SO YOU WANT TO BE A
F I R E F I G H T E R ? ?

© 1997 Kelly Andersson
CONTRIBUTING EDITOR
WILDLAND FIREFIGHTER MAGAZINE

You think you want to be a firefighter. You think it's a wild adventure. You think it's dangerous and exciting and a big adrenaline rush. You think you might like it -- love it, even -- if you could spend your summers fighting fire in the mountains and forests, beating yourself into the dirt with the soot-blackened heroes you've heard so much about, or seen pictures of, or seen on TV and in the movies. Maybe someone you know has done it, and now you want it so bad you can taste it. It's become your dream, and you just gotta make it come true.

Maybe you've had a little experience on a trail-building crew. Maybe you're a volunteer firefighter for a rural fire protection district. Or maybe you're a college student, or even a high school student, and you've heard about the high adventure and big bucks possible working fire in the summer. You want to be a smokejumper -- or a hotshot -- but you'll settle for anything if they just give you a chance.

If you're one of the many thousands of wannabe firefighters out there, how do you manage to land yourself a slot on a fire crew?

There's always good news and bad news; the good news is that there are positions available. The not-so-good news is that there's no easy answer to the question -- "How do I get hired?"

If you're looking for summer work as a temporary firefighter with the Forest Service or another federal agency, and if you're thinking you've got what it takes, but you don't know where to begin, well, this one's for you, bud.

YOU THINK
YOU ARE
TOUGH ENOUGH?

Here's one way to find out whether you qualify for work as a wildland firefighter. Stuff what you think you need for a week into a backpack, making sure it weighs at least 50 pounds. If you don't need to carry that much food, add rocks to your pack till it weighs at least that much.

Start hiking cross-country, and make sure you're going at a good clip for at least 10 hours per day on steep slopes -- and make sure you're awake for at least 20 hours per day. If you see big movable stuff, such as rocks and logs, pick them up and move them. The bigger they are and the farther and faster you move them, the more it counts. Fall down a lot, and bang yourself up on rocks and roots as often as possible. Thrash around in the brush, get good and scraped, and go without food and water as much as possible.

Practice sleeping while standing up. This is critical. Practice it enough to where you sort of get to like it.

Try to attract as many mosquitoes and yellowjackets and bees and flies and snakes as possible, and get bit by as many as you can in as many places as possible. Get as wet and muddy as possible, and get as hot and dusty and generally filthy as you possibly can. WHATEVER YOU DO, DON'T BATHE.

Keep this up for a week. If you're still alive, and if you think you're having a good time, you may just make it as a wildland firefighter. If you're genuinely having the time of your life and you want more of this, someone may want to hire you.

Many Forest Service districts recruit fire personnel through state employment offices. National Forest districts can do their own direct hiring, though, if you're looking for just summer work and you plan to go to school in the fall. The key is to be persistent about finding the job you want and landing it.

Hiring procedures are often confusing; there's no standardized application procedure from one region to the next, or even from one forest to the next. Some national forests hire both directly and through the state employment office. Some just take referrals from the state employment division. Some accept applications directly, but only from the date the vacancy announcement opens till it closes. If you inquire early about temporary jobs -- in January in the West, for example -- Forest Service personnel often don't know which openings will be coming up. They can't answer your questions if they really don't have the answers.

Some agency staffers say they've noticed a decrease in the number of temporary positions available, and they attribute that to agency budget-cutting. On the other hand, some other agencies that hire firefighters -- California's Department of Forestry (CDF) being one example -- have a different mix of permanent and temporary employees now than they did some years back. It used to be with CDF that you hung on as a temp for three or four years and then you got hired on as a permanent employee. If you didn't, then there was something wrong with you. Now, though, it's not uncommon at all for firefighters to stick around for five or six or seven years as a temp employee with CDF. That's just how it goes.

The good part of this, if you're trying to get on as a seasonal or temporary employee, is that the fire management agencies, federal or state, will always need temporary firefighters, whether they're on engines or hotshot crews or helitack -- or just digging line and stacking sticks and throwing dirt.

