Firefighter Health and Safety Bill

Haven’t read our previous coverage on firefighters? Read our article about Jason Baker and his fight against cancer here.

It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while, the state legislature takes on a bill that is really a no-brainer. It is well written, has a narrow focus, comes with clear costs, and everyone involved agrees passing it is the right thing to do.

This session, our state legislators have an opportunity to pass one of those bills into law: The Firefighter Health and Safety Bill.

On Tuesday, the Senate Business, Labor, and Economic Affairs committee held the first hearing on the Health and Safety Bill. Senator Nate McConnell, who sponsored the bill, and other proponents of the measure laid out clear explanations of what the bill would do and addressed concerns raised by opponents.

State Epidemiologist Laura Williamson participated in the hearing and explained how firefighters are exposed to a dozen chemicals known to cause cancer and several more proven likely to cause cancer. These chemicals are present in modern homes. When homes burn, firefighters are exposed to them, which puts them at risk. As a result, firefighters are 14% more likely to get cancer than the average U.S. citizen.

In addition to classifying several types of cancer that first responders are at risk for as presumptive and covered by workers’ compensation, the Firefighter Health and Safety bill would cover Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“I’m not here to argue over how to pay for it. I’m here to argue that it is a real thing,” said Rich Cowger, Chief of Columbus Fire Rescue, who testified in support of including coverage for PTSD-related treatment in the measure. Cowger explained that in 2017, more firefighters were lost to suicide than in the line of duty.

But in the end, it does come down to cost. Historically, the major objection to providing workers’ compensation for firefighters who fall victim to cancer or PTSD has stemmed from concern that it would lead to skyrocketing rate hikes. However, our neighboring states have proven this challenge is unfounded. When Washington and Oregon adopted their own Firefighter Health and Safety laws, they experienced temporary rate hikes, followed by a drop in cost. Rates in Wyoming stayed flat and actually dropped in Idaho. In fact, Idaho’s Department of Insurance submitted a letter to the hearing stating that rates have dropped 4.2 percent since the state passed a similar bill three years ago.

With the cost concern addressed, it seems like we should be able to sit back and watch our legislators pass this bill. But, when we talked to Joel Gaertig, a firefighter and political advisor to the Montana State Firemen’s Association, he said that until Governor Bullock signs the bill into law, he will remain, “cautiously optimistic.”

At Prairie Populist, we share his optimism and will be paying attention in the hopes that things go according to plan.

The Health and Safety Bill is now in the hands of the Senate Business, Labor, and Economic Affairs committee. A vote has not been scheduled yet, but we will have updates as soon as it is.

Andie Creel

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