Legislature(1995 - 1996)
03/18/1996 03:35 PM RES
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
SB 201 FIRE FIGHTING PERSONNEL EMPLOYMENT CHAIRMAN LEMAN called the Senate Resources Committee meeting to order at 3:35 p.m. He introduced SB 201 as the first order of business and noted there was a proposed committee substitute for the committee's consideration. GEORGE YASKA , representing the Tanana Chiefs Conference, testified in support for SB 201. He said it is an issue that has been near to his heart and the fire fighters in the southern region (DNR's jurisdiction) for some years. He said it always good to do preventative work, and he thinks SB 201 does that very well. Mr. Yaska related that he fought fires for many years in the past, and in extremely heavy fire-fighting years they could have greatly benefited from preventative work being done in the low fire- fighting years. Most of the time that work isn't done primarily because the statute doesn't allow emergency fire-fighting crews for non-wildfire suppression. Number 105 SENATOR TAYLOR moved CSSB 201(RES), draft "C," dated 2/10/96 be adopted. Hearing no objection, the Chairman stated the committee substitute was before the committee as a working document. SENATOR LINCOLN , prime sponsor of SB 201, explained the only difference in the committee substitute was a clarifying sentence added on page 2, line 2, which reads: "The assignment of emergency fire-fighting personnel to nonemergency activities may not be used to replace permanent or seasonal state employees." Senator Lincoln said the legislation was introduced to provide the Department of Natural Resource with the authority to utilize emergency fire-fighting employees for fire management, fire suppression and fire prevention activities by adding a new subsection to AS 41.15.030. Existing law authorizes the commissioner to hire fire-fighting personnel, but does not expressly authorize their use for fire prevention, hazard reduction, or other related activities. SB 201 would clarify that emergency fire-fighting personnel could be employed by the department in nonemergency circumstances to construct and maintain fire breaks and trails, remove brush and timber, conduct prescribed burns and improve wildlife habitat. The enactment of the bill into law also will ensure the Department of Natural Resources to take advantage of existing federal money for nonemergency fire prevention projects. In FY 95, the Division of Forestry received approval to receive and expend up to $500,000 in federal receipts to supply emergency fire-fighting crews to federal agencies on a reimbursable basis. Presently, of the $500,000 that is available through federal money, the Department of Natural Resources has already identified projects totaling $250,000. SB 201 would enable these federal dollars to be utilized by the already trained fire-fighting crews for the projects that are identified. Senator Lincoln said she thinks the impact of the bill is a very positive one on the state with having up to half a million dollars of federal money coming into the state, as well as a positive impact on the state's resources. Number 217 CHAIRMAN LEMAN noted the bill carries zero fiscal notes, but he wondered how there can be no fiscal impact when the commissioner's authority for hiring is expanded. SENATOR LINCOLN responded that it doesn't expend any money; it brings federal money in. SENATOR TAYLOR also questioned if there shouldn't be a fiscal note when their is an expenditure of federal funds. NICO BUS , Acting Director, Division of Support Services, Department of Natural Resources, clarified that the reason there is not a fiscal note is because the legislation does not mandate that the department do anything. It gives the department the statutory authority to utilize the federal funds for emergency fire-fighting personnel for fire prevention and other activities. He added that the language would also allow them to use state money, if appropriated, but there is no money appropriated for that. CHAIRMAN LEMAN asked if the department is now doing any fire suppression, hazard reduction, fire prevention, habitat restoration, etc., without this explicit authorization. MR. BUS responded they currently do certain forest management functions, but they do not use emergency fire crews to perform these functions. SENATOR HALFORD questioned how this applies to the fire suppression fund. SENATOR LINCOLN responded it is her understanding that the fire suppression dollars are for just that; SB 201 clarifies that the department can use and extend the federal funds for other related fire prevention. Number 322 CRAIG GOODRICH , State Fire Marshall, Division of Fire Prevention, Department of Public Safety, testifying from Anchorage, said the state of Alaska expends between $350,000,000 and $400,000,000 a year on fire and fire suppression related issues, a portion