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Native American federal firefighters fighting for boot money

By Ed O'Keefe

Hundreds of Native American firefighters are locked in a two-year battle with the Bureau of Indian Affairs regarding reimbursements for fire boots required to fight the nation's wildfires.

These are the types of firefighting boots required by Bureau of Indian Affairs. (Photo courtesy of

BIA is the oldest bureau of the Interior Department, providing economic assistance and law enforcement services to about 1.9 million American Indians and Alaska Natives across 55 million acres. Most BIA employees are Native American, as required by federal hiring laws.

The agency employs hundreds of full- and part-time wilderness firefighters who are deployed with other federal agencies to fight blazes nationwide and overseas.

But BIA has failed to respond to a September 2009 federal arbitration ruling that ordered the agency to reimburse firefighters for boots they must purchase as a condition of employment. Some federal firefighting agencies provide at least partial reimbursements, the arbitrator said, citing a previous ruling by the Occupational Safety Health Administration.

Federal requirements for fire-resistant leather firefighter boots that rise above the ankle and last for more than one seven-month fire season range in price from $250 to more than $400 a pair, depending on the brand, according to union officials.

"If you're going to have First Americans be the first responders on wildfires in California or in Colorado, it seems to me that you ought to provide the fire equipment," said Michael Jennings, executive director of the Federation of Indian Service Employees.

Part-time BIA firefighters earn an average of $20,000 to $30,000 per fire season, which amounts to most of their annual income, according to Jennings. Other potential applicants eager to earn BIA's wages cannot afford to pay for the boots without promised reimbursement, he said.

The federal arbitrator ordered BIA and the service employees federation to negotiate the terms of a reimbursement agreement, but talks are deadlocked, according to Richard Hirn, a Washington labor lawyer who represents the federation.

"The only issue here is they don't want to give the Indians the boots," Hirn said. "They lost. They don't like it, and they don't want to do it." Hirn filed a formal complaint with the Labor Department in November, arguing that BIA was endangering its firefighters by not settling the issue.

BIA would not comment on the dispute because of the ongoing negotiations.

"Bureau of Indian Affairs firefighters are committed employees who put their lives on the line to protect the health and safety of people and the integrity of our nation's lands," BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling said, adding later that "we remain committed to supporting our employees in carrying out their important mission."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service provide partial payment to employees for boots at management's discretion, the Interior Department said. The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service consider the boots as a condition of hire and do not pay for fire-protective boots, Interior said.

BIA does provide other protective equipment for free, including fire-retardant pants, shirts and goggles. Some BIA fire chiefs are finding ways to pay for the boots by withdrawing their cost from paychecks, Jennings said.

But the agency's delayed response is frustrating, especially since the federal government is one of the largest employers for Native Americans, Jennings said.

"I'm not seeing any structural changes within the bureau, and that's rather disappointing," he said. "We've still got more male Native Americans in jail than in school. Poverty is on a scale of the Third World. It's embarrassing."

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below

By Ed O'Keefe  | October 5, 2010; 1:17 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Workplace Issues  
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It is discusting that the government can pay for a foreigner and possible enemy,to go flying around the world and then fail to properly address the very people that by natural laws own this country and do their share to support and protect it,If it were up to me I would let the place burn down if i had to pay to fight a federal or national fire with out the compensation of required equipment to fight those fires. Sell those lands and let the new owners worry about the fires.What with the feds giving every thing to ISLAM it might as well burn

Posted by: grumpypa10 | October 6, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

when I rule the world, the Fed will be held accountable, by individual names, & punishment rendered. There's an elitism that seems to go with higher up jobs. Once arbitrated fairly, however, pay up & go on.. If there are other problems settle those separately, but clear this issue

Panama City, Panama

Posted by: chagres55 | October 6, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Fascinating stance. What a precedent this could be!

Anyone up for a side bet on the federal employees to be targeted next? Will it be the doctors working in military hospital units who are required to buy their own equipment? Or will it be the frontline service men & women that will have to purchase their own weapons, armored vests - oh yes, and combat boots - also?

What fantastic savings will accrue!

Posted by: BeauDarq | October 6, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

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