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2022 WILDLAND FIREFIGHTER 

SURVEY RESULTS SUMMARY

If you've visited this page recently, you may notice that a significant portion of the data that was once in web format has been removed.  All the survey results are still available here (click the link). We've summarized some highlights and important actions below.

Wildland firefighters have physically and psychologically demanding jobs that can result in social, economic, and health-related stress. Too few studies have directly analyzed the experiences of wildland firefighters.

 

Here, we survey the attitudes, experiences and morale of wildland firefighters, explore factors that can improve recruitment and retention, and summarize broad patterns in their experiences. We conducted a voluntary anonymous survey of 708 federal wildland firefighters via an online platform over 2 months in 2022.

 

Major study findings included

--Respondents reported dissatisfaction with recruitment and hiring processes, insufficient base salaries, poor mental health outcomes, and elevated risks to health and safety.

--Respondents also reported high importance of training, performance feedback, and work environment.

--We found significant effects of wildland firefighting on family status.

--WFFs report multiple factors that are impacting their work-life balance, health, personal lives, careers, and personal safety. Negative experiences with recruitment and hiring are reported by high percentages of respondents, and these experiences are likely conservatively

reported as all respondents have successfully obtained positions in federal wildland firefighting.

--Post-hire, WFFs report that base salaries are insufficient and high numbers of overtime are required to pay bills.

--In addition, they report safety concerns about working environments and a desire for training and increased supervisory feedback.

--Mental health, sexual harassment and assault, workplace violence, and impacts on family life are also serious concerns for WFFs.

--The WFF population is generally less diverse than the broader U.S. population; exceptions are Native American and veteran status.

In 2021, Congress passed funding to reclassify and overhaul the job series and pay rates of federal WFFs; this reclassification has the potential to help alleviate some of the problems identified in this survey. In addition, it establishes a Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission (P.L. 117-58) which is tasked with recommending federal policies and strategies to more effectively manage, suppress and mitigate wildland fires.

 

Despite this, 2022 and 2023 have seen historically low levels of recruitment for federal WFF positions, with application rate declines of over 50% in some regions. Given the ever-increasing length, extent, and intensity of wildfire season, recruitment and retention of qualified WFF is a critical issue for national security. Concentrated legislative, organizational, and agency efforts are needed to systemically address the issues identified in this survey.

Our survey provides specific actionable items that can improve retention and recruitment, as prioritized by current federal WFFs. In particular, we provide a framework through which the new Wildland Fire Mitigation Management Commission can begin to evaluate the needs and priorities of WFFs and inform their recommendations. 

Strategies for Improvement

Click HERE for a PDF version of these strategies to share with co-workers, management, policy-makers and friends.

This section provides ten strategies that federal agencies can implement to improve working conditions for wildland firefighters.

Please note: Some of these may have had temporary solutions, but as of 26 September 2023, no permanent solutions have been fully implemented.


Wildfires are expected to happen throughout more of the year, be more intense, and impact more of the United States as climates continue to change. Thus, maintaining a robust, healthy, and prepared wildland firefighter workforce should be an issue of national safety and security. Our preparedness to safely defend our domestic assets (e.g., human life, property, natural resources, and infrastructure) will inform our ability to maintain reliable supply chains, safe travel, and healthy environments for our citizens. Although there is no way to eliminate all risk of injury or death for WFFs, this survey has uncovered several themes in employment

satisfaction that can be addressed to help recruit, retain, and improve working conditions for current and future wildland firefighters.

1. Provide the Right Pay for the Right Job.

The most immediate, tangible, and meaningful improvement to wildland firefighter working conditions that federal employers can make in the short- term is to increase base pay to a living wage.

