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Wildland Firefighters Not Served Well By Albuquerque Service Center

by Chuck Sheley (Cave Junction '59) |

At our NSA Board meeting in Boise March 2018, we heard that the USFS smokejumper program was 43 positions short of their goal of 320 jumpers for the 2017 season. There seemed to be a breakdown in the hiring process at the Albuquerque Human Resources Management (HMR), where the applications are screened and forwarded to the hiring unit.

I listed some of the problems the smokejumper base managers were having and forwarded them to the appropriate people. The questions were kicked up the line. The answers I got back from Human Resources Management (HRM) were confusing, and I could not match them to the questions I submitted. I forward them to some of our Ph.D.'s and smokejumper lawyers for interpretation.

Former NSA legal counsel Guy Hurlbutt (IDC-62) responded with an answer like several others: "Overall, the responses from the Forest Service are unintelligible and come chillingly close to the bureaucratic 'Doublespeak' we were warned about by George Orwell in his classic book 1984. I have rarely seen better crafted non-responses to straightforward questions."

John Culbertson (FBX-69) responded: "Chuck's questions are direct, reasonable, and relate to a considerable problem in wildfire administration; an understandable hiring process that connects supervisors with workers. Answers from the Forest Service Albuquerque Service Center (ASC) appear generated by an automaton and are unfocused on all but government processes internal to that office. The ability to clearly communicate is key to effective administration. That is a missing element here.

"I have fifty years' experience in public and private fire suppression, prevention, public information, research, and administration. ASC seems uniquely problematic. I hope the Forest Service will consider returning hiring to the Forests and Administrative Units. The human element in personnel management is essential, and one is closer to that with the home unit."

After this 2018 article, I followed it up with a July 2019 article as hiring did not improve. The USFS smokejumper program was short 32 jumpers in 2018, down 31 in 2019, and down 36 in 2020. Similar stats for 2021/22. Smokejumper Base Managers get lists of people who do not want or are not qualified to be smokejumpers-the person just checked that they were interested in "all vacant fire positions."

Feedback From The Field

I am fortunate to be able to hear from wildland firefighters, jumpers, and hotshots. In 2019 I had the opportunity to sit down with a Fire Management Officer from a forest north of here. I was impressed with his attitude and desire for quick initial attack. He was a throwback to 30 years ago. We talked about the lack of ability to make local hires. He said that is one of his problems. The local people live in the area, have community ties, and know the country.

The current system gives him out-of-state hires while the local applicants go to another state. For instance, the hires coming from New Mexico to Oregon pass the hires going to New Mexico from Oregon. This would not make sense to anyone except those in the USFS Human Resources Department.

Now in 2022 we see that one of the main concerns of wildland firefighters is their lack of ability to pay for housing in areas where they are offered jobs. Wouldn't local hiring make sense where the young entry-level firefighter could live at home?

John Culbertson (FBX-69): "Local agencies lead the way. The FIRESCOPE agencies, with the exception of the federal folks, already have local hire. When formed, Federal agencies were vital to the running of a country and played a bigger role out of practicality. But I do think our country has become so big that it would be better to break up many Federal lands and put them under the authority of the states."

Smokejumper Base Manager (2021): "ASC/ HRM needs to revisit their mission statement which roughly states, 'a model employer that provides exceptional customer service to recruit and retain a workforce of dedicated public servants.' How can they value their own mission statement when our 'boots-on-the-ground' public servants are engaged in fire suppression and all-risk incidents during the time when applications are due to be considered for a permanent/seasonal position?"

From a column I wrote for the July 2019 issue of Smokejumper: "Today, after a two-week delay, I did my annual Smokejumper History presentation to the RDD 2019 rookie class. Due to the many hiring problems from HR, they were two weeks late in starting their rookie training. There were supposed to be 12 rookies. Finally, today, there were 10 approved rookies, plus one still waiting approval, sitting in front of me. The last rookie still is undergoing background checks. They are delaying the start of rookie training with hope that #12 will get approval soon.

