HELENA – Montana firefighters were at the Legislature Friday continuing their fight for coverage for on-the-job illnesses.
The House Business and Labor Committee held its first hearing of Senate Bill 160, also known as the firefighter health and safety bill.
Senator Nate McConnell, the bill’s sponsor, broke down his thoughts on why Montana firefighters need the bill.
“Montana needs this bill because currently Montana is one of three states in the union that does not provide worker’s comp coverage for firefighters,” McConnell said.
Mississippi and Delaware are the other two states that do not have legislation in place.
McConnell said firefighters face a unique challenge not only because of the materials now used to build homes, but because of the homeowner’s possessions in this day and age.
“The only people covered under this bill are firefighters, which is defined in this bill. Those firefighters have to be engaged in firefighting activities,” McConnell said.
If the bill becomes law, firefighters would have to get a physical to be eligible for worker’s compensation coverage for cancers or communicable diseases that could result from their job.
McConnell said firefighters have higher rates of cardio vascular disease, pulmonary and respiratory disease, and have higher rates of cancer.
The Montana State Fireman Association’s Dave Maslowski said he became a firefighter to help others and make a difference in his community
“I did recognize that it is dangerous in nature, little did I know what I can’t see could kill me,” Maslowski said.
Maslowski said that in recent studies produced by the Occupational Safety and Health State, firefighters have a 14 percent increase of risk of dying from cancer than the general population.
“This bill is a direct result of this scientific data and it addresses the most common disease linked to firefighting,” Maslowski said.
The Montana State Fireman Association’s Joel Gaertig said firefighters across the country are taking steps to limit exposure to toxic chemicals. Gaertig said the research shows firefighters are absorbing the chemicals through their skin.
“Placing turnout gear in trash bags after a fire and placing them outside of the fire engine is a simple solution,” Gaertig said.
Gaertig said the gear must then be laundered. Firefighters can also wear gloves, face masks, wash their hands, and shower after a fire to limit the effects of toxic chemicals making their way into their bodies.
“Gone are the days and the bravado of the salty old guy with burned up gear. There is a new breed of firefighters that are healthy, fit and educated,” Gaertig said.
Great Falls International Association of Firefighters Local 8 President Dave Van Son said a health and safety bill would have helped his friend Jason Baker.
“My dear friend Jason Baker from Great Falls who unfortunately lost his battle fighting a courageous fight battling lung cancer on February 20th,” Van Son said.
Van Son said doctors found Jason’s death was the result of his occupation as a firefighter.
“Brother Jason Baker would be standing before you today instead of me asking for your support of this bill, which is so important to the health and safety of all firefighters in Montana,” Van Son said.
Van Son said the bill is based on scientific evidence that firefighters face more risks with toxic chemicals when they are on a call.
Opponents of the bill are concerned about several factors.
Montana Municipal Interlocal Authority Representative Brian Thompson said they are worried about what the cost will do to worker’s comp.
“Unfortunately we do not have enough data at this time to hold on what the costs on the program are going to be on cities and towns,” Thompson said.
Montana Association of Counties Eric Bryson said he is also concerned about the bill’s effects. He is asking for a separate funding pool to be made for the bill instead of using worker’s comp.
“If we can shift the burden and responsibility and the coverage, I will give you the premiums for that separate pool,” Bryson said.
Thompson also said they believe some of the definitions of the diseases covered are too vague.
“To be clear we are here seeking amendments. Our goal is to make this manageable,” Thompson said.
Other opponents mentioned how the bill could open the door for other jobs to make the same claim.
Reporting by Margaret DeMarco for MTN News