HELENA – Gov. Steve Bullock signed the Firefighter Protection Act on Thursday, a bill that will provide workers’ compensation for presumptive diseases of firefighters — an effort that supporters said took nearly 20 years to get to the governor’s desk.
“Today every firefighter should know Montana has your back and it’s about damn time,” Bullock told several dozen people gathered outside the Capitol to witness the bill signing.
Senate Bill 160 removes obstacles Montana firefighters face when seeking compensation for many work-related illnesses. They face specific hazards, such as exposure to hazardous chemicals that can lead to serious medical conditions like myocardial infarction and certain types of cancer, officials said. Montana was reportedly one of five states without a “presumptive law.”
It also provides insurers with an option to rebut claims.
Presumptive diseases are defined in the bill as those contracted during work. They include myocardial infarction, colorectal cancer, mesothelioma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and cancers of the esophagus, brain, lung and breast.
Bullock was joined at the bill signing by Montana firefighters, International Association of Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger, and Joel Fassbinder of the Montana State Firemen’s Association, Sen. Nate McConnell, D-Missoula and other lawmakers.
Several Great Falls firefighters attended as did the family of Jason Baker, a Great Falls Fire Department engineer who died in February of stage 4 lung cancer. His name became a rallying cry by supporters of a similar bill in the 2017 session that failed.
Jill Baker wrote legislators a letter in 2017 asking them to reconsider their vote.
“Shame on you for putting politics before the lives of public servants,” she wrote.
On Thursday she and other family members attended the bill signing and released a statement:
“Jason’s legacy will be remembered through his tireless advocacy of health and safety coverage for his brothers and sisters in the fire service,” she said, adding it was gratifying to have the bipartisan bill signed by Bullock.
“While we are deeply saddened that Jason did not live long enough to observe this momentous occasion, we are grateful that other firefighters and their families will finally have the coverage they deserve,” she stated.
Great Falls Battalion Chief Dave Van Son, who said he has advocated for the coverage for years, was among those in attendance.
“It’s bittersweet,” he said, adding he wondered if the lawmakers had passed the bill 10 years ago if Jason Baker would still be alive.
McConnell said the bill gave him and other lawmakers a chance to make a big difference in people’s lives. He said his son, Jack, wants to be a firefighter and often wears a fire helmet around the house.
“This bill is not just for you, but for all the Jack McConnell’s in the world who want to be a firefighter and” help their communities, he said.
Rep.Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, the House minority leader, released a statement saying there “were times when I thought we wouldn’t be able to get this legislation across the finish line in my tenure.”
“Today, I’m thrilled to have been wrong,” Schreiner said. “The first responders who put their lives on the line for our homes and families will finally be able to seek the care they need.”
According to the bill, insurers are not liable for the workers’ compensation benefits if they can prove that the firefighter was not exposed to contracting the disease during their duties. The bill requires firefighters to take a physical at least every two years.
It was amended by the House Business and Labor Committee, passed the House 89-8 on April 8, and returned to the Senate, where it passed 40-10 on April 13.
Another firefighter-related bill, Senate Bill 171 also passed its third reading Monday with a vote of 83-14. It requires firefighters hired on or after July 1 be tobacco-free.
It was sponsored by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls. The House amended the bill to move up the starting date from Jan.1 to July 1.