Great Falls firefighters continue effort to get presumptive law in Montana

Efforts to enact presumptive laws to cover Montana firefighters given their heightened risk of contracting certain diseases on the job have not been successful for the last 10 legislative sessions or so.

But local firefighters aren’t done fighting.

In late April, firefighters with Local 8 of the International Association of Fire Fighters union, met with Democratic legislators to discuss plans to continue their effort to get presumptive coverage for Montana firefighters.

Research has indicated firefighters are at greater risk to contract certain diseases such as heart disease, lung disease, cancer and infectious diseases.

House Democratic Leader Rep. Jenny Eck said, “presumptive eligibility is one of our priorities. We are determined to get this done.”

Devon Hagen oversees the personal protective equipment, or PPE, for Great Falls Fire Rescue and said the firefighters have been proactive in getting education for what they can do to protect themselves.

Dave Van Son, Local 8 president, said when he started as a firefighter 30 years ago, the heightened risk to disease due to the job wasn’t a concern.

He said GFFR has been “super progressive” in adding annual physicals to allow for early detention and to be able to prove when certain conditions were contracted while employed as firefighters.

“It’s cheaper to catch something early,” Van Son said.

Eck said she hadn’t known previously that the issue was more than smoke inhalation.

Modern construction materials and furnishings are more often all synthetics that give off toxic gases when they burn, said Jason Baker.

Baker was a firefighter with GFFR for 17.5 years but had to retire recently after being diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.

“We’re at such higher rate for these rare cancers,” Baker said.

Firefighters can absorb those toxins through their turnouts and any exposed skin during fire response operations. Their turnouts, the typically yellow gear they pull on over clothes, is meant to keep them safe from flames, but it’s not a hazmat suit, Baker said. The gear can also continue to offgass when not cleaned thoroughly, he said.

GFFR purchased a special washing machine just for their turnout gear, the firefighters said.

Van Son told legislators that back in the day, it was a badge of honor to have to dirtiest gear.

“Now we know how dangerous it is,” he said.

BJay Perry has been a firefighter for 16 years and said, “we didn’t know about it when we got into it. We know about it now.”

Baker has been part of the effort to get presumptive coverage in Montana, long before he was diagnosed.

Van Son said the upcoming legislative session would be the 10th during which he and others have worked to get presumptive eligibility for firefighters.

Montana, along with Mississippi and North Carolina, has no presumptive laws. North Carolina did expand it’s line-of-duty death benefits to include four types of cancer.

In 2017, Wyoming and Georgia passed presumptive laws. Other states have varying forms of presumptive eligibility through workers compensation or other forms of coverage and the types of diseases covered vary widely nationwide.

Van Son said the bill that ended up going through the 2017 Legislature, but ultimately failed, was “too watered down” and contradicted itself.

He added that some local legislators had pledged support in email exchanges, but then voted against it.

Senate Democratic Leader Jon Sesso said, “we believe what you think is fair is what we want to get passed.”

Sesso said the number of incidence wouldn’t increase so the cost to wouldn’t be outrageous.

“What can you be afraid of here,” Sesso said.

The 2017 bill that failed in the legislature would have created a presumptive disease compensation fund out of which presumptive disease benefits would be paid on firefighter workers’ compensation claims that have been denied by the workers’ compensation insurer, according to the fiscal note. The bill would have funded a maximum of $250,00 per year from the general fund beginning in fiscal year 2020 and $500,000 from the Tobacco Trust Interest account.

According to the fiscal note, one additional cancer claim per year was anticipated based on a review of other states that have adopted similar legislation. Their annual cost was $14,000 per person per year, according to the fiscal note.

Sesso said he found it over the top that the bill required baseline health levels, proving firefighters had been tobacco free and passing physicals.

Van Son said that’s common across states with presumptive eligibility.

Eck said it blew her away that firefighters have the courage to go into a fire knowing the risks.

“The least we can do” is make sure they’re covered, she said.

Van Son said the Montana State Council of Professional Fire Fighters is already working to draft a bill for the next legislative session.