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Op-Ed
 

Lindon Pronto: I am a Federal Wildland Firefighter, Not a Forestry Technician


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By: Lindon Pronto, 6-year Seasonal Wildland Firefighter

bison1.jpeg
Image by Lindon Pronto, Bison Fire 7/13, NV
September 2, 2013 - I never had experienced how much heartbreak and relief could exist along a single street until June 27, 2012, when I stood and surveyed the charred remains of a Mountain Shadows neighborhood in Colorado Springs. The firefight was as epic as the devastation was striking. Some of us who were there that night received awards in emergency response, a few were commended in person by President Obama, and all of us were greeted as heroes by hundreds of sign-bearing flag-waving Coloradans. Even our money was often refused at gas stations and restaurants. We stammered uncomfortably, "Sorry ma'am that's so kind of you, but we can't accept that" or gave an awkward "Thank you so much, sir." I wondered, "How many of these people know that we are not actually recognized as firefighters?"

You see, on paper, we are not called federal wildland firefighters - we are called forestry and range "technicians." To us, it's the joke that's not funny. It comes at a great price that even our government job title fails to recognize us appropriately.

Few Americans see a green fire engine for what it is, know what a hotshot crew or hand crew really does, or has even heard of helitack. Even those closest to us cannot fully grasp what we do, the shifts we endure, and the risks we take. Men and women have many reasons for leaving home and family to battle fire, but none of us do it for recognition or to be a hero. We shy away from media and attention. We do this job because we love what we do, and those who don't, soon find the commitments too many and sacrifices too great.

Put in the spotlight, we revert to the things we learned our first year on the job: keep your head down, keep your minds calm, your composure modest, know your place, don't say or do anything stupid, and above all, do your job with "duty, respect, and integrity." We serve the People. We serve our country.

bison2.jpeg
Image by Lindon Pronto, Bison Fire 7/13, NV
However, over the past few years I have come to realize that this silent, can-do work ethic, has contributed to our predicament. We continue to be treated and paid at sub-par levels relative to our counterparts in private, city, and state agencies. Our low profile has led the media to misrepresent, mischaracterize, and outright lie about who we are and what we do. It often feels like federal firefighters are purposely kept from public view: we don't have shiny red trucks, ironed and tidy uniforms, or enough aggressive public information officers to set the story straight for the headline. This doesn't entirely surprise us: we can be rugged folk by appearance. Many of us enjoy working in the woods and living simply. We don't have extensive uniform budgets (we personally purchase shirts, boots, etc.). We are the soldiers in the trenches; we don't have access or time for showers and razors. Simply put, when we are out there putting in long days, we are happily grimy, dirty, smelly, and hairy.

So, when you consider our culture of "asses and elbows", our diverse appearances, and the fact that the media isn't permitted to enter into our hazardous work zones to fully cover the duties we perform, it is no wonder our faces and voices don't make headlines. Furthermore, it would be a difficult task to sum up the work that forestry and range technicians of the federal land management agencies perform. The fact that we hail from four very separate government agencies, is testament to our broad range of duties and responsibilities. Our work cannot be as easily characterized as driving up in a fire truck, attending to the injured, and running into a burning building with a breathing apparatus and fire hose.

Were I to define us simply, I would say: federal wildland firefighters make up the largest and most professionally trained firefighting force in world. We staff fire engines and earth-movers, work from helicopters and jump from planes, move as 20 person crews of "ground pounders", and comprise complex teams that manage relief efforts beyond just devastating fires; our teams have also dealt with emergencies like 9/11 and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

So what do we do out there? It would take me more than my allowable word count to get into that, but if you are interested in learning more from the front lines of wildland firefighting, I would encourage you to read works by Norman and John McClain. Instead, I will focus on the gist of what a standard work schedule and deployment looks like for us wildland firefighters:

In station we work 40 hour weeks, but most of us average 60 hours. Standard fire assignments are 14 days with extensions to 21 days (travel excluded). A 21 day assignment would approximately amount to 336 hours without days off, or about 8.5 work weeks. After 21 days, policy requires only one mandatory day of rest before reassignment. The norm is to receive up to two days of rest after a 14 day assignment. During an assignment when there is active and uncontained fire(s), federal firefighters (DOD excluded) work in 16 hour shifts, and are unpaid for the remaining 8 hours.

Some of the dangerous and adverse conditions that we encounter on the fireline include: extreme heat, extreme cold, heavy smoke, falling trees, steep rocky terrain, periods of extended physical and mental exertion, uninterrupted shifts in excess of 36 hours, limited rations of water and (very unhealthy) food, night shifts, sleep deprivation... You get the point. And yet, the above conditions combined with adrenaline, a sense of purpose, brotherhood, and duty, are also the exact same reasons we absolutely love our jobs.

