Video: Firefighters petition for health insurance

Image: Obama, firefighters
Brendan Smialowski  /  AFP - Getty Images
President Barack Obama pauses with firefighters while touring the Mountain Shadows neighborhood on June 29 in Colorado Springs, Colo.
By
msnbc.com
updated 6/30/2012 9:07:22 AM ET 2012-06-30T13:07:22

A social media campaign started by a few seasonal firefighters is spreading, well, like wildfire.

The issue? Getting frontline firefighters who battle the nation's wildfires -- temporary federal employees because of the seasonal nature of their work -- into the government health care system.

More than 118,000 people have endorsed the idea on change.org through Friday afternoon. The group also has its own Facebook page.

A union official working on behalf of the 8,000 temporary federal firefighters told msnbc.com he had never seen such traction on an issue that's been around for decades.

"These are employees that time, and civil service reforms, forgot," said Mark Davis, head of the Forest Service Council.

John Lauer and a few colleagues on a federal hotshot fire crew based out of Custer, S.D., started the petition while fighting the massive High Park Fire in Colorado earlier this month.

After a few days they had 1,000 supporters -- not bad, Lauer thought. Then they went five days on the fire lines without a cellphone, and when they got reconnected the number had shot up to 94,000.

"It was pretty wild," Lauer told msnbc.com during his lunch break Friday while deployed to a fire in South Dakota.

"We're not looking for a handout," he was quick to add, "we're just looking for the opportunity to buy into" the health insurance program for full-time federal employees.

"We're working a year's worth of work in six months," he said, given the 18-hour shifts over 14 days, then two days off.

Crews can make $25,000 over a six-month season with overtime, Davis said, but a firefighter with family can expect to pay $6,300 for health insurance, whereas the federal government's costs come out to $3,300a family.

"It'll help a lot of people, particularly folks with families," he said, adding that he hadn't gotten any criticism for the petition.

"It's a morally unambiguous issue ... given the long hours and the nature of the work," said Lauer, who's also fought fires this year in New Mexico and Wyoming.

Story: Colorado fire devastation 'heartbreaking,' Obama says

In a statement to msnbc.com, the U.S. Forest Service said "any changes to eligibility would require Congress to change the law."

"We are happy to work with Congress, should they decide to address this issue and its impact on the unique circumstances of forest fires," the agency added. "Under current appropriations, Congress has not provided the resources necessary to provide seasonal employees such benefits."

The Forest Service Council's Davis has been in touch with the Office of Personnel Management -- which is like the U.S. government's human resources office -- and hopes it can be resolved without an act of Congress.

The online petition "has caught their attention," said Davis, who has also been trying to get seasonal employees into the civil service.

"In my mind, it's an administrative issue" that can be resolved after a process that includes public comments, he said.

Taxpayers would end up helping, Davis acknowledged, but crew attrition rates are now four times greater than other federal employees so lowering that through health care incentives would mean efficiencies in not having to train as many new crews and possibly having fewer accidents.

"Yeah, it's going to cost more," he said, "but you get what you pay for."

Lauer, for his part, might not be back on the fire lines next season to reap any benefit. "I'm going to law school next year," he said.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Photos: Wildfires ravage Western states

