This came out last week in some Forest Service inboxes. I did not have the authors approval to post, so I redacted names. Due to character limitations this is only a portion of the full document. However what’s
important is that the full workforce needs to know this document is exists and they should ask their local Line Officer about it and what steps will be taken to implement these recommendations.
Hopefully this will soon be on a website for improved reading. The document is very well written.
-The Transitional Resolution-
A transitional leadership approach to aligning the largest fire organization in the world with a land management mission. Please direct any questions and/or input to…
This document has been developed in collaboration with leadership and/or representatives from the Hotshot, Helicopter, Engine, Fuels, Prevention, Training, Dispatch and Smokejumper communities as well as diverse intellectual contributions from various District, Forest and Regional level leadership positions. The ideas and concepts articulated within the document have been accepted and supported by the aforementioned groups/committees. Although every employee within the workforce has not had the opportunity to review the document, those who took part believe the strategies and tactics listed within serve as a shared vision and voice of the workforce. Special thanks to… for his research and contributions. The following item guided the development and intent of this document as a result of the March 2019 Region 5 RLT meeting. These items were presented as priorities and near-term actions. Our Task is to work together in order to provide recommendations and solutions throughout our organization in order to improve identified items.
Region 5 Leadership Highest Priority items: Bullet #2
• Workforce Restructure for the Fire Year: We will look at hiring, onboarding, training, retention, staffing (1039s v PFTs), and preparedness. Beyond safety and well-being, this topic resonates as the most important to be explored. We will evaluate options and seek improvements to the wildland fire system of our workforce. HR is key to this effort as well as other expertise from the DRF-level to crew representatives.
The Transitional Resolution
As the world turns and time passes we continue to see major shifts in our generations, cultures, society, climate and landscape, as such we experience changes in truths, perspectives, normality, and relevance. As an agency and as leaders, it is our responsibility to recognize these changing times and adapt our model accordingly to secure a future for the organization and the continual accomplishment of our mission. This is not the first time the U.S. Forest Service has embraced the challenge of an evolving natural resource management environment. The agency was founded in just such an era and the people that work here thrive in it. This will not be the first time the agency accepts the hard questions and accomplishes its mission, and it will also likely not be the last time. We have found ourselves in leadership roles during a time of unprecedented and rapid innovation, connectivity, and transparency. This new reality insists that we continually and frequently re-evaluate the elements of our model and try to view the system through a new lens.
At this time in Region 5 we are faced with several issues preventing us from achieving operability, peak performance, and the optimum alignment within our organization. Among these issues, workplace environment and retention problems continue to be primary contributors. Efforts made so far to address these appear to be ineffective. The Region 5 fire organization is currently losing employees at an alarming rate to employers offering better compensation and overall quality of life. So much so that our current hiring systems cannot keep up with this rate of turnover. Consequently, we are undergoing a significant delay in onboarding our fire employees in time for fire season as well as an inability to staff our engines and crews adequately while we continue to hemorrhage valuable employees from critical positions.
Addressing the problem of fire employee loss is not just badly needed to produce a more successful agency, it is our duty and obligation to the workforce and the public that we represent. As influencers of the USFS Fire and Aviation program, we have the great privilege of leading some of the most hardworking, genuine, and selfless people on the planet. These men and women are truly reminiscent of the “can-do” conservationists that founded this agency. They exemplify humility as they risk their physical, mental, emotional, and relational health for the duration of ever more demanding fire seasons. This type of service comes with the expectation that when they do raise a genuine concern, their leadership will address it in a meaningful way. When it comes to the concern of pay/title disparity and personnel retention, the concerns are being raised with increasing magnitude and frequency. If we continue to be unable or unwilling to address these concerns with real actions that produce measurable solutions, we are not being the leaders that we encourage our workforce to be.
Outlined within this document is an idea, a vision, and an antidote for the problem that is causing many of the symptoms we are feeling at multiple levels. By identifying and fixing the right problem, many symptoms will go away. It is time to stop rearranging the chairs on the titanic and time to patch the hole and steer the ship.
