View Full Version : New Program Helps Veterans Become Wildland Firefighters

03-09-09, 02:18 PM
New Program Helps Veterans Become Wildland Firefighters
By Stevin Westcott, Press Officer, Southern Research Station, USDA Forest Service

More veterans will be hired as Forest Service firefighters if a Southern Research Station program manager has his way.

Ted Willis is working his way toward a special goal this year – to see Forest Service managers around the country hire more veterans to fight wildland fires. The program to hire veterans recently received national approval from the Department of Veterans Affairs for the Wildland Fire Apprenticeship Program (WFAP) in McClellan, Calif.

Willis, a Southern Research Station program manager based at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, had an idea a couple years ago for a Forest Service program to recruit and hire veterans. The idea came after he learned about the number of soldiers returning from the Middle East who needed jobs.

“With so many soldiers coming back, I thought we had to find a way to employ them,” said Willis. “Unfortunately, many of the veterans were unqualified for journeymen firefighter and other resource positions, so we had to determine how they could receive training.”

Willis proposed the idea of using the Veteran Recruitment Appointment (VRA) authority to noncompetitively hire veterans for entry level firefighter and other resource technical positions. He presented a proposal to the Forest Service, National Fire Diversity Committee for funding.

Through the program, veterans are hired at the GS-03 level. These are entry-level positions that open the door to careers with the Forest Service. If they have prior experience, veterans may enter at the GS-04 level. Upon completion of their 18-month training and WFAP, these former soldiers can be noncompetitively converted to the GS-04 level. They also can be hired in other resource and administrative entry level positions. Temporary and term positions are included, but do not confer to permanent-full-time. A mainstay of the project is that veterans enrolled in WFAP are eligible to receive Veterans Administration educational benefits.

Willis is already seeing his seemingly simple idea make a difference in the lives of some former servicemen and women. The program has helped five veterans in California and two in Utah procure permanent jobs with the Forest Service or to receive VA benefits.

“The Wildland Firefighter Apprenticeship program made it easy for me to transition from the military to the civilian side,” said David Carrera, a firefighter on the Angeles National Forest in California and former Marine Corps staff sergeant.

“The comradery and same core values I learned in the military have made me an excellent wildland firefighter. And with the assistance of the GI Bill, I feel this is one of the best on-the-job training programs to be in.”

Willis is quick to point out that others contributed to the creation and early success of the program. “I had a team that helped me along the way,” said Willis. “I didn’t do this all by myself.” He says he hopes to see many more veterans, like David Carrera, employed as firefighters or in other positions with the Forest Service by the end of 2009.