Federal firefighters combat a wildfire in 2014. The bill makes 2022 pay raises permanent by creating a special pay rate for federal firefighters.

Federal firefighters combat a wildfire in 2014. The bill makes 2022 pay raises permanent by creating a special pay rate for federal firefighters. Cole Barash/U.S. Forest Service

A Senate panel has advanced legislation to avert wildland firefighter ‘pay cliff’

Meanwhile, the Office of Personnel Management has released a draft set of qualifications for its upcoming new job series for wildland fire management.

A Senate panel voted 10-1 on Wednesday to advance legislation aimed at preserving the recently increased salaries of the federal government’s corps of wildland firefighters and avert a so-called “pay cliff” that looms this fall.

Since President Biden took office, his administration and Congress have worked to improve federal wildland firefighters’ pay, in part to alleviate a staffing crisis at federal agencies responsible for wildfire suppression caused by the pay gap between federal firefighters and their state and local counterparts. These efforts culminated in a pay raise of 50% or $20,000 per year, whichever was lower, enacted via the bipartisan infrastructure law and implemented last year.

But the funding for the pay raise was only temporary, and is set to run out at the end of the current fiscal year, or Sept. 30. Absent additional action by Congress and the White House, beginning in October those firefighters would see their wages plummet. Advocates and federal employee unions have warned that if the federal wildfire suppression workforce goes over the “pay cliff,” it would trigger a mass exodus of firefighters from federal agencies.

On Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee advanced the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act (S. 2272), introduced last week by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., and a bipartisan group of five other senators, to the floor for consideration by the full Senate. The bill makes the 2022 pay raises permanent by creating a special pay rate for federal firefighters and provides a new pay supplement to compensate firefighters for every day that they are deployed to combat a wildfire.

The legislation also instructs agencies to develop a consistent governmentwide policy related to wildland firefighter work-life balance and to study new opportunities to improve rest and recuperation time for firefighters to help combat burnout.

“We proposed and passed fair pay for wildland firefighters in the bipartisan infrastructure law, and now we need to make it permanent,” Sinema said Wednesday. “If we don’t, they will lose up to 50% of their salary or 20,000. This bill makes fair pay for firefighters permanent in a fiscally responsible manner. If we don’t act by the end of this fiscal year, we will see massive departures from the workforce, right at the peak of wildfire season.”

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., the committee’s ranking member, was the lone vote opposed to the measure. He bemoaned the fact that the Congressional Budget Office had not yet analyzed the bill, despite the fact that CBO only scores legislation after it has been advanced out of committee, and sought to amend the legislation so that it would sunset after two years.

“This would be somewhat equivalent to being in a board meeting for a hospital and saying, ‘Gosh, the EMTs save lives and people would die without them, and we have 50 of them and they just aren’t paid enough, but nobody would say, ‘Well, what is our budget for labor?’” Paul said. “We’d have a debate on the facts—whether it’s an appropriate amount, how it compares to other employers, and we’d also ask how much money we have—which gets back to the question that has been underlying this entire debate: should we have to make choices? Who can be against increasing firefighters’ salaries? It’s that kind of empty, vacant sort of thinking that’s caused us to be $30 trillion in debt.”

Sinema responded by citing the multitude of congressional hearings, including one as recently as last month, and Government Accountability Office reports devoted to wildland firefighter compensation and the pay gap between federal firefighters and their state and local counterparts. Paul’s amendment ultimately failed by an 11-4 vote.

And on Tuesday, the Office of Personnel Management provided an update on its efforts to implement another provision of the bipartisan infrastructure law: creating a new occupational series for wildland firefighters. Prior to that bill’s passage, federal firefighters were classified in a more general “forestry technician” job category, meaning entry level hires often started at a GS-3 salary.

In a memo to agency human resources directors, Karen Jacobs, OPM’s acting deputy associate director for talent acquisition, classification and veterans programs unveiled draft qualifications standards for the new wildland fire management job series, following consultation with experts both on wildland firefighting and HR issues.

“Both technical agency fire management and human resources subject matter experts provided key insights into the duties and skills needed to perform wildland firefighting work,” she wrote.

Although the draft standards do not move wildland firefighting jobs up the General Schedule pay scale, with entry level positions still beginning at a GS-3, it does remove many of the barriers to firefighters serving at higher levels of the pay scale.

Under the draft standards, a GS-3 requires only six months of general “work experience or military service” and skills related to following instructions. A GS-4 or above would also require six months of specialized work experience related to controlling or extinguishing fires, forest fire control, prevention and suppression, rescue operations and other skills related to firefighting. That experience could be obtained on the job as a GS-3. And firefighters can serve at a GS-5 or above with at least one year of experience at a position at the next lower pay grade.

Alternately, a GS-3 could be hired provided they received firefighter training as part of their high school curriculum, and GS-4s may be hired upon completion of a two-year college program in fire training, fire science or other related fields. Applicants can be hired at a GS-5 without relevant job experience only if they have completed a four-year bachelor’s degree in fire related studies.

The qualification standards also include a litany of requirements related to applicants’ physical and mental health.

“As this is a new occupation, the draft shall be implemented upon issuance and used to qualify candidates for positions in this series,” Jacobs wrote. “Please review the application of this draft qualification standard for impact, clarity and easy of use over the next 30 days. We rely on agency human resources officials to ensure subject matter experts and program management officials are aware of the release of this draft standard and to seek their input.”