Background: Past, Present, and Future of the “Forestry Technician”
Since the founding of the United States Forest Service, the need and applicability of a utility player Forester has been apparent. In its early days, the agency sought to employ people whose intelligence matched their physical prowess to solve the toughest problems the American West had to offer. It is no surprise that when the Forestry Technician job title and series was implemented into written policy during the early 1970’s this all-around competency was echoed in the position description (PD)1. As with the earliest outreach for Forest Rangers, a Forestry Technician was expected to contribute to all aspects of achieving the USFS mission, including periodic and need based implementation as fire suppression “militia” during the 10 A.M. policy
era. These positions were implemented in order to establish a workforce that would aid forest service leadership in accomplishing holistic ecosystem management without being limited by title specificity.
Forestry Technicians were included in OPM’s 1991 job series update and continued under the classification we are currently familiar with, GS-0462. At this time the position description of these employees remained unchanged, as did their intended purpose. During the 90’s, only 16% of the USFS budget went to fire suppression. If this is an indicator of what the agency was up to, it made perfect sense at that time to leave the forestry technician position description as it was.
The next two decades brought massive growth in wildfire suppression activity and cost, as the repercussions of a full suppression ethic, unbridled WUI expansion, and apparent climate change manifested. Recent projections forecast suppression activities to take up 67% of the USFS budget in 2021. The increasing occurrence of high consequence wildfires exposed an equally growing need for personnel with the primary directive of fire suppression within the Forest Service. This fell on the bulk of the USFS workforce, the Forestry Technicians. Currently, there are 196 sub-categories within the GS-0462 series who qualify for firefighter retirement and are described as Interagency Fire Program Management positions primarily tasked with some sort of fire suppression or adjacent duties.
The Forestry Technician job series was implemented to avoid over specialization of the workforce and maintain mission alignment as a land management agency. In the era of multi- billion-dollar fire seasons we have strayed far from that ideal. This comes at the detriment of both fire personnel who feel undercompensated and the essential non-fire Forest Service departments that still need access to an adequate workforce not constantly preoccupied with fire suppression. Having grown to become the largest fire organization in the world our structure, training, qualifications, positions, and duties performed mirror that of Firefighters and of a fire organization. However, our history reminds us that USFS Firefighters are more than that and have made a clear choice to be a part of an organization with a mission that goes beyond simply suppressing fire.
During periods of low fire risk, USFS Firefighters still serve an important role in the accomplishment of the agency’s mission by performing non-suppression land management tasks. This crossover is often cited by suppression personnel as a highly rewarding element of their job. As fire seasons get more demanding on all fronts, the ability for this program integration is made more and more difficult. The inability of USFS Firefighters to contribute elsewhere is exacerbated even more by the retention problem. The recommendations in this document serve to address this problem for the betterment of all aspects of the USFS mission. By recognizing our fire personnel and compensating them adequately, we achieve the goal of increasing Firefighter retention, so they may continue to contribute in the role that they currently do. A role that goes beyond fire suppression. A role we all take great pride in.
Identifying the Problem: Complex vs. complicated
The architectural structure of our organization creates interconnectedness of these issues which makes it challenging to identify the actual problems from the symptoms.
Data and employee feedback offer some powerful clarity into the problems causing the symptoms surrounding poor fire suppression employee retention. This is an issue already on the radar of Region 5 leadership. While enacting effective solutions has proven difficult, the problem/symptom relationship in this case is familiar to all.
Problem 1: Pay and title disparity
Symptom A - Difficult to hire and retain employees willing to accept implications of a firefighter position for pay being offered
Symptom B - Hiring systems cannot keep up with rate of turnover
Symptom C - Consequential effects of inferiority bias and micro aggressions from cooperators/partners
Symptom D - Dissatisfaction with various workplace environment type conditions
Symptom E - Not feeling recognized/valued for the accepted risks of the job
Symptom F - Lack of representation/voice for the fire community within the agency Symptom G - Differing realities, cultures, and perspective on reason for our existence.
Symptom H - Cumulative mental, emotional and physical fatigue
Symptom I - Negative Impacts on family, relationships, health, and sense of being
Symptom J - Lack of empathy and/or understanding between fire and line
Organizational Misalignment Symptom A - Two cultures not sharing the same understanding of the mission
Symptom B - Lack of trust in leadership
Symptom C - Programs not integrated
Symptom D - Fire program is represented by “non-fire/line” at district, forest, region, and WO
Law, Directives, Policy: How is “Forestry Technician” defined
After harvesting information and gathering a general consensus from the workforce across the region it is clear that one major underlying question is “why are we classified as Forestry Technicians and not Firefighters?” Based on this consensus as well as the changing utilization of personnel with the GS-0462 series, it is apparent that reclassification of fire suppression focused Forestry Technicians is necessary.
