Bilingual fire boss rule stirs controversy

Bilingual fire boss rule stirs controversy
- By Melica Johnson and KATU.com Web Staff

SALEM, Ore. - Some English-speaking firefighters are losing their jobs because of an Oregon state law that requires them to be bilingual.

The Department of Forestry enacted a law three years ago that requires them to be bilingual, but this year they're actually enforcing it.

2002 was such a devastating wildfire season, contractors were scrambling to find firefighters.

Hispanics often filled their needs on the fire lines.

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Lawmakers take notice

Jim Walker of the Department of Forestry said "what we do know is 85 percent of the crew make-up is of Hispanic decent."

But many of the Hispanic fire fighters do not speak English. Walker says the language barrier is a concern.

Those concerns led the state to draft a new rule that all firefighting bosses speak English, and the languages of crew members who don't speak English.

Jaime Pickering, a squad boss overseeing 20 firefighters, says the rule means "job losses for Americans. The white people."

Because of the state's language requirement, Pickering can no longer work as a crew boss and supervise 20 firefighters, he can only manage a squad of four.

Pickering says that "if you have one Spanish guy on the crew, as an English crew boss, you can no longer be a crew boss, you have to step back to a squad boss, which is a demotion."

While the state made the rule change in 2003, it decided to strictly monitor the law this year as Hispanics continue to fill fire lines.

Jim Walker says "our main concern is that they are safe, and they are in a safe environment, and a lot of that deals with communication."

Manuel Franco is a Hispanic contractor for fire crews. He says he thinks the state's rule is necessary for worker safety.

"I think that's good, because that's for safety purpose," Franco says. "If there's a rock rolling down, everybody should understand that."

However, Manuel did say he felt the situation would improve if everyone spoke English. "We're living here. We should speak the language."

Jim Walker ponders the possibility that all fire crew members should be required to speak English, instead of having bilingual crew leaders.

"If it comes down to a safety issue, and it's determined that's the only way we can have people safely on an incident, then yes," Walker said.

Both Oregon state officials and those in the firefighting business say they do not think there are 'that many' illegal immigrant workers in the fire crews.

They say it is more a case of legal workers who do not speak English.