Rep. Joe Neguse talks firefighter pay, federal funding during Summit County visit

Summit County Rescue Group President Ben Butler, left, speaks to Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons, Rep. Joe Neguse and rescue group public information officer Charles Pitman about the state of the rescue group's current facilities Aug. 8, 2021.
Lindsey Toomer/Summit Daily archive

Rep. Joe Neguse met with local fire leaders to discuss federal funding and support for firefighters in Summit County. 

Neguse said that there is more legislation in the works to further support higher pay for firefighters, such as Tim’s Act, a bill addressing the pay and benefits of federal wildland firefighters and related issues. Drew Hoehn, deputy chief of operations at Red, White & Blue Fire District, said about 60% of staff lives on the Front Range, and for some, living outside of Summit County means they can afford to buy a home, but it does continue competition for recruitment and retention from Front Range fire departments. For federal firefighters, the competition is just as fierce. 

“It’s a real injustice,” Neguse said. “I mean, the federal pay structure is disappointing, as (local fire leaders) know. When the Cameron Peak Fire happened, after visiting some of the federal wildland firefighters back then, finding out they were making $13-14 an hour. And finally, now they have a pay of up to $20 an hour. I was thinking about it just earlier (on Thursday), and meeting with some of the town leaders in Frisco, they’re talking about the need to hire more bus drivers for the transit system, and that their top-line salary right now is $27 an hour to drive the bus with sign-on bonuses. Wildland federal firefighters are putting their lives on the line.”

In July, the Wildfire Recovery Act passed through the House of Representatives for the first time as part of the Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act. In Congress, Neguse serves as co-chair and co-founder of the Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus. The package would increase investments to tackle wildfires, boost wildland firefighter pay and fund resiliency and mitigation projects for communities impacted by recent climate-induced disasters. 

Captain Matt Benedict, of the Red, White & Blue Fire District, said that grant writing takes a lot of time and resources, especially for smaller or rural fire districts, and expediting that process for federal funding would be a great option. Sometimes, grant writing for just one grant could take dozens of hours.

“It’s the bureaucracy, as you well know, that creates frustration,” Fire Chief Travis Davis said. “And I get it, you can’t just throw money at people. But the closer to the ground that we can have access to those funds, the better we’re all going to be because it’s going to land where it needs to be.”

In addition to meeting with local fire leaders, Neguse also worked with local government leaders to hear concerns that affect Summit County. 

“There are no shortage of challenges from affordable housing, to childcare and the cost of childcare to, of course, the growing threat of wildfires and the need to ensure that we’re devoting sufficient resources to mitigation and resiliency,” Neguse told the Summit Daily. “As we talked about with our public servants here, first responders and the fire chief, this community is well prepared to take on each of those challenges, and I see that it is evidenced in every conversation I have.”

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