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Firefighting crew bosses required to speak English
The old saying, “Rumor can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on,” is borne out in information circulating on the web and elsewhere that claims the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) is firing and demoting fire crew bosses that do not speak Spanish.
This is not the case. Here are the facts:
  • ODF has no requirement that its employees speak Spanish, and does not demote or fire anyone because they don’t speak Spanish. And to our knowledge, no crew boss on the private contract fire crews we use has ever been fired because of inability to speak Spanish.
  • ODF and its partner agencies contract with private companies to supply fire crews for frontline firefighting work. The crews work under the guidance of incident management teams fielded by ODF and other agencies to manage large firefighting operations.
  • Because English is the language of firefighting in the United States, we must have the ability to communicate with all crews. Accordingly, the contract requires that the leaders of contract crews speak English. This requirement covers the crew boss and the three squad bosses on a typical 20-person crew.
  • Companies may choose whom they hire for their crews. If a company elects to hire employees who do not speak English, then the supervisors of that crew must speak English as well as the language of any crew members who don’t speak English. This is a matter of good communication, safety, and effectiveness for the agencies that hire crews under the contract. Over the years, this system has established a record of solid firefighting performance and safety.
Additional information
The makeup of the private contract fire crews that ODF and its state and federal partner agencies in the Pacific Northwest use to fight wildfire has changed over the past 10 years or so. At one time, most of the crews were made up of English speakers. But today, a large percentage of the crew members are Latino. While many of these Latino firefighters speak English, a significant number speak only Spanish.

As the number of non-English-speaking firefighters rose, ODF realized that their safety was increasingly being placed at risk. Also, their work effectiveness depends on being able to understand orders clearly. So, the language stipulation described above was added to the interagency contract. 

This stipulation places the responsibility on the crew companies: If they choose to hire non-English-speaking firefighters for a crew, then they must have bilingual crew leaders. If they hire only English-speaking firefighters, then the crew leaders need only have the ability to speak English. Experience over several fire seasons under this rule has shown that it is adequate to provide for the safety of the crewmembers as well as the overall work effectiveness of the crews. It has not been found necessary to require that all crewmembers have the ability to speak English.

Some have suggested that ODF should simply require all members of private fire crews to have the ability to speak English. But is beyond the agency's power to shape the available labor pool.

An historical perspective may be helpful. Back when the Pacific Northwest's timber industry was at its peak, contract fire crews were unnecessary. The large forest products companies employed thousands of woods workers, and these well-trained and equipped personnel could leave their work on a moment's notice to fight fire. In addition, the federal land management agencies had large nunbers of field employees trained as firefighters. But when the timber industry contracted in the 1980s, both the state and federal agencies found themselves without sufficient resources to fight large fires.

The Oregon Department of Forestry responded to this shortage by creating a contract to procure private fire crews. It worked well, and soon the contract was expanded into an interagency agreement that supplied crews to ODF's partner state and federal agencies in Washington as well as Oregon. Today, private contract fire crews continue to serve as a key element of the Pacific Northwest's wildland firefighting forces.
ODF is committed to hiring the safest and most-effective firefighting crews possible.  If you would like more information about this or any other firefighting contract crew issue, please contact Rod Nichols, ODF Public Affairs Specialist, 503-945-7425, or rnichols@odf.state.or.us