Fire Management Recruitment and Retention Angeles National Forest April 30, 1999
A key to our success in Fire Management in the future is the recruitment and retention of a quality and diverse workforce in the Forest Service. This is a task that is increasingly becoming difficult do to our inability to recruit and hold a well trained and diverse workforce. During the past two years the Angeles National Forest has experienced a tremendous loss of personnel to other fire service agencies and organizations. In the past few year the Angeles National Forest has lost the following individuals to other fire agencies:
(I removed the employee names. Ab)
The above list does not include a dozen or so employees who have left for other emergency management agencies including local police and sheriff's departments.
There are many reasons that we are unable to maintain this workforce
but the major ones include:
Pay and Tour of Duty:
When we hire a new employee to attend the Wildland Firefighter Apprenticeship Academy they are placed in a position that only guarantees six months employment. Local and State fire agencies, on the other hand, guarantee full-time employment. In addition a new GS-4 apprentice will have a starting salary of $22,692 (special 462 Southern California Pay Plan) and after one year this firefighter will make $23,305. A new recruit with Los Angeles City Fire Department will start at $35,000 per year and after their one year probation they will have an annual salary of $40,000. They also earn 24 hour portal-to-portal pay once they are employed by the local agency.
Due to the overall health of the US economy, local government tax revenues are at an all time high. Local fire departments are expanding their staffing to meet the demands of NFPA requirements for "2-in/2-out" and hiring additional firefighters to staff engines with 4 person crews.
The skills of these employees are not totally lost to the Forest Service. The employees that we have lost have tremendous skills in Wildland Fire Management and many come back to us to serve as Crew Bosses for our Type II Hand Crews. But now we are paying them at their department reimbursement rates, 24 hours, portal-to-portal. We have no choice, either drop Type II crews or use local government overhead.
About a year ago while I was heading to a meeting at the Los Angeles
City Fire Department Training Center I was stopped in the parking lot by
a couple of Firefighters who used to work for the Forest Service.
They told me what a great experience they had working for our agency but
they just couldn't make ends meet with what we pay and the tours we provide.
Although they loved the travel, the various jobs we do, they could not
pass up the pay and benefits that the city offered.
Training and Qualifications
We are in many ways our own worst enemy. Because we have increased
the training and qualification requirements for wildland firefighter training
and the fact it takes 15 to 20 years to get from an entry level position
to a Type II Incident Commander we have accelerated training on the front
end. This has made our academy graduates that much more attractive
to local and state agencies. Many departments have told us
that they like to hire from within our ranks as they find that firefighters
that have been successful with the Forest Service are more likely to be
successful with them because of the performance, training and work ethic
Increased interagency cooperation and use of local department personnel on incident management assignments has increased the likelihood that our personnel and their skills will be noticed by departments that are looking for good employees. We can not compete with these departments.
It is also affecting the retirement age of those in the firefighter
retirement plan. When they turn 50 and are eligible for retirements
quite often they find themselves being offered a wide variety of employment
opportunities out side the Forest Service with other emergency management
What Can Be Done?
More PFT appointments, less 13-13's. 13-13's don't really save us money as we have un-employment costs which are almost 80% of what it would cost to keep the employee working. Our new recruits are older, usually have a family and need the security of year round employment.
Reopen the special GS-462 series pay evaluation and look at increasing compensation for the firefighter series. When we did this a few years ago it did stem the tide for a while but we are still not keeping up with our cooperators.
Provide a 24 hour pay system to compensate employees at similar rates to local government.
Reevaluate the term of the Wildland Firefighter Apprenticeship Program. Perhaps the term should be one year with one 8 week academy. Or perhaps the apprenticeship program should take firefighters to the GS-6 level rather than GS-5.
Failing any of the above, the last resort would be to contract fire
protection to local government. It will be significantly more expensive
but if we don't increase our retention we will not have an organization
to staff fire management with quality, experienced employees in 5 to 10
Gregory S. Greenhoe