of that being wild land. He said he thinks it is very easy to overlook the value of fire prevention efforts and activities, and he can see nothing in this bill that does more than allow for that to happen. The bill does nothing but benefit the residents of the state and those bush communities. He voiced support for the legislation by the department, the State Fire Chiefs Association and the State Fire Fighters Association. RAY SHINN , Director of Natural Resources for the Chitna Traditional Village Council, as well as manager of the Taslina Hot Shots, testified from Glennallen in support of SB 201. He said this is something they have been doing for the past 15 years, and there are numerous spin-off benefits when something like is done with the emergency fire-fighting crews throughout the state. TOM BOUTIN , State Forester, Division of Forestry, Department of Natural Resources, related there are 73 of the 16-person emergency fire-fighting crews in the state. The Division of Forestry manages 46 of them and the balance is managed by the Bureau of Land Management's Alaska Fire Service. Also, the Fire Service has two 20-person hot shot crews, as well as Ray Shinn's type one crew. Each crew is autonomous; the 16-person crew is normally from a single village. The average wage, including overtime, paid to emergency fire fighters in 1995 was $12.76 an hour. He pointed out that these fire-fighting crews are also sent outside the state where there is much demand for them when there is a high fire season. The reports the division gets from the Lower 48 is that these crews are very hard working, well trained, cost effective and very safe. Mr. Boutin also noted that these crews are called out on a rotational basis, so no one agency's crews are favored. He said in concept and in practice, that probably should eliminate the concern that anybody might have that it's an incentive for someone to originate a fire in order to get work since the rotational basis would mean that a crew in one part of the state wouldn't necessarily be the crew that would fight a fire in that part of the state. CHAIRMAN LEMAN asked how Alaska's crews compare with crews outside of Alaska. MR. BOUTIN related that a report comes back with every single incident, and the Lower 48 states and the federal agencies really can't say enough good about the crews that are sent out. Some crews were sent to the Yukon this past year and the governor and commissioner received letters back saying what a good account those people gave of themselves. Number 470 SENATOR HALFORD said in the first section of the bill the exemption for the personnel is basically an exemption of the whole State Personnel Act and that exemption is based on the emergency nature of fire fighting, etc. He expressed concern about going around the personnel act for essentially year-round employees doing year-round work, and he wondered if the Department of Labor had looked at this legislation. SENATOR LINCOLN replied that she thinks the language added in the committee substitute addresses his concern, and that there was some involvement by the Department of Labor in the legislation. SENATOR HALFORD asked if there is a way to draft the legislation so that it would cover only federal money. MR. BOUTIN responded that there is, but in order to use state money, there would have to be an appropriation made by the legislature. SENATOR FRANK said his only concern is that some previous governors have declared emergencies and then had the authority to spend any monies in the state treasury, as well as municipal monies. MR. BOUTIN clarified the intent is to be able to use these emergency fire fighters, which are the 16-person autonomous crews, for work in addition to fire suppression as there might be a demand out there, such as the prescribed burn on the Kenai moose range. SENATOR HALFORD said there is a special mechanism that allows the fire suppression fund to go forward outside of its own limits and outside of the amount of money that's there, and he and Senator Frank are concerned that there not be an automatic appropriating mechanism attached to this bill. SENATOR LINCOLN reiterated that this was not the intent of the legislation and she does not read the language that way, but if there was a way to modify the language to address their concern, she would not have a problem with that. SENATOR FRANK pointed out the bill would be going to the Finance Committee and they could take a closer look at it there. Number 545 SENATOR TAYLOR moved that CSSB 201(RES) be passed out of committee with individual recommendations. CHAIRMAN LEMAN objected and stated he wanted to hold the bill until the next meeting in order to take a closer look at the fiscal notes because there is question as to whether they meet the requirements for fiscal notes on bills. SENATOR TAYLOR withdrew his motion to pass CSSB 201(RES) out of committee.