We not only accept these aspects of our line of work, we LIVE for them.

There are however, aspects of our jobs that are for the sake of our health, sanity, livelihoods and particularly in supporting our families, harder for many of us to ignore:

We are treated and compensated at a much lesser standard than our private, city, and state counterparts who work beside us on the same incidents. For example, most non-federal firefighters are guaranteed hotels and portal to portal pay on incidents, ironically for which our government obligingly usually pays for. Take Cal Fire for example. They work 24 hours, then rest for 24 hours. If they are out of unit they are paid continuously for all 48 hours. During those 48 hours you can expect 16 hours of work (same shift schedule). In comparison, federal firefighters on the same incident will work 32 of 48 hours, usually are required to sleep in the dirt (alongside the convicts), and are not paid for more then 16 hours per day.

Cost-saving measures, at least in the Forest Service, commonly run rampant. Not being paid for 1/3 of the time we spend away from home and family is only one example. It is common now to be required to take unpaid lunch breaks while assigned to fires or even while out on the fireline. Hazard pay does not apply on prescribed fires, despite requirements of carrying a fire shelter (acknowledgement that our lives are at risk). Another instance: recently my crew was needed to monitor a very active fire perimeter throughout the night. So, less than half a mile from advancing 40ft flames, we crawled into our sleeping bags, which we threw down into ashes that were still warm from the fire having passed earlier. As we had leftover drinking water, our Meal Ready to Eat (MREs) and "appropriate sleeping accommodations" which our policy handbook defines as "paper sleeping bags" or otherwise, we were taken out of pay status for the following 8 hours.

Behind the scenes, groups and lobbyists have been trying for decades to improve our pay and working conditions.

These groups and individuals have won important battles for us. Earlier this year, for the first time ever, seasonal firefighters were finally given access to health benefits. Now I think it is time that the American people demand action too, which is why I am breaking my silence. It is my hope that you will join myself and others in fighting for some of these changes, particularly in demanding that federal firefighters be recognized on paper for what we do and who we are. Fortunately, a bill that would make many of our hopes a reality, and finally address the issues I have described, has just recently been introduced to Congress. The Wildland Firefighter Protection Act may never be signed into law if it proceeds quietly. This is why I am reaching out, hoping that a wave of public pressure and support for these firefighters will carry this legislation through the perilous waters of our gridlocked government.

We especially owe it to those firefighters who made the ultimate sacrifice. That they be honored by increased recognition and funding for agencies like the US Forest Service, that are tasked with keeping our resources and communities safe. This is a complex task, but raising the nation's collective awareness for what we do, and to recognize us as Federal Wildland Firefighters, is a crucial step. To us boots on the ground, it is a painful reality to not be properly recognized, to be denied the same benefits and financial support systems as the other "real" firefighters around the nation. We have no shortage of personal pride in what we do, but we are grossly lacking in demonstrative pride in us by our own government, elected officials, and the public who ultimately pay our salaries.

What H.R. 2858 the Wildland Firefighter Protection Act would do:

1. It would create a new occupational series for land management employees (USFS, BLM, NPS, FWS, and BIA) entitled "wildland firefighter" to more accurately reflect position duties.

2. It would finally introduce a 3-year pilot program for portal to portal pay for federal firefighters.

3. Hazard pay differential (.25%) would be factored in as base pay for retirement purposes.

4. Work performed after 1989 in fire preparedness and suppression may be credited for purposes of retirement calculations. (Many of us work multiple seasons before we receive permanent employment; seasonal work is not counted for pay raises or retirement calculations).

5. Lastly, the bill is designed to affect significant cost savings by addressing 21st century fire preparedness and suppression needs, and address dismal firefighter retention rates resulting from conditions described in this article. Low retention rates are also extremely costly, due to the complex, time consuming process of hiring so many firefighters who leave the agency for one with better pay and benefits.

PLEASE:

Petition the White House : http://wh.gov/lgzu9

Show support through MoveOn Civic Action: http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/wildland-firefighter/?source=search

And sign at Change.org (which helped get seasonals' health benefits): http://www.change.org/petitions/congress-please-support-h-r-2858-the-wildland-firefighters-protection-act

Official H.R. 2858 language:

http://beta.congress.gov/bill/113th/house-bill/2858/text

Thank you for your support.

The opinions and positions expressed in this editorial are entirely my own, and are not representative of the agency I work for.

Sincerely, Lindon Pronto

6-year Seasonal Wildland Firefighter

With the U.S. Forest Service

 

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