Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Does the U.S. have a firefighter shortage?

There are several fires that have been in the news lately. The Forest service has more than 100 openings for firefighters that it does not seem to be able to fill.

Normally, in a shortage, the price (in this case wages) would get pushed up until there are no more openings. But the government does not work by market forces. Someone has to make a policy decision to raise wages. If that does not happen, the shortage will persist.

The article also mentions how potential firefighters can get better pay and benefits elsewhere. That is something I talk about when I cover labor markets. How many people offer their services in one market depends partly on how much they can get paid somewhere else.

See As the Dixie Fire and Others Burn, the U.S. Struggles to Find Enough Firefighters: Low pay and a booming economy leave U.S. Forest Service struggling to hire the personnel it needs in a dangerous fire season by Alicia A. Caldwell of The WSJ. Excerpts:

"Amid a drought-fueled fire season where blazes are behaving unpredictably because of extreme weather, Forest Service officials say they are struggling to effectively respond to all the fires burning and likely to come in the West. The federal agency currently has about 10,000 wildland firefighters on staff, about 3,000 of whom are seasonal employees, combating just over 100 active fires. Nationwide, roughly 2.2 million acres have burned so far this year, 1 million more than at the same time last year according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

There are more than 100 open forestry technician positions, the job title given to federal wildland firefighters, according to a government hiring website. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the U.S. Forest Service, said its current staffing levels match those of the past few years but the agency needs more personnel to deal with the growing wildfire threat."

"The Forest Service said it is working to raise the starting base pay for wildland firefighters to a minimum of $15 an hour this year and add retention bonuses. The Biden administration is pushing Congress to make the pay raise permanent and add other incentives, including benefits."

The shortage of wildland firefighters reflects a nationwide shortage of workers at nearly every level of the economy. Starting salaries are rising, and incentives like hiring bonuses are being instituted at many private-sector jobs that carry significantly less risk than firefighting.

Another challenge for the Forest Service is that many of its firefighting jobs are only for fire season, typically from late spring to mid-fall. State and local fire agencies generally pay better and routinely keep firefighters employed year-round. At the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, firefighters also receive overtime and health benefits.

“Cal Fire salaries and, more importantly, benefits, have evolved over the years,” said Ken Pimlott, a former Cal Fire director. At the federal level, he said, “the pay structure and such just hasn’t evolved.”

State firefighters also work more palatable shifts, he said—typically three straight days followed by several days off, compared with 14-day rotations for federal firefighters, who routinely deploy around the country."

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