Lack of manpower exacerbates the problems of federal firefighters

Lack of manpower exacerbates the problems of federal firefighters

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Firefighters applaud Biden’s move to raise wages, but warn that temporary wage increases will not be enough to combat staffing problems as federal services compete closely with local firefighters and firefighters. the big stores. LABOR MARKET.

“It’s an effort and an effort to keep people at work,” said Jonathon Golden, a former federal firefighter from Park City, Utah, about the move to raise federal firefighters’ salaries. “But it still lags behind in municipal and other government agencies.”

The era of fires is raging across the western United States, and fierce competition for workers is exacerbating the challenges facing firefighters’ land management services. For years, firefighters and their supporters have denounced wage stagnation and rising living costs, arguing that both make recruitment and decay unavoidable.

The Biden government announced on Tuesday that infrastructure bill funds would be reimbursed and give all federal firefighters a two-year increase – either a 50% increase from their base salary or $ 20,000, whichever is lower.

The move follows an executive order signed by President Joe Biden last year to increase the federal firefighters’ minimum wage to $ 15 an hour. And it implements provisions of last year’s infrastructure bill designed to help hire and retain firefighters, including a $ 600 million one-time fundraiser.

Biden said funding for long-term wage increases remains a priority, as climate change makes the US West warmer, drier and more prone to fires.

“I will do everything in my power, including working with Congress to secure long-term funding, to make sure these heroes continue to earn the salaries – and dignity – they deserve,” he said in a statement. statement.

Although officials say it is an incomplete measure, the number of unfulfilled staff requests in large forest fires – or “can not fulfill orders”, indicates growing problems: In 2019, there were 92 times where the National Fire Service could not mobilize fire crews on request. In 2020, there were 339 crew mobilization orders that could not be fulfilled. And last year, 1,858 crew mobilization orders could not be carried out.

Ken Schmid, a business specialist at the National Interdepartmental Fire Department, said orders “can not be met” reflect staffing needs, but may also depend on geography or time of year, especially in months when services are dedicated to staffing. in education or other high-priority work.

“The bottom line is that we have more large fires out there and incident management teams needing to try to block them than we have people available,” said Grant Beebe, a former smoker and assistant director of the Bureau of Land Management for Fire and Rescue. aviation.

Members of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters defense team believe the increases were long overdue. However, they warn that without permanent increases, some of the country’s most capable firefighters – including firefighters, smokers and elite crews – may go to work elsewhere.

“You can go to a Whole Foods and start at $ 16 an hour with a $ 1,000 sign-up bonus. “It’s just a tight job market now,” said Golden, a former firefighter.

In addition to competition from retail employers, federal agencies also compete with state and local agencies that can pay more, offer more full-time jobs and better benefits.

Mid-career federal firefighters currently earn about half the pay of third-year firefighters in the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, according to an analysis by the Grassroots Wildland Fireighters. Event managers working for federal agencies can pay only a quarter of the pay of municipal firefighters working in the same fire.

Wage increases and the creation of a new job classification that will allow more firefighters to be hired for year-round jobs will reduce the pay gap between federal firefighters and their federal and local counterparts, federal officials said.

In a newsletter released this week, they say they expect the changes announced Tuesday to help firefighters recruit more staff and create career opportunities for those already employed. Both, officials say, should reduce wear and tear for skilled firefighters who have left for other departments or industries.

Land management services, most notably the U.S. Forest Service and the Office of Land Management, hope to employ more than 30,000 firefighters during the peak season this summer and have been hiring new staff throughout the spring.

However, the Forest Service said last month that staffing levels were 90% overall, but up to 50% in some fire-prone areas, such as California, Oregon and Washington.

Randy Erwin, president of the union that represents the majority of federal wildlife firefighters, said recruiting and conservation were particularly difficult this year amid a worse-than-normal fire season. He expects that the increase in salaries will help the services to complete the firefighting ranks.

“Firefighters simply could not cope with the desperately low salaries offered to the federal services, so jobs became very difficult to fill,” he said in a statement.

Brad Hershbein, a senior economist at the WE Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, said there were few signs of competition for workers being laid off or hiring slowed. Although the job market remains tight, he said private-sector employers have recovered to pre-pandemic levels more than public-sector employers, such as federal firefighters.

Firefighting may be an attractive profession for young people who crave adventure and a sense of purpose, but Hershbein said the charm is unlikely to isolate federal services from the broader labor market trends and the many factors that burden candidates. employees when considering jobs.

“Based on my reading of everything that happens in the job market, unless they are going to do other things to attract people – such as bonuses and other incentives – it will be very difficult,” he said.

Oregon Sen. Ron Weiden, who last month wrote a letter describing the emerging staff shortages as an “urgent threat to natural resources, public safety and taxpayer dollars,” welcomed Biden’s announcement. However, he said more needs to be done for firefighters, especially as the flames become more intense.

“They deserve the basic dignity of good pay and good services that fully recognize their sacrifice and hard work and enable them to support their families,” he said.

“Summer is here, there is a shortage of firefighters in Oregon and across the West and there is no time to waste implementing these changes on the ground.”

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Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani from Washington DC Metz told part of the story from a lab at the Institute of Journalism and Natural Resources in Boise, Idaho.

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