In reading OPM’s definitions of Forestry Technicians in the GS-0462 series, Fire Protection and Prevention employees in the GS-0081 series, and the process OPM is supposed to follow for job series establishment, it is very difficult to understand how USFS fire suppression personnel could be classified the way we are. It is not necessarily the recommendation of this document to reclassify Forestry Technicians as Fire Protection and Prevention Personnel in the GS-0081 series, but that series does give an example of a fire suppression oriented PD already used by the federal government. However, if the current GS- 0081 series is tailorable to develop a wildland sub component with separate pay tables it is worth being explored.
By OPM’s own admission, position classifications should be made based on that position’s major duties, defined as “…those that represent the primary reason for the position’s existence, and which govern the qualification requirements. Typically, they occupy most of the employee’s time.” According to the PD’s for the subcategories of the GS-0462 series that agency fire personnel are hired under, fire suppression and related activities are listed as major duties. In fact, the use of Forestry Technicians as fire suppression personnel has become so common that the Bureau of Labor Statistics now lists Forest Firefighter and Smokejumper within the larger Firefighter category, and fire suppression and prevention as a primary function within the category of Forestry and Conservation Technician. Additionally, the USDA has also established USFS fire suppression personnel as Firefighters in literature encompassing line of duty deaths. The consequences of this blatant misclassification of USFS/Federal fire personnel has the potential to go beyond the negative effects being experienced by those employees. Federal law states that “…positions shall be classified based on the duties and responsibilities assigned and the qualifications required to do the work.” Not only is the system doing a disservice to USFS fire personnel, but it may be causing the agency to operate outside federal law. An appeal process does exist as a route for any GS employee(s) to pursue a redefinition of their job series. Unfortunately this type of change by appeal is often slow, inefficient, and may or may not result in the desired outcomes. A much more realistic route to success would be for current Forest Service leadership to take this opportunity to lead from the front and commission the recommendations offered in this document.
As with all unintended outcomes it is important to understand that they are usually a result of a system level failure and most likely not the actions of any single individual. We can apply this same methodology to our organizational status in order to view the current state of our agency from a higher level that encompasses all the symptoms. This enables us to identify the root of what is causing the symptoms we see on the surface. By addressing the larger problems in the system, we are able to achieve positive intended outcomes and improve organizational alignment through positive actions. These positive systematic changes are intended to produce both immediate and long-lasting solutions. As such, we must identify immediate, near term and long-term action items.
• Action: Implement 10% Group Retention Incentive for primary/secondary fire personnel.
Intended Outcome: Immediate positive affect on workforce recognizing pay
disparity as an issue
• Action: Draft a “Letter of Hope” outlining the recognition of pay disparity and retention
issues by R5 FAM leadership, as well as a pathway to address them.
Intended Outcome: Shows that leadership recognizes issues and gives hope/plan of action for betterment.
• Action: Create 1-3 year detail for Workplace Environment Specialist position to oversee
completion of near/long term recommendations.
Intended Outcome: Gives retention issue the specialized attention it deserves as a top agency priority and not a collateral duty awaiting initiative.
Near Term Solutions:
These items appear to be doable within a 1-2 year period and would serve as temporary and/or possible long term solutions dependent upon findings through exploration. Although the use of the GS-0081 series is not the targeted method, we would like to peel back the layers and find out what opportunity may exist to develop a Wildland Firefighter series as its counterpart and/or a subcomponent utilizing existing language/system.
• Action: Explore the utilization of existing GS-0081 series by adding position descriptions for the Federal Fire/Land Management Service specific positions and establish appropriate pay tables.
o Intended outcome: Must meet same objectives/intent as creating new Wildland Firefighter series but utilizing current structure to potentially expedite process.
(see Action: Create Wildland Fire Technician series within OPM below under
long term solutions)
• Action: Allow for more localized fire personnel hiring and/or continue the fire hire model but increase our staffer capacity by bringing on additional personnel for the period and/or utilize local resources.
o Intended Outcome: Expedite the hiring and onboarding process and increase program support and buy-in from local communities, thereby encouraging those new hires to remain with the USFS
• Action: Automate the SME part in the application process. Although it is important to have an SME evaluate the applicant the rating is mostly used as a “guide” now and the SME’s are merely mining for information and have little decision space for the overall rating.