One way to seriously jack up your chances of getting hired is to jack up your level of skills. Can you run a chainsaw? If not, find someone to teach you. Can you drop a snag within inches of obstacles on both sides of it, even when it's leaning the other way? If not, learn how. Can you drive a truck with a 5-and-a-2 transmission? Can you change a tire? Can you drive a bus? Do you have a license to drive heavy rigs? Do you have a perfect driver's record? Can you pitch a tent and cook over a fire and tie a half dozen knots and sharpen a knife? If you think that sounds like boyscout silliness, you need to rearrange your attitude and find someone to teach you these things. Learning how to get by and make do in the outdoors comes in handy if you're getting by and making do in the outdoors, and the other folks on the crew will not appreciate it if you don't have a clue and can't look out for yourself and they then have to.

Speaking of outdoors skills, if you don't know basic first aid and CPR, get your butt in gear and go learn it.

Students with a basic duffelbag of skills who are looking for temporary work can usually find it if they're persistent and not too fussy about where and when they start. If you're not a student -- or if you have only a vague idea of where you want to work -- then your best resource is your state employment office. When crew supervisors say they need 20 people on a crew, their agency personnel office makes a job order with the state employment office that does their recruiting. The state office then handles the qualifications and initial application process -- in other words, they screen out the folks who aren't going to cut it and compile a group of the ones who might -- and they send the federal applications to the Forest Service district office. As a general rule, the state office makes the job referrals, and the forest supervisor's office makes the selection.

Advertised jobs are listed on the federal job opportunity board on the internet through the Office of Personnel Management. The grade level for forestry technicians in firefighting is referenced through the state employment office, and if you find a position you're interested in, you can apply for it through your state employment office, or through the contact listed on the OPM website.

State employment ofices generally start accepting federal applications in February. Notifications are usually sent out by March or April, when the Forest Service lets the state offices know which openings are coming up. Though this varies from region to region and even from district to district, as a general rule, if you want to work on a specific forest but not on others, then you should go through the state employment office in your target area. Some national forests, though, do open hiring rather than going through the state office. Your best bet is to call the local Forest Service district office and ask whether they do open recruitment.

If you're looking for jobs on other forests, the state employment office will usually keep your application on file if you ask them to. They'll fax it to other ranger districts as jobs come up.

The Forest Service hires temporaries by GS level -- grade service level -- which is based on your experience, skills, and education. There are very few entry-level positions open any more, and many ranger districts are prone to hiring local people first. Many offices have become more particular about qualifications in an attempt to recruit people with at least the basic skills for wildland firefighting. You must be at least 18 and a U.S. citizen, but the districts with positions to fill are now looking more closely at additional qualifications -- such as trail-building experience, logging and forestry skills, or other comparable work in the woods. Many positions require a valid driver's license, and some require a commercial driver's license. Some are subject to drug testing (notably those requiring a commercial driver's license). Applicants are required to meet the QUALIFICATION STANDARDS HANDBOOK criteria according to the grade or position sought.

If you're hired on as a "forestry aide" or "forestry tech" you can gauge your probable pay rate based on these grade levels: A GS-2 will make $7.00 or more per hour, a GS-4 $8.00 or better, and a GS-7 about $12.00 per hour.

So what exactly does a "forestry aide/technician" do? Depending on your skills and attitude, you could do anything from a lot of ungodly grunt work to a summer's worth of fascinating projects that will teach you more than you'd learn in three years on most other jobs. You could be working in timber, recreation, range, fisheries, wildlife, surveying, or firemanagement -- or a combination of those. Biology technicians, for example, might conduct surveys of plant and animal species or do surveys on habitat types and conditions. Forestry technicians might work on a fire crew or a fuels management crew, or could work in campground or trails maintenance or construction. The truly lucky dogs get sent off as wilderness rangers. Other forestry duties might include marking trees on sales, timber inventory, planting or thinning trees, or surveying roads and trails.

It's not unusual for crews in one area to also draw fire duty, so if you want to be a firefighter more than anything else in the world but can't get on with an established crew, hustle yourself a job in one of these related areas. If you can't hustle yourself a job, volunteer. If you acquire enough skills and enough good references over enough years, unless you're a monumental dork, you'll eventually land a job.

Seasonal firefighter jobs may include work on a wildland fire suppression crew and/or fuels management crew. Specific projects vary greatly, but duties may include fireline construction and slash burning. Expect to spend time cleaning, reconditioning, and storing tools and equipment, and expect to work harder than you've probably ever worked before. You will.

