If it becomes law, firefighters will receive risk differential compensation equal to 25% of their hourly rate when working on an uncontrolled fire.
IDAHO, United States — The Idaho House on Friday approved a bill offering hazard pay to Idaho firefighters by a 49-to-19 margin, as reported by the Bonner County Daily Bee.
If the legislation becomes law, Idaho wildland firefighters will receive hazard differential compensation equal to 25% of their hourly rate when working on an uncontrolled fire or an active fire helideck.
“What it does is it recognizes that fighting wildfires is a very dangerous profession,” said the Chief of Fire Management for the Department of Lands (IDL) in Coeur d’Alene, Josh Harvey. “There are all kinds of things in that wildfire environment that can kill a person or seriously injure them.”
Harvey, born and raised in Idaho, has been a wildland firefighter since graduating from high school. He has spent a lot of time working side by side with interagency partners. He was also in charge of other federal or state firefighters who, while doing the same job, were paid a higher rate because they received hazard pay.
Washington Department of Natural Resources wildland firefighters receive a starting salary of $2,892 a month, or about $18.75 an hour. They receive an additional $2 per hour for emergency response duties.
Idaho IDL Wildland Firefighters start at $12.55 per hour. Their hourly rate is lower than that of some fast food workers.
Firefighters work a basic 40-hour week, but must be available to respond to a call anytime, any day of the week during fire danger season. They can also be sent to help in other states, away for more than two weeks at a time.
Upon reaching a dangerous scene, a firefighter may work 24 hours or more at a stretch if there is no one to relieve them.
Harvey said he had been part of several medical evacuation situations.
“They can be life threatening,” Harvey said. “Injuries themselves have long-term impacts.”
Harvey said he had friends who suffered significant spinal damage from falling branches. Others died on the job.
“I think this hazard pay is really a recognition of the men and women who are putting themselves in a position to do a job for the greater good of the public,” he said.
For the agency, Harvey said offering hazard pay is key to retaining some of the employees who are attracted to other agencies offering a higher rate of pay.
Historically, Harvey said, where they’ve seen the most difficulty retaining employees is in leadership positions. After just two seasons, 40% of IDL wildland firefighters are not returning to work for the agency.
“We put the initial investment in their training and gave them the first two years of experience and then they leave,” Harvey said. “You kind of have to go where the money is.”
Retaining experienced firefighters will also create a safer environment for everyone, as experienced firefighters have a greater incentive to stay. They will also be on site to ensure the safety of young firefighters by teaching them good habits and guiding them.
“I think the long-term investment in our firefighters is really going to pay off in our ability to provide quality fire protection to the ratepayers of Idaho,” Harvey said.
In a recent survey, 60% of IDL wildland firefighters who indicated they would not return to work for the agency next season said that if hazard pay was provided, they would stay with IDL.
Scott Phillips, policy and communications manager for IDL, estimated that between about $330,000 and $390,000 in hazard pay could be paid annually from the general fund.
Phillips said there are no additional fees or taxes being created. He said the department recognizes that the state has a budget and needs to be careful about how taxpayers’ money is spent, placing some restrictions on how hazard pay is paid to control costs.
According to the bill sponsored by Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, firefighters would only be eligible for hazard pay for the time they are actually on that incident. This differs from federal policy: if an individual walks in a line of fire for even five minutes, he is entitled to hazard pay for the whole day.
After the approval of the House, the bill is now submitted to the Senate for consideration.
Only two Kootenai County representatives supported the bill: Coeur d’Alene Republicans Jim Addis and Paul Amador.
Local lawmakers who voted against were Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens; Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene; Doug Okuniewicz, R-Hayden; Heather Scott, R-Blanchard; and Tony Wisniewski, R-Post Falls.
HB588 is a companion bill to another bill being considered in the current session. IDL is working with the Idaho Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee to create a way to permanently raise firefighter wages to $15 an hour.
IDL is already raising the starting wage to $15 an hour this season, using funds from its existing budget, but the base budget is not enough to support the increased hourly rate. The 2023 budget request includes a decision to make the increase permanent.
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