More recently (March 2022) I heard back from Dave Provencio (MSO-77) who was at the U.S. Hotshot Association conference in Santa Clarita, CA. I asked Dave for some feedback on the hiring system and got responses, via Dave, from current Wildfire Management Supervisors and Regional Wildfire Management personnel. Some responses: (1) Give up and get rid of ASC. We've been working with something that has never worked. (2) A Hotshot Superintendent or any supervisor has no control over who they need to hire. (3) Hotshot supervisors can't hire who they need to maintain IHC standards for recertification.

Dave forwarded me an article by Rachel Granberg-Senior Forestry Tech., Okanogan-Wenatchee N.F. -who did a study to find barriers to recruiting and retaining Wildland Firefighters (WFFs). Over 70% of the 736 who responded to the survey were current federal WFFs. The hiring process presented many roadblocks to the recruitment of federal WFFs.

Some of these are: (1) Regions and agencies do not coordinate externally, and applicants sometimes must apply as much as eight or nine months before their start date. (2) When Fire Hire positions are announced in August when many are on the fireline, over 76% do not have access to a computer. (3) Only about half felt that job announcements were open long enough to apply. (4) Over 53% of respondents had issues 'with navigation paths, sessions timing out, or other accessibility issues.' (5) Only about 30% understand how resumes are evaluated and must have key words as the resumes are initially evaluated by a computer system.

The final paragraph of this report gives an excellent summary, and I want to quote it. "All survey respondents were current or former federal WFFs, meaning they made it through the application process at least once-yet they still reported issues with the hiring process. Because Fire Hire is held once annually, a missed opportunity or mistake can delay an individual's career by a year or more. Lack of job advertising, poor announcement timing, and brief application windows complicated the application process. Lack of access to supplemental documentation and problems with human resources all contribute to recruiting issues in the federal fire service. These results suggest that reforms to recruitment, application and hiring practices could be another leverage point for addressing WFF retention issues."

All of this points to a broken system that continues to operate and not make any changes. This is what we get with the government and the USFS. "Leaving the broken system the way it is, that's not a solution"-Barack Obama. "If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution"-Albert Einstein. "If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution"- Steve Jobs.

At a recent NSA board meeting it was affirmed that the centralized system will continue to expand regardless of how it does not serve our wildland firefighters. Let's get back to local hire where local youth can start a job. I don't say this as an uninformed individual. I've done it with close to 4,000 young men and women and it works.

We will continue to hear the USFS rail about the lack of wildland firefighters and the numbers of positions not being filled. It is like a person running into a wall and wondering why they come to a quick stop. My wish is that all the people who sit on those chairs with four wheels could be put into the field for a season. Most would die the first day.

I am coming from the standpoint of a wildland firefighter and a teacher. There is no way that I, and other teachers could survive by ignoring the wishes of our clientele. Children are the top priority of most families. If I as a teacher, was failing my clientele, a quick change would be made. That is the result of local control. That is what is missing with the centralization of the hiring system.

Don't look for any changes. Common sense is not part of the equation. We will continue to lack wildland firefighters; they will continue to get screwed by the system and we will continue into chaos.

The major news outlets will continue to write about the shortage of wildland firefighters and have little knowledge of the basic problems with the current, failed hiring system.

I do not make this claim without any knowledge or background. I have shown you statistics, input from smokejumper base managers, and hotshots. This is input from the people in the field. Apparently that input does not reach the higher ups.

I'm glad that I'm a teacher. We are responsible to our clientele. We respond to local needs. Our goal is to meet the needs of our students.

The chances that the Albuquerque hiring system will change are zero and next to none. There is no chance that this failed hiring system will change.

You as taxpayers and citizens of the U.S. are being duped by the government. Isn't it time to demand a change? Where are our Senators and Representatives in the Western States? They are asleep at the switch!