Entry-level wildland firefighters (GS-3; high school diploma, no experience) make $11.86 - $15.42 per hour in base pay. A GS-5 firefighter makes $14.89 - $19.36 per hour in base pay: By the time a firefighter reaches a GS-7 pay rate increases to $18.45 - $23.98. While overtime and hazard pay can increase this hourly wage (1.5 x base pay rate for overtime; hazard pay is a 25% increase in base pay), this means that many wildland firefighters are in a situation where they must work incredibly extended hours in high-hazard jobs to make a sufficient wage to support themselves. Further, a portion of the wildland fire workforce works in temporary seasonal positions and even in permanent seasonal wildland fire positions, furloughs can common be 26 weeks (13 pay periods) long, both conditions which further intensify extended working conditions during fire seasons. In June 2021, President Biden acknowledged the need to, “permanently get federal firefighters a better deal, including improvements in their compensation, their benefits, and their work-life balance,” when addressing the Western Governors Association. In November 2021, the U.S. Congress appropriated $3.3 billion in additional funding to create a Wildland Firefighter job series. Our data overwhelmingly supported this need: Wildland firefighters report financial hardship, the need to large numbers of overtime hours to pay bills, and the inability to afford housing and childcare in areas where they live and work. The high-risk nature of their positions mean that they are often left vulnerable to long-term health risks: Seasonal temporary firefighters currently are not offered health insurance benefits, which increases their financial strain further. Federal wildland firefighters are currently classified as forestry technicians in the federal Office of Personnel Management, a position title that does not recognize the nature of their work, nor the risk entailed in their position. Our survey found that wildland firefighters did not believe that their job title accurately reflected the level of risk their position entailed, and that a job title that accurately reflected their work would help retain them in fire. In 2021, Congress funded Public Law 117-58 which charged OPM with redefining wildland firefighters into their own federal job series, thus changing their position title from forestry technician to wildland firefighter, a major step forward for the members of the career field.

2. Recognize the Strain on Families

Wildland firefighter families experience high levels of stress as a result of the career. 

 

Divorce rates are higher than the national average in wildland firefighter families. In a survey of partners of WFFs, Grassroots Wildland Firefighters reports that 88.3% of respondents experience moderate to extreme stress due to the extended absence of their significant other in fire, and 59.9% felt that they were secondary to their WFF’s commitments at work. Over half of the respondents to that survey reported that their spouse or partner was absent from their home for over half of the year. Our study found that 71.9% of WFFs were unable to attend important family events during fire season. Further few wildland firefighters are able to plan their fire assignments, and even when they are not directly working on a fire assignment, they report that their schedules are still inflexible. In addition to these strains on personal relationships, 67.5% of WFFs report that they do not have access to affordable childcare: Female wildland firefighters have children at significantly lower rates than both the national average and then male firefighters. Male firefighters have children at rates lower than the national average, but may be better supported by spouses. Female wildland firefighters are also married at lower rates than male firefighters. When female firefighters must choose between delaying reproduction and marriage and continuing their career, this may create a leaky pipeline situation in which attrition rates become higher (Liu et al. 2019).

3. Increase Mental Health Care Accessibility & Resources

Wildland firefighters are facing serious mental health issues in the line of duty.

Prior to this study, ample anecdotal evidence suggested that substance abuse, depression, anxiety and death by suicide were serious issues in wildland firefighting communities. Over 78% of our study respondents reported mental health issues that they attributed directly to working in wildland fire, but only 32% felt that they had time and resources to seek help with mental health. Addressing mental health requires a comprehensive approach that considers working environment; work, family, and financial stress; safety; and the compounding effects of these factors on one another. Additionally, mental health care requires time and financial investment by the agencies that employ wildland firefighters, including offering paid time off for mental health care, supporting robust mental health care coverage.

4. Combat Unhealthy and Unsustainable Work-Life Imbalance

Pressure from management forces firefighters to work beyond what is mentally and physically healthy.

Open response questions revealed that many ranger districts require employees to work 13 days straight and take 1 unpaid day off, a day spent in unpaid on-call status. This is referred to as a “two-hour callback.” After 14 days on duty, federal firefighters are eligible for 2 mandatory paid days off. By having firefighters work 13 days on and 1 day off, supervisors can circumnavigate the 14-and-2 requirements. Such a shortcut saves districts money, but it robs firefighters of sufficient rest to recover from the rigors of wildland firefighting. Even with the unspoken 13-and-1 policy in place, many respondents (52.6%) reported working over 27 consecutive days with NO days off, paid or unpaid. Additionally, respondents to our survey reported being asked to break the 2:1 work to rest ratio: At least two thirds of respondents were asked to break this requirement 3+ times in a year. Generally, this means working 16+ hours in a day and being off work for < 8 hours afterwards. In combination with extended days on work, this creates potentially hazardous working conditions that endangers individual and crew safety.

5. Rectify Issues with Workplace Safety

Rates of injuries, violence, and sexual assault need to be reduced significantly through intentional cultural change.

