In Missoula, wildland firefighters discuss retention, morale, USFS regs with Daines

Sen. Steve Daines talks with wildland firefighters from Montana and Idaho in Missoula on Friday. He plans to introduce several bills to address concerns over the retention and classification of fire crews. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Those who jump from planes, provide initial attack deep in the forest or staff an engine line all have a common set of issues related to their federal job classification, which mentions nothing about being a firefighter.

Retaining qualified crew members and staying within the hours that wildland firefighters are permitted to work have also emerged as problems, according to Montana and Idaho firefighters who met with Sen. Steve Daines on Friday at Neptune Aviation in Missoula.

“We need Congress to understand the issues and address them, because we’re having a serious issue of retention among our firefighters,” said Casey Judd. “There are too many incentives not to stay. Too many other agencies are offering better-paying benefits. We have agencies leading the fire program that don’t have much fire background or experience.”

Judd, president of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, said federal taxpayers could save money if the government invested in its federal fire crews. Doing so would boost morale, prevent employee losses, save lives and reduce the overall cost of suppression.

Only when a firefighter dies is he or she referred to as a firefighter, Judd and others said. Otherwise, the federal Office of Personnel Management describes them as a “forestry technician.”

“Fire has become a year-round proposition for these folks with preparedness, suppression and fuel reduction programs,” Judd said. “All we’re looking for is a change in the classification recognizing them for who they are and what they do as firefighters.”

Casey Judd, president of Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, said firefighter retention has become a serious issue. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

In an effort to direct as many employees as possible to help on fires, the U.S. Forest Service moved firefighters out of what Judd described as the “fire control series” and placed them under the umbrella of a “forestry technician.”

Under that classification, he said, fire is described as “other duty as assigned.” For those who risk their lives and suffer injuries and sometimes death on the fire line, such language doesn’t sit well. It could also hinder their ability to tap benefits and to move within the agency.

“It’s a very simple fix that would have a significant positive impact on morale, recruitment and retention, because we’re losing so many of these great men and women to other agencies for better-paying benefits,” Judd said. “There’s no incentive to stay in the federal system. This would be a significant first step.”

Daines is working on a pair of bills he believes will address the firefighters’ concerns. Along with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, Daines plans to introduce the Wildland Firefighter Recognition Act to address the firefighter classification.

“I’m looking to introduce these bills when I go back next week with Sen. Cantwell,” he said. “Until then, we have time to modify and change these bills based upon the input we get here today. This classification issue leads to retention as well.”

Sen. Steve Daines, left, talks with U.S. Forest Service firefighter Shane Ralston at Neptune Aviation in Missoula. Rolston was injured on the job and worries about collecting benefits and getting another job in the agency. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Several firefighters also described their worries about employment within the agency after suffering injuries on the line. The so-called “1039” rule also has challenged retention and made it harder to train younger crew members.

The figure 1,039 happens to be one hour short of six months of employment, fire crews told Daines. The Forest Service set that figure decades ago as a threshold to avoid paying full-time benefits.

Daines called the figure arbitrary, and one firefighter said it puts fire crews in jeopardy. With fire seasons increasing in length and intensity, many crews push up against the 1039 rule, leaving them little time to train in the classroom or advance their career.

“If we’re looking at building and retaining our workforce, we need to provide the hours to train and take assignments, much like we do our permanent workforce,” the man told Daines. “We’re losing out on opportunities to further train those folks.”