same barriers. Maybe it also depends on what the alternatives for employment are. I have heard that fewer folks want to work in the woods/brush/grass and more want to work in the office on computers, but I don’t know if that’s true.

But back to fire folks.. there’s an interesting discussion in the comments on Wildfire Today here.

What GAO Found
The federal wildland firefighting workforce is composed of approximately 18,700 firefighters (including fire management and support staff) from the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and from four agencies in the Department of the Interior. The Interior agencies are the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service. GAO identified seven barriers to recruitment and retention of federal wildland firefighters through analysis of interviews with agency officials and 16 nonfederal stakeholders and a review of documents (see fig.).

Low pay was the most commonly cited barrier to recruiting and retaining federal wildland firefighters. Officials and all 16 stakeholders stated that the pay, which starts at $15 per hour for entry-level positions, is low. Officials and eight stakeholders also noted that the pay does not reflect the risk or physical demands of the work. Moreover, officials and stakeholders said that in some cases, firefighters can earn more at nonfederal firefighting entities or for less dangerous work in other fields, such as food service. The Forest Service and Interior agencies have taken steps to help address this barrier. For example, in 2022, the agencies worked with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to address a provision of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act calling for the agencies to increase firefighter salaries by the lesser of $20,000 or 50 percent of base salary in locations where it is difficult to recruit or retain wildland firefighters. In June 2022, the agencies announced that the salary increase would apply to wildland firefighters in all geographic locations, as their analysis indicated that recruitment and retention challenges existed in all locations. The act authorized funding for the wildland firefighter provisions, including those related to salary increases, for fiscal years 2022 through 2026, and appropriated some funding toward those provisions.

The Forest Service and Interior are taking steps to address other barriers as well. For example, to help improve work-life balance for firefighters, the Forest Service increased the size of some firefighting crews, a change intended to allow crew members to more easily take time off for rest or personal reasons, according to Forest Service officials. In addition, in fiscal year 2021, 84 percent of federal firefighters identified as men and 72 percent identified as White. To increase diversity, the agencies have recruited women and underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, including through a wildland firefighter apprentice program. The agencies are also taking steps to improve mental health services and hiring practices

E&E News has an article on it, here’s an excerpt:

In a wildland fire review on the Forest Service website last Thursday, officials referenced the increased pay and new emphasis on mental health — a reflection of GAO’s finding that emotional strain remains one of the barriers to hiring and retention.

“We look forward to continuing this conversation with the wildland firefighter community as we work to build and solidify the well-supported, more permanent wildland firefighting force needed to address the wildfire crisis,” said Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry Jaelith Hall-Rivera and acting Deputy Chief for Research and Development Cynthia West.

The Forest Service and the Interior Department together have a firefighting force of about 18,700, including support staff. Some 84 percent of firefighters in 2021 were men, and 72 percent white, although the agencies have focused recent recruitment at women and underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, GAO said.

To make further improvements, the Forest Service may need to pay particular attention to the concerns of people in their 20s who want to be firefighters, or to remain firefighters. That’s a priority for a group called the FireGeneration Collaborative, which sent representatives to the nation’s capital last week.

“They’re failing to connect with our generation,” said Kyle Trefny, a student at the University of Oregon and one of the group’s organizers, who’s also a wildland firefighter in the summer.

Trefny and others who visited with Forest Service officials and lawmakers said they’re pushing the agency to adopt policies and approaches more in line with younger adults who want to pursue careers in firefighting. Those include more diversity in fire crews, an embrace of planned fire as a forest management tool and flexibility in certain hiring practices.

8 thoughts on “GAO Report on Barriers to Recruitment and Retention of Federal Wildland Firefighters”

  1. As a long-time forestry/wildlife instructor at a community college, I’ve seen a shift over the years in students’ concern with work-life balance, and many are unwilling or unable to move to remote locations. They’re much more urban-centered than in the past. Pay has always been low in the natural resources sector and still is an issue, and not just in entry-level jobs. $15/hour is low these days — you can make that or more at a fast-food joint. But some firefighters can and do make much more, on average, with overtime and hazard pay.

  2. Well, I tell ya, I was part of Region 3 Fire Hire for several years, hiring hundreds of firefighters. For one thing, trying to plug diversity candidates into locations they do not want to go does not work! Hiring more locally accomplishes the mobility, pay and work/life balance issues. I’ve seen the Agency turn away great, qualified local candidates to bring someone in from across the country. Those folks, unless they are really committed, won’t stay. In off hours, they have no family to return to; their only “friends” are crew mates, and to be realistic, they need time away from crew mates!