Intended Outcome: Allows more time for field going activities and saves money •
Action: Add regional and/or provincial COLA for areas with pay disparity and to replace
previously implemented 10% retention bonus.
Intended Outcome: Provide more structured, tailored, and sustainable pay disparity mitigation.
Long Term Solutions:
We can continue to treat symptoms and allow decisions to be made for us due to indecision on this continuum of closing time wedges, or we can be bold and pursue something new. This has been supported by a common voice among the workforce and gives us the opportunity to build a 21st century fire/land management organization defining expectations, standards, and mission.
• Action: Create Wildland Fire Technician series within OPM
o Intended Outcome: Alleviate pay and benefit disparity between federal Forestry Technicians/Firefighters and their cooperators performing same duties
o Intended Outcome: Provide better fatigue management and work/life balance
protocols for fire personnel.
o Intended Outcome: Establish PD’s promoting program integration with primary
fire suppression directive under major duties while preserving holistic ecosystem
management contributions within minor duties.
o Intended Outcome: Recognizes individuals for the work they do and the risk
they take and provides clarity and transparency for the shared mission and our roles in accomplishing it.
• Action: Develop Incident Command System (ICS) pay table for personnel performing in incident management positions while on assignment
o Intended Outcome: Creates incentive for IMT participation from both fire and militia/non-fire
o Intended Outcome: Addresses pay disparity while on incidents by
compensating equitably for duties performed by function/position.
(would look similar to AD pay scale model)
o Intended Outcome: Assists with recruitment and retention for agency as a whole
Subsequent to both Near and Long-Term Solutions:
• Action: Realign decision making authority/process for fire organization and fire workforce from top-down, exploring “team of teams” approach
o Intended Outcome: Enhanced ability to represent fire program and address needs/issues in a more timely manner.
o Intended Outcome: Create and promote ownership, transparency, autonomy, accountability and organizational alignment.
• Action: Re-establish prioritization of agency mission for all USFS employees as contributors to a land management first organization.
o Intended Outcome: Incorporate the new series as a catalyst for realigning all program areas with shared vision/mission.
• Action: Convert majority of temporary employees to permanent status such as 13/13, 18/8, and/or 26/0.
o Intended Outcome: Help solve our seasonal hiring issues once retention problems have been addressed. Adds flexibility to respond to year-round fire season/all-risk incidents when needed.
o Intended Outcome: Allow for local determination of term based on relevant local variables.
• Action: Return all hiring authorities available and applicable under current law to the forest level while streamlining HR process to meet capacity and need.
o Intended Outcome: Alleviate inefficiencies resulting from hiring and HR processes operating in vastly different work environments and locations from fire personnel.
Supporting Data Analysis Discussion
Since the build-up in the early 2000’s, the federal wildland fire suppression community has experienced large scale workforce depletion. In a 2013 address to Congress on this issue, Chief Tidwell asserted that the USFS was staffed with approximately 10000 Firefighters, accounting for 61% of the agency’s Forestry Technicians. As of 2018, the Forest Service employed 8,856 Forestry Technicians and if ratios have remained consistent, our firefighting numbers may have dropped as low as 5,400 Firefighters. While agency fire suppression personnel numbers have decreased, the duration and intensity of fire seasons have increased whole sail. This relationship makes the consistent low satisfaction ratings of the Forest Service within OPM’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey unsurprising. In fact, the most recent survey found that Forest Service employee satisfaction had dropped by 13% between 2017 and 2018.11 The recent Region 5 Fire and Aviation Safety Team (FAST) report echoed OPM’s findings and cited chronic fatigue specifically within USFS fire suppression personnel as a probable cause for low satisfaction. Another category that has consistently fallen in the lowest quartile of satisfaction among Forest Service employees is pay rate. Current disparity between USFS fire suppression personnel and their non-agency peers undoubtedly contributes to these frustrations (Figure 1). Consistent research findings suggest serious wellness sacrifices as a result of a career in the wildland fire service. Examples of this are rampant chronic fatigue, negative body compositional changes, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and deteriorating mental/emotional health.
