Washington, DC — The Bush Administration’s Competitive Sourcing Initiative will reduce the ability of the U.S. Forest Service to quickly engage and fight wildland fires, protect visitors and respond to national emergencies, according to the Forest Service Council of the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
In the Forest Service, as well as the Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, employees have in addition to their professional responsibilities “collateral duties” related to law enforcement, fire fighting, and emergency response. Similar to members of the National Guard, Forest Service employees have regular jobs but in times of an emergency are mustered into an organization of experienced “first responders” with a set of skills that enables them to react quickly to emergencies such as wildfires.
The Bush Competitive Sourcing Initiative fails to consider the collateral duties of Forest Service employees because there is no method or direction on how to incorporate these collateral duties into the A-76 process. Many of these collateral duties require extensive training and years of experience on the fireline to acquire. For example, each employee has a “Red Card” which identifies his or her level of fire fighting expertise or other skills available in an emergency.
“The inability of the Forest Service to count on utilizing the skills of agency employees who either lose their jobs to contractors or are prevented from carrying out collateral duties under the A-76 process places the protection of people as well as public and private property in jeopardy. These employees make up a significant portion of the workforce needed to respond to wildfires and other emergency incidents,” stated Bill Dougan, President of the Forest Service Council of NFFE. “Contractors not only do not have these skills but with no collateral duties in the contracts, these individuals would not even be available to respond to such emergencies if they were qualified.”
Agency plans to contract out as many as 11,000 employee jobs may significantly degrade the ability of the Forest Service to respond to wildfires, national emergencies or catastrophic events:
Wildland Fires and Rural Communities: When a wildland fire threatens National Forest resources and nearby small communities employees can be deployed quickly during early stages of a fire when control is critical. This rapid response saves not only homes and businesses, but also millions of dollars in fire-fighting costs by getting fires out fast;
Visitor Safety: The number of law enforcement officers on National Forest lands is extremely low — only one officer every 600 square miles. However, all Forest Service personnel are classified as “Level One Law Enforcement Officers” and have training in the use of radios and using repeater towers if a problem or emergency is encountered. Recently for example, a light plane crashed on landing at an isolated airport on the Six Rivers National Forest. Forest Service personnel, in this case an archaeologist and fisheries biologist, responded immediately, administered first aid, secured the crash site, and radioed for help;
Homeland Security: Forest Service employees, with their collateral skills in fire fighting and emergency response skills have been called upon many times by the federal government when an emergency arises. Forest Service first responders participated in the search for Space Shuttle debris after the Columbia tragedy. Forest Service employees also helped the Department of Agriculture respond to an outbreak of Newcastle’s Disease in poultry in Southern California.
“One unintended consequence of the Bush outsourcing plan would be to compromise the Forest Service’s readiness to respond to natural disasters, wildland fires, and other emergencies by dramatically reducing the number of first responders,” argued PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “It behooves us all to take a step back and look seriously at the consequences before taking a meat ax to the Forest Service.”
Read the U.S. Forest Service National Leadership Proposal for Selection of Work Activities for Competitive Sourcing Study