Most seasonal positions run 40 hours per week, but part-time and "intermittent" openings come up occasionally. Some require non-standard work schedules such as four 10-hour days, ten days on and four days off, or other variations. A season of work in the Pacific Northwest will usually run from mid-June through early October; in the Southwest, work may start as early as March; Southeast seasonals may start in the fall. Early and late season employment is on an as-needed basis, depending on weather, fire season, and budgets. A 40-hour week is not guaranteed during pre- or post-season work.

Note that if one or both of your parents are employed by the USDA, you are on the bottom of the list for the positions that run between May 12 and September 30.

The work itself requires arduous physical exertion under rigorous conditions. The ability to walk over rough, uneven terrain is mandatory, and climbing hills covered with trees, brush, rocks, and debris is to be expected. Get yourself a GOOD pair of boots, and get them broken in (as in miles and miles of broken in) before you hire on. Expect no pity (and perhaps the end of your job) if you ignore this. Minimum physical skills include heavy labor, bending, lifting, and carrying backpacks weighing 45 pounds or more. Some positions require living out of a backpack for several weeks at a time, sleeping on the ground, or staying at remote spike camps or work centers.

A typical job opening at Spotted Bear in Montana, advertised in the fall of 1997, should illustrate what this "remote" business means. Spotted Bear is a remote duty station, about 55 miles from the nearest town. A "sleeping facility" (an open-bay bunkhouse) is rented to employees at a cost of under $3.00 per day (times 30 days is about 90 bucks a month). The job announcement stated that there were "no facilities for married couples," so they probably don't have any for unmarried couples, either. The district furnishes cooking utensils and a mess hall. Government-provided meals (yum) are charged to employees at about $2.00 per meal, which is probably their market value and gives you a clue about how much you'll enjoy them.

ON THE OTHER HAND, some of the best food you'll ever eat in your life is sometimes dished up at fire camps. Depends on who's cooking. Some contracted caterers for fire jobs can outcook your mom. On other fires you will learn to eat MREs (ask any old fire dog what those initials stand for), but "freeze-dried pork briquettes" should give you a clue. Sometimes you will get sack lunches containing "mystery meat" or "rainbow meat," and if you eat enough sack lunches you will learn that DBH does not mean "diameter at breast height." What it really means is "death by ham." (What firefighters want to eat, like to eat, have to eat, and have eaten would make a good book, and you can email us with stories if you have good ones.)

Okay, back to jobs. When you apply, you must fill out a "medical pre-employment inquiry." If there's any doubt about your fitness, you may be required to take a medical exam. The Forest Service also specifies a "recommended fitness level," which used to mean that you had to be able to run 11/2 miles in 11 minutes and 40 seconds, or be able to pass the Step Test. Now you gotta do the Pack Test -- see our Pack Test articles for more information on what this is and how to get in shape for it.

Most temporary jobs require that you fill out one or more forms:

Note that some application packages contain AVAILABILITY RESPONSE SLIPS, which you must continue to send in every month as long as you still wish to be considered for employment. You should also check with local or regional offices to find out whether they're building applicant pools in the fall for summer jobs next year.

SELECTIVE FACTORS:

Some Forest Service positions require not only the basic qualifications, but also what's called selective factors. If you don't provide information about these factors on the questionnaire, it's assumed that you don't meet the qualifications.
GRADEGENERAL
EXPERIENCE
SPECIALIZED
EXPERIENCE
EXPERIENCE OR
EDUCATION
GS-23 monthsnonehigh school graduate or equivalent
GS-36 monthsnone1 year above high school with course(s) related to the job
GS-46 months6 months2 years above high school with related courses
GS-5none1 year4-year course of study to at least GS-4 above high school leading to a bachelor's degree with related courses

General experience is (1) any type of work that demonstrates your ability to perform the work of the position, or (2) experience that provided you with a familiarity with the job. Specialized experience is that which equips you with the particular knowledge, skills, and abilities to successfully do the job. To be creditable, specialized experience must have been at least equivalent to the next lower grade level in the normal line of progression for the job. You can also qualify by combining your experience and education. For education to be creditable, it must include coursework directly related to the position. College transcripts must be submitted with your application.

MORE PLACES TO LOOK FOR JOB INFORMATION:





NOTE: A shorter version of this article ran in the April 1997 issue of WILDLAND FIREFIGHTER Magazine. The article is © 1997 Kelly Andersson and may not be reproduced, copied, published, or distributed without written permission. For info on reprint rights, email Kelly Andersson.