Federal Firefighters Deserve Better Pay And Benefits, Lawmakers Say

Firefighting can have lasting physical and mental consequences, and advocates argue it's time for the government to do more to help.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill Tuesday to improve pay and benefits for federal firefighters, who often struggle to eke out a living while doing grueling, life-threatening work.

The legislation comes from Reps. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who all represent states that have faced serious wildfire devastation.

The bill seeks to raise federal firefighters’ hourly pay to at least $20 an hour and salaries to at least $20,000. It would also guarantee these firefighters receive health care, including robust mental health support; improve their paid leave and retirement benefits; and secure funding for housing and tuition assistance.

Unlike municipal firefighters hired by cities and counties, federal firefighters work for agencies such as the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management. They typically respond to large wildland fires.

“As these wildfires grow larger and last longer, federal firefighters answer the call of duty, leaving behind their lives and families for months at a time, working an average of 16-hour daily shifts, sleeping in the dirt, with incredibly limited time off to reset and reconnect with loved ones,” Neguse said in a statement. “This must change.”

The bill is called the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act, and is named after a smokejumper from Wyoming who died earlier this year while parachuting into a wildfire in southern New Mexico.

Hart’s widow, Michelle Hart, has been among those speaking out about firefighters’ unreasonable conditions and low wages.

“They sleep on the ground for weeks, work in smoke without the aid of respiratory protection, endure extreme physical and mental fatigue from 16 hour shifts, and combat dangerous conditions through a ‘fire season’ dramatically extending with each passing year,” she wrote in Cody Enterprise, a Wyoming newspaper, earlier this month.

Many are forced to pay rent near the firefighting base while also covering housing costs for their families back home. Sometimes, Michelle Hart said, the temporary housing shortage is so bad that they have nowhere to stay.

“Tim lived three summers out of his truck because there was no housing available at his base in Idaho,” she wrote.

The low pay ― which is often around $13 an hour for entry-level firefighters ― means many people push themselves beyond their limits to work overtime, she added.

The bill’s authors cite some alarming research about the health of firefighters: They die by suicide 30 times as often as the general public, have a 30% increased risk for cardiovascular diseases and have a 43% increased risk for lung cancer. The legislation proposes a week of mental health leave for all federal firefighters and a system for tracking data on firefighters’ health.

The federal government’s current treatment of firefighters does not account for the risks they take, advocates say.

“Plagued by low wages, extremely long work hours and a retirement plan that doesn’t account for their full annual salary, our firefighters merit pay and benefit plans which recognizes the sacrifices and risks they undertake in the service to our country,” Edward Kelly, the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said in a statement supporting the bill.

Michelle Hart also spoke out on Tuesday in support of the legislation, saying in a statement that her husband cared “deeply” about these issues.

“Tim would be humbled and honored to have this legislation be a part of his legacy and to represent the hard work and sacrifice of thousands of wildland firefighters,” she said.