Together But Unequal: Firefighters Valued Differently

Firefighters are considered heroes by many. They boldly go where most dare not go – into the fire to save lives or protect property.

Despite the bravery they have displayed, with some giving up their lives so others may live, why are they marginalized?

The issue centers on benefits for these firefighters, particularly to those who are contractual or on part-time status.

Putting the issue in sharp focus is the battle between the City of Prescott, Arizona and the families of 13 of the 19 Hotshot firefighters who died in the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30.

Seasonal hires

The families of these 13 men are not eligible to receive lifetime pension and health benefits because these men were seasonal hires or on part-time status.

In the particular case of Andrew Ashcraft, one of the 13 seasonal firefighters who died in the blaze, his family claims he had put in more than 40 hours a week and was paid in the same rate as full-time employees.

As far as they are concerned, he should be considered full-time for the fact he worked and got paid as one. There should be no reason why his family should not receive these full-time benefits because of a technicality.

But the families of these men were not the only ones who were “marginalized.” The family of Caleb Renno, is in a similar situation as the Yarnell Fire survivors.

The New York Times reported that in 2008, the 21-year old Renno was killed in a helicopter crash while battling a wildfire in Northern California. His family could not receive benefits given by the federal government because Renno was a contract firefighter working for a private company.

Horrible inequity

Renno’s outfit was hired by the US Forest Service to battle wildfires. After his death, his parents tried to seek federal benefits under a government program for the families of first responders who die on the job. The government turned them down on the grounds Renno had worked for a private company.

“It’s just a horrible inequity,” Renno’s mother told the New York Times. “These guys were doing some of the hardest firefighting there was, period. They were on the front lines.”

The New York Times reports there are some 11,500 contract firefighters. More than the 10,000 hired directly by the Forest Service each year are employed by private firms across the country. They do the same work, often beside their government-employed counterparts when put in the frontlines.

As far as their families are concerned, they deserve these benefits because of the effort and the sacrifice they make to ensure the safety of others.

Flawed, unfair policies

Now, as relatives of firefighters who have died are hacking their way through bureaucratic thickets, some are decry what they call flawed and unfair policies that create inequity among firefighting families.

According to Debbie Miley, Executive Director of the National Wildfire Suppression Association, these contractual or seasonal firefighters represent a huge portion of the nation’s wildfire crews.

They are employed by more than 150 private firms, digging fire lines, driving bulldozers and trucks and often working alongside the approximately 10,000 firefighters hired each year directly by the US Forest Service. Some fly aircraft dumping retardant on wildfires.

Since contract firefighters are not eligible for the benefits from the federal government, they or their families are eligible for workers’ compensation. They often receive donations from wildfire charities and other firefighting companies. But for some like Renno’s family, it is not enough.

But when it comes to public benefits, Miley said, the demarcation line between contractors and government-employed firefighters is very clear and well-defined.

“We know we are not eligible,” she said of the contractors. “We know that going in. We take responsibility for that.”

Appeals to emotion

This is something the City of Prescott has emphasized over and over. They deplore the “unfair” tactics of these families who appeal to emotion to forward their case rather than accept the facts and are trying to force the issue out of sentiment.

The policies are understandable. The government is trying to protect themselves from false claimants who would take away what should go to those deserving of the benefits. These policies serve to keep freeloaders out.

But the families of the 13 Hotshots and even that of Renno’s believe their boys earned the right to be full-time and receive the benefits that came with it as they have made the ultimate sacrifice.

They also downplay any notion that they are “mooching” or being opportunistic, capitalizing on their grief to get more than they stand to receive.

Some are prepared to take it to court such as Dale Ransdell whose son Mark, 23 was killed in a vehicular accident while battling a wildfire in Oregon in 2003. Mark was also a contractual firefighter and his family was denied full-time benefits.

Mr. Ransdell is not giving up and is prepared to take the government to court. “These guys did their job,” he told Newser. “We’re going to push this all the way, as long as we can.”

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