Insurance eligibility

Americans owe seasonal firefighters at least that much for efforts, risk, skills

Last week, President Barack Obama ordered interim regulations designed to enable wildland firefighters employed by the federal government to purchase health insurance through their jobs.

For anyone who has seen this summer’s catastrophic wildfires, this seems like a no-brainer. People who risk their lives to save others’ lives and property, including public lands “owned” by the country’s citizens, should be treated better.

According to federal labor laws, most firefighters don’t qualify as permanent employees. Even though they may put in nearly a full year’s worth of hours during the fire season, the demand for men and women skilled in fighting wildfires drops precipitously during the winter. Keeping thousands of firefighters on the payroll all year long doesn’t make fiscal sense.

Policies that push them toward other jobs make even less sense. Come spring, it makes sense to attract those who know what they are getting into and who already have been trained to fight fires effectively and safely.

Every employer, including Uncle Sam, knows benefits are not cheap. Employers also know that good benefits help attract and retain good employees. Seasonal workers often do not receive benefits because they are largely interchangeable. One quits, another is hired, only minimal training is required. Quality may suffer – newly hired servers make more errors, for example, and the thumbs of new landscape personnel are not quite as green – but inexperience goes with the territory and the budget.

That is hardly true of firefighters. These are not slow bloomers who ought to grow up and get a real job. They may never have another job as hard as this one. The hours are long, the working conditions are miserable and the work itself can be backbreaking, not to mention potentially fatal. They must respond quickly to rapidly worsening situations on unfamiliar terrain, and the consequences of not doing it well are catastrophic.

Although some will transition into permanent public-lands jobs, most of these young men and women won’t fight fires as a lifelong career. Similarly, not all enlisted military personnel serve until retirement; that does not mean their service is not valuable for its duration. While they serve, they deserve good benefits, and that certainly includes health insurance.

Insurance is available to nearly everyone for the right price, but anyone who has ever tried to buy an individual policy knows it can be difficult to find and difficult to use – distractions that firefighters certainly do not need. Individual insurance also can be more expensive than seasonal firefighters can afford, but the lack of insurance hampers their ability to seek care.

And they do need care, not only because they risk their lives and their health on our behalf, but because occupational hazards are not the only health-care problems they face. Like everyone else, they catch colds and flu and fall off their bicycles on their days off. Also like everyone else, they may have families.

Letting them purchase insurance through their job is the right thing to do. It is also not a benefit that many Coloradans would begrudge them, especially not this year.