These consequences are the unfortunate outcome of the additional risk that fire personnel willingly take on when in the field. Other fire suppression agencies use tools like elevated retirement incentives and pay to compensate their primary fire employees for that additional risk. The increased compensation by other agencies is beneficial for the wildland fire management community as a whole but may actually contribute to a positive feedback loop within the fire personnel retention problem that the Forest Service is facing. As compensation disparity increases so does the incentive for USFS fire
personnel to leave the agency. Additionally, this disparity has also created an environment ripe with
unconscious bias and
micro-aggressions directed at USFS employees on multi-agency managed
incidents as they perform equivalent duties for less compensation. This
discrimination can manifest
in numerous ways and affects the
overall sense of wellbeing, health,
and safety of our employees. This
type of environment produces
increased friction between USFS fire personnel and their peers, while simultaneously contributing to decreasing self-worth among USFS employees. This dynamic was identified in the FAST report as another major cause of agency Firefighter discontentment. Not only does compensation disparity make it more difficult for our Firefighters to do their job, but it serves to further discourage them and drives them to seek outside employment opportunities. The USFS has taken outstanding strides to address this kind of discrimination within its own ranks. However, it is clear that the agency could be doing more to protect its employees once they are on assignment, and in doing so effectively improve its retention problem.
Conclusion: Leading the agency and fire program to success.
The recent USFS publication This Is Who We Are may undersell the true proportion of Forest Service personnel that are involved with fire suppression. Despite this, it does shed light on the qualities, commitments, and dilemmas that fire suppression employees exemplify. One such dilemma is summed up well by the humble/expert dynamic tension. Fire personnel working for the Forest Service are humble beyond reproach yet represent the leading edge of fire and aviation research and management for the nation. This is especially the case in Region 5 where that majority of the agency’s fire suppression spending is invested. When a humble but effective workforce does speak up to the current degree, their leadership must listen, or risk losing them. The Region 5 fire suppression personnel have spoken. They aren’t asking to be made rich or be showered in rewards and accolades. They are simply voicing a desire to be compensated and recognized adequately and comparatively for the continual output of the best product any firefighting organization in the world has to offer. These sentiments have already grown well
Pay Variation Between Wildland Firefighter Categories in California.
$45,674.66 Forestry Technician (GS- 0462)
Fire Protection & CalFire Firefighter
PG&E SIP Crew Lead
Figure 1: Graph showing disparity in 2017 average annual base salary between USFS fire personnel (GS 3-9)17, 18, CalFire19, and Municipal20 firefighters. PG&E wages were calculated based on recent outreach documents for the company’s new fire suppression positions. AVG Yearly Income ($) beyond the grumblings of a few and begun to manifest into well written essays by highly respected Hotshots and genuine inquiries into union, associated press, political avenues, and class action legal representation. Our Firefighters are sending us the message that the floodgates will soon open, but first are giving us the chance to be the kind of leaders we say we are. The opportunity to make the changes that they are asking for, and deserve. To finally grant them the morbid dignity of having the job title on their pay stubs match the job title in their funeral programs. We don’t even have to take our fire personnel at their word, because objective data is showing us that they are genuinely burnt-out and dissatisfied with the agency that they have committed themselves to. We can clearly see by data trends and the research conclusions from sources like FAST, Mendocino Complex FLA, and OPM that our people are fed up with being unrecognized and compensated less than their peers for the equivalent, and often superior work that they perform. One of the most consistent qualities credited by members of competitive and successful organizations to their leaders is authenticity. This was readily apparent in the time of Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and John Pulaski, and remains consistent on the fireline today. The unique circumstances of administrational changes, increased incident costs, inflation, minimum wage increase, and the recent attention given to fire management have given us the opportunity to address this problem and be the leaders our fire suppression workforce needs us to be. Regardless of how you define a great leader, we need to ask ourselves, are we leaders if no one is following us?
Great things happen in this world because people make them happen. Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein, and Isaac Newton among many others achieved greatness by following their hearts and minds and gaining an anchor point on an idea or vision. The steps following the anchor point become clearer as the effort gets more attention and more minds are at work on it. The biggest challenge seems to be the creativity part where we have to break through the parameters that are engrained in us through society, culture, media, teachings, and history in order to see what is possible. Once the idea begins to materialize and come to fruition people are generally quick to subscribe when they begin to understand it and see that it is accepted by others. This is our reality, and we are fortunate to be in positions that allow us to create and share vision and deviate from the status quo. There will always be a certain amount of risk with any decision, however indecision forfeits our ability to develop the situation and puts the decision in someone else’s hands. The decision space is closing and now is our opportunity to establish an anchor point in securing the future of our workforce. We accept risk in various forms on a daily occurrence in our positions, now we ask that you share the risk by venturing into uncharted territory.