Monday, April 17, 2023
Bipartisan Infrastructure Law establishes a joint behavioral health program, advances President’s unity and Investing in America agendas
BOISE, IDAHO—Last week, the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture hosted a three-day summit in Boise, Idaho, to spearhead the development of a joint wildland firefighter behavioral health program. Formally established by President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and announced in June 2022, and in alignment with ongoing efforts within both agencies, the program will address the unique experiences and mental health challenges of federal wildland firefighters. Through the Investing in America agenda, the Administration is committed to ensuring all permanent, temporary, seasonal and year-round wildland fire personnel have access to vital mental health services.
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack provided opening remarks at the Summit emphasizing that both departments are prepared to meet the needs of firefighters and their families and are committed to work side by side to better support federal wildland firefighters to deliver more robust mental health services. Senior leaders from across both departments were there to listen and learn from wildland firefighters and mental health experts, as well as commit to create a comprehensive approach to support mental health needs of the wildland fire fighting community. The summit is a significant step forward in the implementation of the joint behavioral health program.
Throughout the event, participants examined what is already known about wildland firefighter mental health and the resources that are currently available to firefighters, including examining behavioral health programs successfully implemented by the City of San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, International Association of Fire Fighters, and the National Guard Bureau. Participants collectively defined a vision, framework and implementation plan for the program.
Wildland fire personnel are the backbone of the federal government’s ability to protect public and Tribal lands, vital infrastructure and communities from wildfires. They work in incredibly stressful environments that can have significant impacts on their health and wellbeing, including their mental health. This is exacerbated as climate change propels more extreme wildfires and longer periods of wildfire activity.
The goals of the new behavioral health program will be to establish year-round prevention and mental health training, provide post-traumatic stress care, enhance capacity for critical incident stress management, and create a new system of trauma support services with an emphasis on early intervention. By bridging existing mental health services and filling the gaps to address the full spectrum of wildland firefighter health and wellbeing needs, this program will increase access to services that build resiliency, improve mental preparedness, recognize the importance of self-care, and address the effects from cumulative stress.
President Biden is prioritizing mental health and has laid out a unity agenda, which includes a comprehensive national strategy to tackle the mental health crisis. Together with the other workforce reforms in progress across both departments, this effort will help meet the needs of employees, make the workforce sustainable into the future, and position the nation to address the growing climate crisis.
The Biden-Harris administration is also making historic improvements for the federal wildland firefighting workforce. More robust health and wellbeing support is being combined with proposals for a permanent pay increase for wildland firefighters, expanded hiring, and housing improvements that are included in the President’s Fiscal Year 2024 Budget request. These proposed investments are urgently needed, and they build on the temporary pay increase provided by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law as well as efforts to develop a new occupational series to better define the unique duties and career progression of this occupation. Together, these initiatives will better position the federal government to recruit and retain wildland firefighters, meet the increasing challenges of more extreme wildfires, and provide much-needed stability, support, and improved career opportunities for the firefighting workforce.
In addition to these investments, both the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act also provide historic funding for a suite of programs aimed at reducing wildfire risks, detecting wildfires, protecting communities and building more resilient infrastructure.
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