'Firefighter' Or 'Forestry Tech'? And Why It Matters

May 17, 2019

Here’s a riddle: When is a wildland firefighter not technically a firefighter? Answer: When he or she works for the federal government.

That’s because the feds designate them as "forestry technicians." That irks many firefighters who put it all on the line as a changing climate means wildfire seasons are now longer and fires burn bigger and hotter.

"Firefighters are called 'firefighters' by the press, the public and the politicians, most often when they die. They’re classified by the Office of Personnel Management as 'Forestry Technicians'."

That’s Casey Judd, president of the Federal Wildland Fire Services Association. Judd and a handful of Idaho and Montana firefighters met with U.S. Sen. Steve Daines Friday at Missoula’s Neptune Aviation.

They were there to discuss legislation the Montana Republican is poised to introduce when Congress reconvenes next week. One bill focuses on firefighter classification.

Casey Judd explains that the Forest Service decided years ago to move firefighters out of what he termed a "fire control series."

"But the agency, in an effort to try to utilize as many Forest Service employees to help with fire, moved them out of the fire control series into an umbrella 'forestry technician' position, in that fire is 'another duty as assigned'."

But Judd says firefighting is now year-round, highly specialized and dangerous work. He says the "technician" label can make it more difficult for firefighters to get promotions and access to certain benefits. More than that, he says the label is simply a kick in the gut to morale in the firefighting ranks.

Judd thanked Daines for pushing for specific "firefighter" designation in his proposed legislation.

"It’s a very simple fix that would have significant positive impact on morale, recruitment and retention for our firefighters, because we’re losing so many of these great men and women to other agencies for better pay and benefits," Judd says. "This would be a significant first step in letting them know that — with all due respect to my language — someone gives a damn about them."

(L-R) Shawn Faiella, Tyson Lucier, Isaac Karuzas, Steve Daines, Casey Judd, Fred Thompson, Shane Ralston during a roundtable at Neptune Aviation in Missoula, Mont., May 17, 2019.
Credit Edward O'Brien / Montana Public Radio

Daines also plans to introduce legislation allowing firefighters injured on the job to keep a 20-year retirement track if they return to work in a non-fire related capacity.

Currently, many firefighters under those circumstances must convert to a 30-year retirement track which applies to regular federal employees.

Firefighters at the Friday roundtable also said the so-called 1039 rule hampers retention efforts. '1039' refers to 1,039 hours. Many wildland firefighters are seasonal workers barred from working over 1,040 hours, which equals half-time on an annual basis. With fire seasons growing longer, that means many firefighters’ seasons are being cut short, as are training opportunities.

Helena Hotshot Superintendent Fred Thompson says, "To me, if we’re looking at trying to build our workforce and retain the workforce, we also need to provide them hours to train in classes and take assignments, much like we do our permanent workforce."

Congress has killed similar proposals in years past, but Sen. Steve Daines says he’s optimistic about their chances this time around.

"It always takes so much longer than it should to get these things done. But as we saw what happend with that public lands package that passed earlier this year, it took public lands to bring divided government together. I think this is the kind of issue that could bring divided government today in Washington D.C. together. Wildfire is not a Republican or Democrat issue. It affects all of us."

Daines says Democratic Washington-state Sen. Maria Cantwell will be a key co-sponsor of this legislation when it’s introduced to Congress next week. He did not offer an estimate for how much either of his bills would cost.