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Georgia Forestry Commission Faces Staffing Pressures


By: Georgia Forestry Association
10/24/2013 12:42:38 PM




At the invitation of GFA's Board of Directors, representatives from the Georgia Forestry Commission told the Association leaders that the agency's employee retention is at record lows. This can pose life-or-death situations for wildland firefighters, and it risks increased property losses due to devastating wildfires.

While most state agencies have endured budget cuts since 2008, GFC's struggle dates back much further. A 2003 Georgia State University analysis determined that while the state's general budget had doubled, GFC's budget fell 42 percent below established baselines. Over the past decade, GFC has experienced:

- An additional 41 percent reduction in funding

- 26.2 percent reduction in fire control personnel

- 21.5 percent reduction in forest management personnel

Digging deeper to determine the true impact of decreased funding levels, Association leaders learned that:

- Turnover of rangers doubled in FY13 from prior five year average of 10.8 percent, leaving offices understaffed and resulting in more "on call" time for remaining employees.

- It costs GFC $39,000 to hire and train a new fire control employee; one out of every six firefighter positions is currently vacant, which amounts to $1.95 million.

- Average fire sizes in Georgia are increasing, while the experience level of the employees is decreasing, resulting in an increase in injuries sustained on the job. Employees with fewer than five years of experience accounted for 44 percent of workers' compensation claims in FY13.

- Three-quarters of all rangers have a second job; 73 percent of their supervisors have a second job; and 35 percent of foresters and district management staff have a second job.

- Exit interviews indicate that employees who resign are leaving for 30 to 60 percent more pay.

- Drastic rise in health insurance costs since 2009 means that more than 18 percent of a ranger's gross pay now goes to insurance resulting in an actual reduction of nearly $200 in net monthly pay (from $2,057 to $1,885).

- The average salary for a ranger is $28,118. A family of four on this salary qualifies for PeachCare and food stamps.

"Forests represent the major land use in Georgia, and they generate $25 billion of manufacturing revenue for the state's economy," GFA President Steve McWilliams said. "The tens of thousands of private forest landowners who are responsible for the benefits of our forests depend on a state forest agency that is equipped to provide rapid and meaningful response in the case of destructive wildfires that can destroy their woodlands and nearby structures."

The Commission responds to an average of 6,000 wildfires each year.

According to Georgia Forestry Commission officials, in order to address the critical staffing needs and escalating employee retention crisis, GFC would require $3.551 million in fiscal year 2015 and an additional $684,788 in fiscal year 2016. Failure to receive the necessary additional funding requires the agency to redirect funds internally by an amount that equates to an additional 15 percent reduction in staff.

GFA representatives will be calling on the forestry community's friends in the legislature in 2014 to appropriate the funds necessary to ensure that the agency retains a qualified staff sufficient enough to accomplish wildfire prevention and other vital services in the future.


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