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Fire pilots’ widows seek their share

The federal government provides up to $260,000 to the family of any firefighter or police officer killed in the line of duty. There’s one notable exception: Those who battle wildfires from the skies.
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It was a point of pride for Debra Compton to take her son David on a visit to the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial. Their trip last fall was to honor the memory of David’s father and Compton’s ex-husband, Doug Gilbert, who died piloting an air tanker over an Idaho backcountry fire in July 2001. She remembers Doug Gilbert as a proud firefighter, willing to take on a dangerous task. The federal government sees it differently.

Since 1976, the federal Public Safety Officers’ Benefits program has provided millions to families of firefighters and police killed or severely injured in the line of duty. Families currently stand to get about $260,000 in compensation, plus scholarships for the children of fallen officers. Benefits also extend to corrections and parole officers, and to volunteer firefighters and ambulance crews.

There is one exception: The PSOB doesn’t extend to those who work by contract. Yet many wildfire crews are hired that way, none more frequently than fire pilots and their crews. Those crews rely on contract work as a major source of income since fire managers are reluctant or unable to provide full-time work for aviators. “You can’t really afford to keep an air force on year-round,” says Steve Fitch, a 30-year Forest Service veteran who helped author a California pilots’ benefits law.

Despite their status as contractors, air crews find themselves taking on an unusual level of risk. In 2002 alone, air crews accounted for a third of the 18 deaths from fighting wildfires. And despite numerous appeals to the Justice Department, which operates the program, no contract pilot’s family has been considered eligible. Because the law extends to “any individual serving a public agency in an official capacity, with or without compensation,” the program’s critics suggest the Office of Justice Programs, which administers the PSOB, has the leeway to rule contractors eligible. The Justice Department did not respond to several requests for comment.

But families of many pilots who have died over wild land blazes claim the agencies who contracted their loved ones did so believing their workers would qualify for federal death benefits. That was the case with Doug Gilbert.

“They considered him a firefighter,” says Compton, “but they misunderstood the regulations.”

'It's cheaper'
Fighting fires from the air is more heroic than it is lucrative. The average fire pilot might earn $35,000 to $45,000 during a six-month season, almost always through state and federal contracts with firms that specialize in the trade. Officials usually won’t — or can’t — hire a full-time pilot. Many pilots operate commercial flights or dust crops the rest of the year, along with attending the ongoing training required by the government before they can be recertified to fly over fires. Without the federal benefits, they stand to receive an average of about $7,000 in workman’s compensation.

“It’s cheaper for our government to contract pilots and aviation,” says Vicki Minor, executive director of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, which helps firefighters’ families. “There has to be change in the system.”

Wanda Nagel, a 15-year veteran fire pilot, sums up the disparity succinctly. She and her husband, Gary, had already been writing to petition changes in the PSOB when he died flying over a 1998 fire. She sought benefits from Gary’s death but the Justice Department denied her request as recently as last October. Yet she still flies air attack for the state of California, which requires her to manage fires with a state-employed firefighter in the back of her OV-10, a Vietnam-era twin-prop reconnaissance plane.

“If I go down on a fire with a passenger,” says Nagel, “he will be considered a firefighter, get PSOB, and I would not. And we’re killed in the same aircraft.”

Insurance worries
To some survivors, the insurance gap remains the most difficult to accept. Fire pilots’ premiums are often too expensive to pay on their salaries — assuming they can get coverage.

That difficulty, in part, prompted Connie Hirth to try and get the law changed. Since her husband John died in a 1997 crash over a Pennsylvania fire, she has been struggling to save the Buffalo, Wyo., air tanker business they founded together. The five-person firm was one of many hired by state officials to provide aerial assistance on smaller fires.

Hirth has the backing of the Pennsylvania Division of Forestry, which applied twice to get her PSOB funds and was twice rejected. John Hirth, who was also the company’s lead pilot, was unable to get life insurance because of his work — and, according to her, was even rejected by the Airline Owners and Pilots Association, which offers insurance to most members.

“I have no regrets because he died doing what he really loved,” says Connie Hirth. “If I could see that things are changed in the future and I could see that someone wouldn’t have to go through what I went through, it would make me feel a lot better.”

'We ought to protect them'
Things may change. Rep. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo., introduced a bill last Friday that would extend benefits to fire pilots, even if they’re contracted. To Cubin, benefits aren’t only a way to ease the financial burden on those like the Hirths who aren’t able to qualify for benefits, they’re also a matter of simply fairness.

“Common sense tells us that these firefighters fight fires on public lands,” Cubin says. “They protect America, and we ought to protect them.”

Actually, the agencies that hire fire pilots are often their biggest advocates in claiming death benefits. The California Division of Forestry, for example, has 20 helicopter pilots on its staff but opted to use 44 contract pilots to fly its 35 firefighting airplanes. Under current PSOB regulations, the chopper pilots would qualify while its airplane pilots would not.

“We authorized them to fly our equipment on our fires,” says Mike Padilla, who runs the agency’s aviation services. “In our criteria, they do meet the standard for public safety officers, no different than a volunteer firefighter working on a fire.”

California foresters have become a major backer of extending the benefits in part because they acknowledge the difficulty of finding well-trained pilots for a dangerous job. Meantime, the state hopes to reduce the risks taken by contract pilots — opting, for example, to require any contract firms to provide life insurance to their pilots and paying pilots a straight salary, thus negating the incentive for pilots to fly extra hours for extra pay, which has become a major industry hazard because of the potential for pilot fatigue.

And a new California law that Fitch worked on functions as an end-run around the PSOB: Until federal law changes, the state will now pay a lump sum to contract firms, who distribute it to pilots’ families. They also now qualify for about $111,000 in state death benefits.

$18 million solution
On the federal level, there’s relatively little money at stake. Even if compensation for fire pilots were made retroactive to the PSOB’s inception, Cubin estimates, total payments to families would be about $18 million. For most pilots’ families, the money is less significant than an acknowledgement by the government that their loved ones were doing a valuable, important job.

That was a lesson Compton tried to impart to her son during their visit to the memorial, located in Emmitsburg, Md. Though the ceremony was a stark reminder of their loss, she was proud to have taken young David: “He got a sense of people appreciating his father for what he was doing — he was a hero.”