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  1. Jeff and Sydney Sheehan on July 4 survey their Mountain Shadows neighborhood of Colorado Springs, Colo. Sheehan's house escaped damage but 347 homes were destroyed by the Waldo Canyon Fire. (Adrees Latif / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A helicopter drops water on the Fontenelle Fire outside Big Piney, Wyo., on July 4. Over 800 firefighters were battling the fire. (Jim Urquhart / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Firefighters work the Fontenelle Fire outside Big Piney, Wyo., on July 4. (Jim Urquhart / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Firefighter Ryan Christian sits with his crew from Alaska before heading out to fight the Fontenelle Fire outside Big Piney, Wyoming, on July 4. (Jim Urquhart / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Flames consume trees during a burnout operation out at the Fontenelle Fire on July 4. (Jim Urquhart / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A plane drops slurry on the Quail Fire in Alpine, Utah, on July 3. (George Frey / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A house is surrounded by a burned landscape as a helicopter flies above after dropping water on the Quail Fire in Alpine, Utah, on July 3. (George Frey / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Lightning strikes as rain clouds approach the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs on July 3. (Adrees Latif / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Teresa Jiles looks over the debris that was her home in the Glacier View residential area near Livermore, Colo., on July 2. The last evacuees from the High Park Fire were allowed to return home as crews fully contained the 136-square-mile blaze that killed one resident and destroyed 259 houses. (Ed Andrieski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. People cheer and greet firefighters returning to the evacuation shelter at Holmes Middle School in Colorado Springs, Colo., on July 2, after crews spent the day battling the Waldo Canyon Fire. (Bryan Oller / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. These signs left by residents in the Mountain Shadows community of Colorado Springs, Colorado, were visible on July 2. Nearly 350 homes were destroyed by the Waldo Canyon fire (Adrees Latif / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Smoke from the Waldo Canyon Fire blankets a hill on July 2 as a deer walks through a neighborhood thathad been evacuated. (Adrees Latif / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Neighbors who had evacuated embrace after returning to their homes in Colorado Springs, Colo., on July 1. Residents began returning to charred areas after the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history forced tens of thousands of people from their homes and left the landscape a blackened wasteland. (Adrees Latif / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A utilities worker walks past the skeleton of a vehicle while searching for gas leaks in the Mountain Shadows subdivision in Colorado Springs, Colo., on July 2. (Adrees Latif / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Policemen wait for residents who were temporarily allowed to visit their homes in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood on July 1. (Adrees Latif / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. The Church at the Ranch holds its services on July 1 at the Penrose Norris Event Center in Colorado Springs. It would normally hold services at Flying W Ranch, but their place of worship burned down in the Waldo Canyon Fire. (Jerilee Bennett / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Members of Bighorn 209, a hand crew from the Crow Agency in Montana, check for hot spots on the Waldo Canyon Fire on June 29. (Chris Carlson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Homes destroyed by the Waldo Canyon Fire are seen from the air on June 30 in Colorado Springs. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Smoke billows at sunrise from part of the Waldo Canyon fire on June 30 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. President Barack Obama talks to firefighters while touring the Mountain Shadows neighborhood in Colorado Springs, Colo., June 29. Obama earlier declared a major disaster there and offered more assistance for the fire in which 347 homes have been destroyed. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A firefighter stands in rubble of the Mountain Shadows neighborhood on June 29. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Anita Jones, 92, is welcomed back to her assisted living home in Colorado Springs on June 29 after she and others had to evacuate three days earlier. (Rick Wilking / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Firefighters get massages after coming off the fire line west of Colorado Springs on June 29. (Chris Carlson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. The Mount Saint Francois area of Colorado Springs, burns on June 28. (Jeremy Lock / US Air Force via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Vandenberg Air Force Base Hot Shot firefighter Richard Strangeas looks out at his worksite on June 28, in the Mount Saint Francois area of Colorado Springs. His team cut a fire line. (Jeremy Lock / US Air Force via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Vandenberg Air Force Base Hot Shot fire fighter Chris Loung wipes sweat while cutting a fire line on June 28 in the Mount Saint Francois area. (Jeremy Lock / US Air Force via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Part of the scarred landscape left by the Waldo Canyon Fire outside Colorado Springs, Colo., is seen on June 28. Pikes Peak is in the background. Cooler temperatures and lighter winds helped firefighters but the blaze had already destroyed hundreds of homes and forced 35,000 people to flee. (Rick Wilking / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Waldo Canyon Fire evacuee Renee Peterson and her daughter Darah, 7, listen to a news conference on June 28. (Mark Reis / The Colorado Springs Gazette via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. This home was among the hundreds lost in the Waldo Canyon Fire. (Rick Wilking / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. A C-130 Hercules aircraft from the 153rd Airlift Wing drops fire retardant on the Waldo Canyon Fre on June 27. (Stephany D. Richards / US Air Force via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Smoke from the Waldo Canyon Fire rises near the U.S. Air Force Academy's Cadet Chapel as cadets head for a briefing on evacuation procedures on June 27. The Academy evacuated more than 600 families and 110 dormitory residents from the base. (US Air Force via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Thick smoke rises from fires in the southernmost extremity of the Wyoming Range, as seen from the International Space Station on June 27. