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Bill would raise pay for federal firefighters on wildfire duty

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Federal firefighters would receive 24-hour pay when assigned to battle wildfires under proposed legislation that is being opposed by the Bush administration. “It’s a very, very tough job,” said Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., who led a congressional subcommittee hearing Friday to explore the issue of compensation for federal firefighters.

“I want to make sure they are compensated properly.”

House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., introduced legislation in January that would provide “portal-to-portal” compensation to pay firefighters from the time they leave the fire station for a wildfire until they return.

Currently, federal firefighters working a wildfire are paid only during working hours, which should not exceed 16 hours a day. They are not paid for time resting or sleeping, even though they generally are required to stay near the fire scene during off hours and can be assigned to a particular wildfire for up to 14 days at a time.

“They may be literally thousands of miles away from home, and yet they are paid as if they are going home each night,” said Ryan Beaman, vice president for the International Association of Fire Fighters in southern Nevada.

Although a separate union represents federal firefighters, the IAFF supports the legislation, Beaman said.

“Sitting in the dirt on some mountaintop in Montana is not the same as being able to enjoy the comforts of home,” Beaman said. “And yet the compensation is the same.”

The legislation would cover employees of the Interior and Agriculture departments, which includes the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, which together manage about 470 million acres of public land.

The Bush administration opposes the legislation. Nancy Kichak of the Office of Personnel Management said there is no evidence of recruitment or retention problems as a result of the current pay structure, but there are concerns over equity within the federal employee system and the efficient use of taxpayer money.

“Since there is no compelling evidence of widespread staffing problems, we don’t see a basis for asking taxpayers to fund the kind of large pay increase (the legislation) would produce,” Kichak said.

Casey Judd, business manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, said several areas are having a difficult time maintaining personnel levels.

The situation “breeds low morale and adds incentive for firefighters to leave the federal system,” Judd said, adding the federal government could better manage its firefighting operations to find the necessary funds for the additional pay.

Judd called it ludicrous that firefighters, who often find themselves in life-threatening situations, would be taken off the clock to sleep.

“Firefighters across the country are paid whether they go on call or not,” Judd said. “We’re not asking for any more than to be paid while working an emergency.”

The proposed legislation calls for a firefighter to be paid 16 hours per day at the regular rate and eight hours of overtime. The change could lead to weekly pay being increased by up to 90 percent while fighting fires.

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