Injury rates are marginally, but statistically significantly higher among non-white WFFs than white WFFs, a concerning trend. Incidents of workplace violence are reported at higher rates among women than men. In addition, experiences of sexual assault were reported by up to 13.7% of respondents, though no correlation to gender or ethnicity was found. Further, when issues were reported, resolutions were not timely nor satisfactory. The wildland fire landscape is a high-risk environment—each year an average of 13 wildland firefighters die in the line of duty, and large catastrophe incidents like the Yarnell Hill Fire (19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives) highlight the somber importance of workplace safety. Wildland firefighters’ work and personal lives often become entangled during fire season due to the proximity of the two: Crews often bunk and quarter together during these periods. This creates opportunities for decreased professional boundaries, which can facilitate increased crew cohesion, but also leaves crew members potentially vulnerable to unsafe situations. For example, gendered harassment has occurred the U.S. Forest Service for decades (e.g., Weisner 2018): Cultural and policy-level changes need to be made to address these and additional safety issues.

6. Improve Health Insurance Benefits & Timely Injury Compensation

Health insurance benefits need to be provided to all wildland firefighters.

 

Acute injuries, entrapments, and death are an aspect of this work that WFFs accept as reality. The Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG) is carried on the person of each wildland firefighter and is added to or edited after fatality events, many of which were preventable. Workplace injuries are common, with 67.6% of respondents experiencing becoming ill or injured at work. Of those who reported their injury (N=422), 48.1% were not satisfied with how it was handled. Injured WFFs rely on GoFundMe campaigns to pay for on-the-job injuries because the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs is very slow to process claims. Long term illness is also a major concern. Koopman et al. 2022 compiled an excellent literature review of the occupational hazards and exposures unique to WFFs. Negative impacts on lung function, cardiovascular health, hearing, fatigue and sleep, as well as inflammation and oxidative stress, are well-documented. Additionally, women may experience a significantly elevated risk of miscarriage and pre-term delivery while working as WFFs (Janke et al. 2018). The temporary seasonal workforce is not eligible for year-round health care coverage—Of our survey respondents, this was 36.3% of the population. Permanent full-time (PFT) and Permanent seasonal employees (PSE) do receive health insurance and retirement benefits, while Temporary seasonal employees (1039) do not receive either. This gap creates inequities within a crew and leaves PSE WFFs vulnerable to exposure-related injuries or illnesses.

7. Reimagine the Hiring Process

The current hiring process is cumbersome, obtuse, and unintuitive: Several actions can be taken to easily modify and streamline this process.

All survey respondents were current or former federal WFFs, meaning they made it through the application process at least once, yet they still reported issues with the hiring process. Because “Fire Hire” (a U.S. Forest Service mass posting of open WFF positions) is held once annually, a missed opportunity or mistake can delay an individual’s career by a year or more. Lack of job advertising, poor announcement timing and brief application windows, complicated application processes, lack of access to supplemental documentation, and problems with human resources all contribute to recruiting issues in the federal fire service. These factors directly impact recruitment, but also retention and promotion of current experienced employees. Our results suggest that reforms to outreach, recruitment, and hiring practices could be a leverage point for addressing WFF retention issues. Every federal position is listed on USAJobs.gov; GS7 and below wildland fire positions are not cross-listed to other job seeker sites. Many eligible hires are not aware of the jobs available in wildland fire or have a hard time finding out when those openings will be posted. Only 30.6% of respondents report that they are aware of open jobs in which they would be interested. Fire Hire positions are advertised August-December. When positions are announced in August (the height of fire season), 76.4% of respondents don’t have access to a computer. About half (50.8%) of respondents do not feel that job announcements are open long enough to apply. When they attempt to apply, the USAJobs website presents added difficulties. Approximately half (53.7%) of respondents have had issues with navigation paths, sessions timing out, or other accessibility issues on the website. Understanding how the hiring process works is another obstacle for federal WFFs. Because applications in USAJobs are first scanned (and accepted or rejected) by a computer system before reaching a human hiring official, resumes must be loaded with keywords reflecting the exact language of the job posting. As a result, “successful” federal resumes are regularly over five pages long. Submitting a standard, two-page resume without the requisite technically qualified for the position. Half of applicants report issues with developing resumes for wildland fire positions. Although 42.9% of respondents report understanding the hiring process, only 29.7% of respondents understand how resumes are evaluated by hiring officials. Not understanding how hiring officials rate resumes makes it difficult for applicants to succeed. Even when an applicant submits a stellar resume, there are further obstacles regarding submitting SF-50s (Standard Form 50, federal personnel record), Master Records (National Wildland Fire Coordinating Group qualifications, training history, experience history, instructor history), performance appraisals, and other supplemental documentation. Seasonal employees do not have access to many of these documents when they are not in pay status or unemployed. Even when in pay status, seasonal employees do not have access to government computers. As government computers are the only way to access some of these documents, employees must depend on supervisory staff for assistance; 67.3% of applicants report missing out on job opportunities because they were missing supplemental documentation, the application was confusing, or they made a mistake in the application process.

