PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – In June 2022, the Biden administration announced sweeping changes that would increase pay and benefits for federal wildland firefighters. Officials hoped the incentives would help retain firefighters, but researchers say the changes could lead to new problems in recruiting and retaining wildland fire dispatchers. 

The wildland fire management occupational series provides significant pay increases and allows federal wildland firefighters to maintain their retirement benefits. The series was created with funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. It includes people who work with wildfire aircraft, fire engine operators, fire management officers, smokejumpers, people who work in fuels management, and other positions. 

However, it leaves out wildland fire dispatchers. Instead, these employees were placed in the dispatching occupational series, which does not allow them to maintain their fire crew retirement and keeps them at their current pay status. 

Since the plan was announced, dispatchers across the country have spoken out about the issue. They feel they’ve been unfairly excluded from the benefits offered to their coworkers. 

A dispatcher at the Boise Interagency Dispatch Center. (DOI/Neal Herbert)

Sensing the unease among her colleagues in 2022, Washington-based senior forestry technician Rachel Granberg began surveying her peers and collecting data about their experiences as dispatchers. 

She collected about 700 surveys and then contacted Dr. Robin Verble, who’d taught Granberg in a masters program at Texas Tech University. Verble now works as the director of the Environmental Science Program at Missouri University of Science and Technology. 

“She knew things were going bad and she wanted to show what was going on out there,” Verble said, explaining why her former student had reached out to her. 

Verble agreed to help analyze the data and together with Granberg and others, she prepared a preliminary report using responses from 250 surveyed people who are current dispatchers. 

The research revealed that wildland fire dispatchers’ working environments include many of the same stressors that operational wildland firefighters experience on the job. It also showed that wildland fire dispatchers are experiencing concerningly high rates of mental health issues and struggle with work-life balance. 

Additionally, surveyed dispatchers said they strongly support including their position in the new wildland fire occupational series.  

In their survey, researchers asked wildland fire dispatchers if they are not moved into the new job series, how likely are they to leave their job?  

Verble said 40% of the preliminary responses they received said they would definitely leave their career and another 25% said they were probably done with the career. 

The federal government should be very concerned about those responses, Verble said, considering the nation is already struggling to recruit people to the position. 

“Dispatch is the center of communication for wildland fire operations,” Verble said. “If that center breaks down, we can’t get messages across between crews. We can’t get resources moved across the country.” 

She said many people become wildland fire dispatchers after they suffer injuries in the field. Working in dispatch offers them an opportunity to remain in the firefighting community, but if the job doesn’t offer the same pay and benefits, Verble thinks they might pivot to other careers. 

According to the preliminary report, 92.4% of the dispatchers surveyed had previous wildland firefighting experience. 

In addition to expressing displeasure in being left out of the wildland fire job series, survey respondents answered questions about their physical and mental health. More than 50 said they rarely wake feeling rested and more than 40 said they use over-the-counter pain pills at least once per week. 

A dispatcher records a new fire at the Boise Interagency Dispatch Center. (DOI/Neal Herbert)

More than 70 respondents said they have experienced mild or moderate depression and nearly 40 people said they’ve sought treatment for mental health issues in the last 12 months. 

“I mean, number one goal right now would be to get the dispatchers the option to be moved into the series, but then that’s really starting point number one, because it’s not going to fix mental health. It’s not going to fix some of the working conditions,” Verble said. 

She said she’d love to see federal officials take action and use the data her team has collected. She hasn’t sent the preliminary report to federal agencies, but said it’s freely available for them to view at wildlandfiresurvey.com

KOIN 6 News shared the report with the U.S. Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest. Jennifer O’Leary Risdal, a fire communications officer, replied and said the Forest Service’s top priority is to protect the health, safety and well-being of the fire management community. 

“We are working to better understand the particular challenges our dispatchers face including demanding workloads and the mental health toll from what they experience on the job,” she said. 

She pointed out that the Forest Service has a new employee assistance program that provides trauma support and mental health services. The Forest Service also works with the U.S. Department of the Interior to implement the new joint Federal Wildland Firefighter Health and Wellbeing Program to address mental health challenges. 

O’Leary Risdal did not address dispatchers’ desire to join the wildland fire job series. 

While Oregon Department of Forestry firefighters are not affected by the federal job series changes, Jessica Prakke, a public affairs officer for ODF, said the agency does take the dispatchers’ mental and physical health concerns in the preliminary report seriously. 

“We want to make sure that we really do our best to try to reduce the risk of burnout because, especially in this job, it can be extremely stressful for a very concentrated amount of time,” she said. 

At ODF, Prakke said employees are encouraged to take walks, take breaks and use mental health days if needed. 

Currently, ODF is offering wildland fire dispatchers a 10% pay differential to incentivize people to the position. With the differential, the dispatcher salary range is almost equal to the wildland fire suppression salary range. 

Verble and her team continued to survey dispatchers until March 1, after the preliminary report was released. The total responses will be used to draft a final report. Verble hopes it will be in peer review sometime between mid-April and early May. 

KOIN 6 News contacted the U.S. Office of Personnel Management to ask if federal officials were considering moving wildland fire dispatchers to the other job series. OPM responded with this statement:

“OPM is working with the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Forest Service on implementation of provisions as outlined in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Public Law 117-58, or Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), enacted on November 15, 2021, related to Wildland Firefighting positions including classification, pay, and retirement coverage. This includes concerns regarding dispatcher positions. As this work is currently underway OPM is unable to provide additional information at this time. Our engagement with both agencies will result in solutions for addressing the human capital issues as outlined related to dispatcher positions.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article did not include the statement from OPM. The statement was later added to the story.