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Helicopters and even C-130s have bombarded the Waldo Canyon Fire with water and retardant. (Bryan Oller / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Evacuees of the Waldo Canyon Fire are assisted by the Red Cross at the Cheyenne Mountain High School evacuation center on June 27. (Bryan Oller / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Evacuees take shelter at Cheyenne Mountain High School on June 27. (Chris Schneider / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. An aerial view on June 27 shows homes destroyed by the Waldo Canyon Fire. (John Wark / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Kent Tinsley and his mother Miriam Tinsley unsuccessfully try to talk emergency personnel into letting them go to their home to get medical supplies for Miriam's husband, Herbert Tinsley, in Colorado Springs on June 27. (Chris Schneider / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. The Waldo Canyon Fire moved near these homes on June 26. (Bryan Oller / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. A plume of smoke rises from the Waldo Canyon Fire on June 26. (John Wark / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Part the Waldo Canyon Fire moves into a subdivision north of Colorado Springs on June 26. (Gaylon Wampler / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Smoke from the Waldo Canyon Fire engulfs Interstate 25 north of Colorado Springs on June 26, causing traffic backups. (Rick Wilking / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. A man tries to evacuate a horse in Fairview, Utah, as the Wood Hollow Fire approached the town on June 26. A woman's body was found in the ashes of a house charred by the fast-moving fire. The blaze had already burned an estimated 30 homes and killed 75 sheep between the rural communities of Fountain Green and Indianola. (George Frey / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Smoke from the Wood Hollow Fire north of Fairview, Utah, is seen from Highway 89 on June 26. More than 500 structures have been threatened, forcing up to 1,500 people from homes. (George Frey / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Homes are destroyed by the Waldo Canyon Fire in the Mountain Shadows area northwest of Colorado Springs, on June 26. (Jerilee Bennett / The Gazette via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. Tammy Lance of Payson, Utah, swaddles a kitten after finding the litter alive under a burned-out truck near Mount Pleasant on June 25. The area was devastated by a wildfire that started on June 23. (Lynn DeBruin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. A stream of melted aluminum from a burned-out car is visible on June 25 near Mount Pleasant, Utah. A wildfire destroyed at least two dozen homes in the area and threatened 300 more. (Lynn DeBruin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. A wildfire burns just two miles from Helena, Mont. on June 25. Residents of more than 200 homes were forced to flee, and at least four homes were destroyed. (Matt Volz / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. Volunteers serve lunch at the evacuation shelter at Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs on June 25. (Bryan Oller / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  49. People watch from Mesa Road as the wildfire continues to burn outside Colorado Springs on June 24. (Susannah Kay / The Colorado Springs Gazette via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  50. Fire approaches homes near Saratoga Springs, Utah, on June 22. Several thousand homes were evacuated after high winds kicked up a fire caused by people firing guns for target practice. (Jeffrey D. Allred / The Deseret News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  51. Little was left of this property on June 20 after the High Park Fire west of Fort Collins, Colo., tore through. (Ed Andrieski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  52. Nebraska National Guard crewmembers try to douse part of the High Park Fire west of Fort Collins, Colo., on June 18. (Colorado National Guard via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  53. A helicopter drops water above the High Park Fire, about 15 miles west of Fort Collins, Colo., on June 18. (Jess Geffre / Colorado National Guard via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  54. Forest burned by the Whitewater-Baldy Fire is seen on June 15 inside the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. The fire was the largest in the state's history. (KC Shedden / U.S. Forest Service via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  55. A fire crew huddles at the Little Bear Fire in the Lincoln National Forest near Ruidoso, New Mexico, on June 13. Some 2,500 people were forced to evacuate their homes. (Kari Greer / U.S. Forest Service via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  56. Part of the High Park Fire flares up in the Roosevelt National Forest west of Fort. Collins on June 12. (Bob Pearson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  57. Tracy Greenwood embraces her daughter, Mariah, as they watch the High Park Fire burn near their home west of Fort Collins on June 11. (Ed Andrieski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  58. People watch the High Park Fire near Fort Collins on June 11. (Ed Andrieski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  59. Smoke fills the air over a barn, turning the sky orange, as the High Park Fire burns near Laporte, Colo., on June 10. (Marc Piscotty / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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