When: Monday, April 17, 2023
BOISE, IDAHO—Last week, the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture hosted a three-day summit in Boise, Idaho, to lead the development of a joint wildland firefighter behavioral health program. Formally established by President Biden’s bipartisan Infrastructure Act and announced in June 2022, and consistent with ongoing efforts within both agencies, the program will address the unique experiences and mental health issues of federal firefighters. Under the Invest in America program, the administration is committed to ensuring that all permanent, temporary, seasonal and year-round wildland firefighters have access to life-saving mental health services.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack delivered opening remarks at the Summit, stressing that the two departments are ready to meet the needs of firefighters and their families and commit to working side by side to better support federal wildland firefighters to provide more robust mental health services. Senior leaders from both departments were there to listen and learn from wildland firefighters and mental health experts, as well as commit to creating a holistic approach to meeting the mental health needs of the wildfire community. forest. The summit is an important milestone in the implementation of the Joint Behavioral Health Agenda.
Throughout the event, participants reviewed what was already known about the mental health of wildland firefighters and the resources currently available to firefighters, including examining behavioral health programs successfully implemented by the San Diego City Fire Department, the International Association of Fire Fighters, and the National Guard Bureau. Participants collectively defined a vision, framework and implementation plan for the program.
Wildfire personnel are the backbone of the federal government’s ability to protect public and tribal lands, vital infrastructure and communities from wildfires. They work in incredibly stressful environments that can have a significant impact on their health and well-being, including their mental health. This situation is exacerbated as climate change propels more extreme wildfires and longer periods of wildfire activity.
The goals of the new behavioral health program will be to establish year-round prevention and mental health training, provide post-traumatic stress care, improve ability to manage stress related to critical incidents and to create a new system of trauma support services with an emphasis on intervention. By connecting existing mental health services and filling gaps to meet the full spectrum of health and wellness needs of wildland firefighters, this program will increase access to services that build resilience, improve mental readiness, recognize the importance of self-care and deal with the effects of cumulative stress.
President Biden is prioritizing mental health and has established an Agenda of Unity, which includes a comprehensive national strategy to address the mental health crisis. Along with the other workforce reforms underway in both departments, this effort will help meet the needs of employees, make the workforce sustainable in the future, and position the country to deal with the growing climate crisis.
The Biden-Harris administration is also making historic improvements to the federal wildfire-fighting workforce. Stronger health and wellness support is coupled with proposals for permanent wildland firefighter salary increases, increased hiring and housing improvements that are included in the budget request for the president for fiscal year 2024. These proposed investments are urgently needed and build on the temporary salary increase provided by the bipartisan Infrastructure Act as well as efforts to develop a new occupational series to better define the unique functions and career progression of this profession. Together, these initiatives will allow the federal government to better position the recruitment and retention of wildland firefighters, to meet the growing challenges of more extreme wildfires, and to provide the stability, support and better career opportunities that have much needed firefighters.
In addition to these investments, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act and the Inflation Reduction Act also provide historic funding for a range of programs aimed at reducing wildfire risk, detecting wildfires, protect communities and build more resilient infrastructure.