September 24, 2021

Congressman Neguse proposes secure housing, mental health services for federal wildland fighters

Congressman Joe Neguse, co-chair of the Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus, passed two proposals through the U.S. House of Representatives.

These two pieces of legislation called Housing Our Firefighters Act and Care for Our Firefighters Act are each intended to meet the needs of many federal wildland fighters.

The Housing Our Firefighters Act establishes a housing stipend for federal wildland firefighters, hired at a location more than 50 miles from their primary residence, and the Care for Our Firefighters Act would secure mental health programs for federal wildland firefighters, including a mental health awareness campaign, peer-to-peer support network, expansion of the Critical Incident Stress Management Program, mental health leave, and making sure that trauma-informed mental health professionals are available to provide their services.

Congressman Neguse introduced both provisions as stand-alone measures and as amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act of FY2022 and plans to introduce comprehensive legislation to overhaul federal firefighter pay, benefits and classification soon.

This increase in public demand and expectations placed on wildland firefighters to respond to the ever growing wildfires is only expected to exponentially increase in the coming years. The current federal wildland fire workforce is understaffed, overworked and has a variety of mental health issues, suicide, high divorce rates and a high incidence of cancer and cardiovascular disease that they have been left without appropriate resources to cope with. 

“Our federal firefighters, many of whom are veterans, are simply not receiving the support they need. As the impacts of climate change worsen, wildfire seasons are turning increasingly more intense and lengthy, and it is critical that we provide necessary support to equip our firefighters and support this high-skilled profession,” said Congressman Joe Neguse. 

Neguse added that the provisions are just the first step of many to help get federal firefighters the support that they need.

“Grassroots Wildland Firefighters support these amendments, and thank Rep. Neguse for these first steps towards helping to decrease instances of housing insecurity and mental health issues that are prevalent amongst our Federal Wildland Firefighters. We are grateful for the long-overdue congressional leadership that Representative Neguse is taking to address classification, pay, and benefits, as well as the comprehensive health and well-being of our Federal Wildland, Fighting workforce,” said Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. 

Every major wildfire in the U.S. relies on a federal wildfire response with federal wildland firefighters and the vital services their specialized crews provide to protect life and property. The Forest Service employs the majority of wildland firefighters in the nation, over 10,000 employees, combating wildfires in all 50 states and internationally. In addition, the federal government provides advanced-skill units such as Hotshot Crews, Smokejumpers, Rappellers, Helitack Crews, and Wildland Fire Modules—along with the engines and hand crews it staffs at higher levels than its non-federal counterparts.

Wildland firefighters are classified as “forestry technicians” paid an hourly wage of $13.45 at the GS-3 level and are often not provided adequate health care benefits nor housing while on the job.

Firefighters nationwide also commit suicide 30 times as often as the public and have a 30% increased risk for cardiovascular diseases, and a 43% increase for lung cancer. 

By:  Dani Birzer
Source: FOX 21 News