Uninsured and fighting blazes: Welcome to the life of a federal firefighter
Thousands of federal firefighters charged with taming the blazes do not have health insurance.
That includes 27-year-old John Lauer. He’s a member of a Colorado-based “hotshot” crew, one of the teams of the most skilled federal fighters that gets deployed where fires are the worst. In six years, he has fought fires in Utah, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota – “Pretty much every state west of the Mississippi,” Lauer says. “Alaska too, once.”
Of all the jobs where you might want health insurance, firefighting near certainly ranks near the top of the list. Firefighters spend two-week shifts working 18 hour days in dangerous conditions. Some develop breathing problems due to smoke inhalation.
But many federal firefighters are temporary employees, who only work six months out of the year (although as Lauer describes it, they can often work a full year’s worth of hours with the long shifts). Under federal regulations, temporary employees of the Forest Service do not receive benefits. That means no health care and no retirement pension.