8. Address Chronic Mismanagement at the Albuquerque Service Center

Centralized hiring authorities are ineffective and unable to accurately evaluate and assess wildland firefighter applications: Hiring authority should be returned to regional or local levels. 

The Albuquerque Service Center (ASC), which provides budget and finance services for the USDA, is ineffectual at hiring wildland firefighters In a 2011 congressional hearing entitled Major Management Challenges at the U.S. Forest Service, ASC was noted as “problematic and... demoralizing” for employees (Fong 2011). In our survey, 56.8% of respondents missed out on job opportunities due to Human Resources’ mistakes. Common mistakes include ineffectual evaluation of qualifications and failure to recognize qualified applications. Once applications are miscategorized, the dispute process can often take longer than the application window, thus disqualifying an applicant by proxy. Human Resources personnel often rely heavily on the application keywords and inflexible interpretations of OPM guidelines, because they lack subject matter expertise and cannot make independent evaluations and judgements of qualifications of WFFs. These problems would be greatly mitigated and reduced by returning hiring authority to individual Forests or local Districts. Further, delays in in start dates can create cause difficulty with moving and transfers and can upend financial stability. Almost two thirds (65.1%) of employees report having experienced a delayed start date as a result of issues with Human Resources. One comment reported being hired in November and being delayed multiple times, resulting in a May start date: For many individuals this would be financially catastrophic or would result in an inability

to accept the position.

9. Promote A New Deal for Diversity

Low diversity can lead to high turnover and hostile workplaces for minorities: To improve this, federal employers need to actively engage in increasing the diversity of the wildland firefighting workforce.

Wildland firefighting is relatively homogenous as a field, both in terms of classic demography and respondent attitudes. White males, veterans, divorcees, and Native Americans are overrepresented statistically relative to the U.S. population, but women and other ethnicities are extremely underrepresented. Those underrepresented minorities that are serving as WFFs tend to be satisfied with the way they are treated by their colleagues. They view their colleagues in the same way that their white male peers do. They also report safe bathrooms, that colleagues can pronounce their names, and no differences in levels of harassment or violence relative to their white male peers. In 2018, the Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) reported on widespread sexual harassment and discrimination among female WFFs the U.S. Forest Service. A 2020 study by the U.S. Forest Service found that 75% of women had felt out of place as wildland firefighters due to their gender, and a third of employees believed that personal characteristics (race, age, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, family caregiver status) had negatively impacted their ability to obtain a job or promotion (Cerveny 2020).  Meaningful organizational-level change will require leadership to invest in training and work with staff to create long-term attitudinal shifts. Additionally, recruitment of diverse individuals begins in the high schools and college classrooms, and investments in non- traditional education, urban and STEM minority educational campaigns should be prioritized to engage populations who have not previously considered WFF careers.

10. Build Organizational Trust Through Empowering Local Units

Wildland firefighters are loyal and hard-working members of their crew,their profession, and their organization or agency.

Despite difficult physical working conditions, the vast majority of open comments we received were about access to training, the hiring process, or environmental stress. In fact, the top two correlates to job satisfaction were receiving regular feedback about one’s work and an environment where individuals are recognized for big and small achievements. Overall, interactions with an individual’s crew were reported favorably in comparison to interactions with supervisors or higher administrators, suggesting that organizational loyalty is built from the bottom up. Many of our survey respondents expressed a desire for increased hiring authority and decision making a local-unit levels, likely stemming from frustrating experiences with centralized hiring units and leadership, both of which may appear faceless and nameless to WFFs working in decentralized/remote locations or off-Forest. Empowering local districts and crews to make decisions and having increased autonomy will generate additional organizational buy-in and trust, hopefully increasing retention of WFFs.

Please credit Granberg et al. 2022 in the use of these data.  Full citation:  Granberg, R., Pearson, S., and Verble, R. 2022. Survey of federal wildland firefighters: working conditions, safety, morale, & barriers to recruitment & retention. Report. Available online at wildlandfiresurvey..com 

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