Having trained wildland fire contractors for many years, I often get asked, "How do I get started in the business?" My advice is typically the same each time — don't do it.
By way of explanation, there are thousands of dedicated individuals that own or operate wildland fire contract businesses throughout the United States, many doing a great job and making a living.
Unfortunately, this business is tough to make it in, but if you're determined to pursue it, I would like to take a few moments to explore the ups and downs of the private wildland fire world with you.
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Naturally, it is the dream of many a young man — and woman — to own their own fire truck and respond with red lights and siren to save the day on a major wildfire.
The reality is that it is not as simple as that. Depending on where you are in the country, and which contract you are on, you may or may not get to respond to a fire and probably will not get that code 3 response you always dreamt of.
The complaints echoed by many contractors is that there is not enough work, they feel they are treated like second class citizens on incidents, and the cost of operation are too high. Let's look at some of these concerns.
Safety Before we explore this subject, please remember that wildland firefighting is a dangerous job. We want and need you to be safe on wildfires, whether you are a member of a fire department , a forestry agency or a private contractor. Always remember the following safety components of wildland firefighting:
Getting work To get work, you need a contract. Contracts are awarded at the local, regional, state and federal levels. Finding them can be a chore, but you can start at your state forestry agency website and the federal agency sites for USDA Forest Service and USDI Bureau of Land Management.
These contracts are going to be specific with specific requirements, including but not limited to:
Minimum apparatus requirements to meet National Wildfire Coordination Group standards. Apparatus and equipment are typically required to be inspected by a third party. For example, Cascade Fire Equipment in Medford, Ore., is an authorized third party inspector that may be able to assist you in meeting the requirements prior to an inspection.
Minimum equipment inventories.
Radio equipment requirements.
Travel/response time requirements.
Turnout time requirements.
The best place to start is by joining one of the contractor associations, such as the National Wildfire Suppression Association (NWSA), which can assist in preparing your business for contracting, along with getting your personnel's wildland qualifications up to speed.
Remember that from a training standpoint, you must qualify for a wildland fire assignment, which is different from certifying. In addition to taking a class, you must complete a "task book" under a qualified supervisor.
In addition, wildland fire personnel are required to pass a "work capacity test" known as the Pack Test.
Remember, you need a contract to be dispatched and cannot just show up on an incident! Once you get a contract DO NOT call the dispatch center asking for an assignment. They are too busy for interruptions and if you are on the list, they will call you when they need you.
Operating costs You will have many expenses as a contractor. If you want to contract engines, you will have the purchase price of the engine. Please realize that you are not going to get an old truck and get started.
Some contracts will not allow vehicles over five years old, while others give less points on the total score for your contract for older vehicles. A new Type 6 engine will cost you around $85,000 plus another $7,500 for equipment.
At that point you will be required to outfit your firefighters with PPE, fire shelters, etc., at around $1,500 each. New field programmable, narrowband radios like a Bendix King are around $2,000 each. Are you starting to get the picture?
Now let's look at insurance, workmen's compensation, fuel, maintenance, training, food and supplies and the myriad of other costs associated with maintaining and operating a business. Personnel costs are always the biggest part of any business. How many employees are you going to need to staff one fire engine? Remember, this is an on-call job so you will not be paying someone to wait for a call.
This means your crews will be doing something else until you need them. Before an engine moves, it needs a qualified Engine Boss to supervise the crew. You will probably need a couple on staff in case one is out of town.
Experienced Engine Bosses are hard to find, along with experienced firefighters. We talked about the Pack Test, which must be administered each year, but wildland firefighters are also required to complete an annual refresher training, usually about eight hours. Do you have a qualified instructor or do you have to contract one?
This is where having a background in business is going to help. You are running a business at this point, and every time you turn around you will be spending money.
Getting dispatched Ok, you have everything together, people trained, a new engine fully equipped, plenty of supplies — now what? Well, depending on the fire season, you may or may not be needed.
You may be high enough on the call list to actually get out, and you may even get a fire. Once dispatched, you have only have so much time to get on the road, depending on the contract.
Once responding, you must follow agency response protocols, arrive, check in and get to work. Your agency administrator is going to try to get the best value out of you so that means a lot of dirty work.
No sitting around chatting with your old buddies. If you blow a tire or have a mechanical failure, that is on you. Worse, what if your vehicle or crew is involved in an accident?
Once everything is said and done, you will submit an invoice and eventually, if all of the paperwork is correct, you may get paid in 30, 60, 90 days or whenever the check gets there. Meanwhile your crew wants to get paid. Where will that money come from?
Professionalism As a contractor, you are expected to do business in an ethical, professional manner. Last year, I had the opportunity to work with an unprofessional contractor and it created havoc for the administering agency and other contractors.
Your behavior on a fire can impact your future assignments and the way other contractors are perceived. Speeding around through the woods acting like an adolescent cowboy is not the epitome of professional behavior.
If you are still convinced you want to be a contractor, go ahead and work for an existing contractor for a season or two to learn the business. Be upfront with your employer, and let them know you are trying to get in the industry. They can provide valuable insight and advice on what to do (or not to do).
Sustainability Want to make money all year long? You may be able to get forestry contracts, cutting trees and doing controlled burns in the off season.
There are government contracts funded by grants that will cover the costs of these forestry projects, which again looks like easy money to some people.
A word of advice: for every dollar you get on a grant funded project, you will probably spend $3 of your own money. This is stimulus money, trying to stimulate the economy, not a government handout. The profit margin on these projects is slim, if not invisible.
I hope that this article provides insight into the world of private wildland firefighting. I enjoy working with contractors and have made some great friends in the process.
But before you dump your life savings into a "money pit," or fire engine, water tender, or some type of fire support business, explore all of your options and responsibilities. It may be better to buy a lottery ticket. Your chances for getting rich are about the same.
Until next time, stay safe!
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