    The hiring process is so burdensome it limits many folks who absolutely give up on process. I can tell you the “leaders intent” on diversification, but that is really not called for here…..

  3. Of course, all of those issues apply to non-fire positions, too. Realistically, there is very little incentive for someone to want to be an entry-level Forestry Technician in Timber. No Forester is going to work on a marking crew. A smarter move for a Forestry Technician would be to work in fire, and see what happens. There is little chance of advancement in timber beyond GS-6, for a Forestry Technician.

    I guess there is still a process at work, to re-value important pieces of a fully-funded Forest Service. Until then, they will remain hamstrung in timber by workforce problems.

  4. There seems to be a push by the agency to build a long-term career path for 0462 firefighters. Most firefighter jobs were never intended to be that. Many of us started out as 0462 seasonals, which helped pay our way through college, while working towards a professional degree be it in natural resources or some other profession. There seems to be interest making GS 3/4/5 jobs something more than they are. My advice to seasonals is to go to college, if you want to stay in natural resources, get a degree in it. We are begging for professional 0460 folks. And nowadays, with the number’s downturn in militia service, you can get all the fire time that you want once you are on permanently.

    • So, instead, you seem to be just fine having those 1039 GS-3 Temps and above being cut loose while fire season rages on into November and December. We keep getting reminded that “fire season is year round”. I’ve always thought that there should be ‘Super Techs’, who have multiple skills to do many kinds of support jobs, when needed. Once the firefighters get their own Job Series and pay scale, will Forestry Technicians become the ‘lowest on the totem pole’? I know that leadership doesn’t consider such people as essential. In fact, you don’t even need to know your tree species to be hired as a Forestry Technician or Aid. Of course, it IS important to know the difference between a white fir and a Douglas-fir.

      Part of the problem is that much of the Professional Foresters have never been on a marking crew for a whole season. Especially in the last 10 years. They are out of touch with the real timber problems in the Forest Service (or just in denial).

      • Fire season isn’t all year in most places. Southern Calif., yes, and parts of the Southwest.

        As a former seasonal USFS forestry technician and wildland firefighter, my opinion is that the opportunities to get a permanent gig are very limited, and that means there’s less incentive to take a seasonal job — it’s a dead end. After 5 seasons, and with an AAS degree in forestry, I applied for a permanent job in the timber shop I had been working in, but lost out to a person with no timber experience and a 4-year degree that wasn’t even in forestry. That’s when I lost all hope and left the USFS to seek work elsewhere, which I did. Also a bachelor’s degree. The agency lost an experienced technician who wanted a career with the agency, but I wasn’t willing to be a seasonal GS-5 forever, with little or no hope of advancement beyond a GS-6 or GS-7. In my opinion, an 2-year degree plus experience and knowledge ought to be worth a bachelor’s degree.

        • The old ‘regime’ has to collapse before the bigwigs will take notice. Now is the time to ‘help’ that happen. If the leadership is OK with under-performance in timber, who are we to complain. Let it fail! Outsource the timber workforce!

        • Steve, you are right, getting a PFT without a degree was hard, especially after Reagan “froze” hiring in the early 80’s. I was a long term “TEMP” (10 years) on the Willamette & Siuslaw NFs, most of that time I didn’t want a PFT (think unemployment, Mexico, surfing all winter etc.) but when I tried, most of the time I was shut out of 462 jobs by young foresters with little or no experience, most of the time they wouldn’t hire because they couldn’t get past me (10 pt Vet). I turned 40 and got serious, learned how to “game” the system on a smaller forest (Siuslaw, ran a work crew, and got to know the personal officer and specialists. Come 1990, just before the Spotted Owl/Timber wars fiasco hit Waldport RD decided to hire a 5 person PFT Timber crew, Imagine that. With my app critiqued by personal I came out on top so they had to hire me because they wanted the folks that came out below me. From a TEMP 462 7 to PFT 462 5 at 42 yo, I was eager to get out and mark & cruise, and layout in a large timber sale program that had 20+ people. We put together a lot of Timber sales in the next year that were never cut. By 1993 our District went down from 60 employees to 25, think Directed Reassignments & RIF. Timber shop disappeared , I went to Silviculture, then GIS, 462 5 to 9 in 5 years no competition, learning to take advantage of change was a helpful learned skill, as a 462 you needed to find an edge and take advantage, Siuslaw was not a “Fire” forest. I went on to R3 to help build Forest and Regional GIS Programs.


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