Federal wildland firefighters’ transition to new job descriptions faces challenges

The OPM demands that it be completed by June 2023

Forest firefighters. USFS picture.

Legislation passed in 2021 required federal wildland firefighters to have the ability to transition from their current job series, such as forest technician, to a new series configured specifically for wildland firefighters. This would affect employees of five agencies, Forest Service (FS), Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and National Park Service.

Groups have been working on developing the blueprint for the new system which involves selecting a series of jobs, writing job descriptions (PDs) and classifying those PDs by assigning a grade level to each job description. job. The last step would be to make a decision on the salary at each grade level.

Job Series

Most federal forest firefighters up to the GS-9 or 11 level have been in the GS-0462 series of forest technicians. Federal agencies decided that instead of creating a new series of wildland firefighters, they would modify one that hasn’t seen much use for about 50 years, the Wildland Fire Management GS-0456 series.

Revised classification standards for the series were released in June 2022 and agencies now have one year from that date to implement the “new” series.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) describes it in part:

“This series includes job categories that involve technical and specialized work in the protection of forests or rangelands and resources from fire. This series includes general fire management work that is preparatory to the assumption of technical or specialized assignments and that is accomplished within the framework of specialized functional fire management programs, including the prevention of forest and range fires , pre-suppression, suppression, post-suppression, fire research and other specialized work related to fire management programs.

Currently, agencies are tasked with working with two groups, HR managers and subject matter experts, to develop job descriptions that accurately reflect jobs performed in 2022. They also rank each PD and assign a grade level which will affect the salary. They must also assess the 286 DPs to determine if they will qualify for firefighter retirement coverage. In a perfect world, actualized PDs would describe what employees actually do at that level, and the GS grade would be awarded correctly and impartially, without bias or preconceived agendas.

We have been in contact with several people who are closely involved in this process. One told us that the older GS-0462 PDs were basically copy and pasted into the newer GS-0456 series with a few extra tasks added. We were told that the FS Washington office liaison for this project simply transferred the old scores for the grade determinations into the new GS-0456 series. There seems to be strong resistance to including functions in PDs that would result in them being rated at a higher grade.

Fire team
Still image from NWCG video.

On August 31, the FS held an online briefing for some of its employees in the western United States called “FAM to Boots”, “FAM” standing for Fire and Aviation Management. One of the speakers on the hour-long call was Ben Elkind, a paratrooper who would fall into the “boots” category but was acting as a representative of the union, the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE). He was involved in the process of transitioning into the new series of firefighting jobs, including PD review and classification.

“In subsequent meetings, we learned that the process was basically a crosswalk,” Mr. Elkind said on the call. “I think a lot of people were expecting to get a higher grade or to have new tasks added to their DP. But what we’ve been told is that PDs don’t change rank, and that’s the leadership of the Washington office. In addition to keeping the same notes, they attach the notes to the DPs to send them to the classifications. They therefore do not rate them independently. They simply look at the note attached to them and affix that note to it. We just wonder why they don’t go through a process independently and let people rate them without presetting the ratings.

“We are debating internally whether or not to continue our participation,” Mr. Elkind continued. “We don’t want our participation to be seen as a stamp of approval. And just to give an example of the notes, right? The Forest Service makes the grades, like a superintendent, 2,100 points would be needed for the next grade and they’re scored at 2,090. So less than half a percent keeps them from getting an upgrade. That’s the kind of stuff we’re concerned about, and it seems like they’re working backwards – the ratings are set, then they just do a PD to match, then they arbitrarily rate it to match whatever they want. “

Wildfire Today has reached out to Morgan Thomsen who is also participating in the process as a union representative. He does not speak on behalf of the union, but as a union representative.

“My biggest concern and reluctance to stay involved in this process is that Washington office management (not FAM’s subject matter experts) choose to use terms such as ‘may’ in these PDs to deliberately avoid any kind of meaningful classification,” says Thomsen.As an example: the new Interagency Hotshot Crew Superintendent DP states that a Superintendent “CAN” act as a Branch Manager or Operations Section Chief. Another PD says ‘CAN red card qualifying’ [fire qualifications card]. While this is true, we certainly “can” do it; I am a GS-7 intern as a division supervisor. No DP even requires a division supervisor below the level of assistant fire management officer. Instead of trying to copy/paste 0462 PDs and sneak into more tasks using the term “may” like a cop, we might as well be real here, go back to the drawing board and produce PDs that will actually work for decades to come. »

Pay

The temporary salary increase funded by a specific limited appropriation from Congress is scheduled to last until September 2023. Beyond that, firefighter salaries would regress to previous paltry amounts unless a permanent solution is developed by the Congress or the agencies develop a new special rate of pay. .

Brian Rhodes, who was also on the FAM to Boots call, works in the FS Washington office and plays a major role in the transition to the new series. He talked for a long time, but while verbally dancing around the issue of a long-term pay raise, he wouldn’t divulge what was being considered.

dispatchers

As things stand, fire dispatchers are being considered for inclusion in the 0456 job series, but they could choose to remain in the 0462 job series. Mr Rhodes said at one point that the OPM did not believe that they “performed the main functions of a forest firefighter”. He said that the FS hopes to reconsider this decision with the OPM.

At the end of the FAM to Boots presentations, a dispatch center manager brought up the subject saying “It’s really important to us, [and, if it is not resolved soon] we are going to see people come out, people who have been with us for years and who have dedicated their lives to the safety of all of our firefighters. … I think we’re integral to keeping people safe and getting things done. I don’t want my band to be an afterthought.

“Hire to retire”?

Firefighters agree that one of the goals of the new job streak was that a person could stay in the ‘hire-to-retire’ streak. But there are indications that it will reach the GS-9 level. One of the many issues that complicates the retention of experienced firefighters is that when they become GS-7 or GS-8, they look up and see a career ladder shrinking with no place for them. This may cause them to quit and transfer their existing qualifications to CAL FIRE or local fire departments, doubling or tripling their pay.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildfires for 33 years, he continues to learn and strives to be a student of fire. View all posts by Bill Gabbert


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