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Guest view: Bill would have shifted firefighters’ liability from cities to the state

March 24, 2017 GMT

Our community firefighters work hard every day to save lives and keep our communities safe.

I am being criticized for my “no” vote on Senate Bill 72, which would create a law requiring the state to take on the liability and treatment costs for firefighters with lung disease.

As a representative I have to take a lot of hard votes and I can handle the criticism. It is much easier to vote “yes” on every bill. We all want to help everyone, but funding does not allow that. To be clear: I voted against the bill not firefighters. I want to make sure my constituents know why I voted no.

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The bill that we were presented in committee would create a “presumptive illness law” for firefighters, meaning illnesses that are likely linked to their occupation. We were told during the hearing that this bill would be for only lung disease. But it’s notable that when I look at the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) website, I found a large list of diseases that fall under this area of protection that other states have been asked to also include. We were told that it was the intent of this bill, if passed, to only put lung cancer in the bill. But, the list will grow and the needs of those affected will only grow proportionately.

SB72 underestimates the number of people that will be in need of long-term care from across the state.

I understand there is a risk to being a firefighter. I believe that a better alternative to asking the state to cover this liability is for paid firefighters who are represented by a union to put their energy toward including presumptive illness in their labor contracts. Hiring new firefighters is done by the cities. Equipment and training is conducted by the employer. The cities, their employers, would face the liability. Every city responds to a different number of calls. To me, that seems fair.

Every city is different and the risks for each city can be calculated. That is the reason the cities support this bill, it shifts liability from the cities to the state.

For the most part, all fire departments belong to cities and fire districts, not the state, but it is the state that is being asked to accept this liability. Montana is going to face another unfunded liability that it cannot afford if this bill were to go through. I did not see an actuary attached to this bill so the future liability can’t be determined.

I think we are familiar with Libby, Montana and the enormous burden that lung disease has put on that community. This week we heard House Bill 2 – the major budget bill. Almost every state agency is requesting additional funding. Senior long term care, schools, mental health, child protective services all are requesting additional funding. There simply isn’t enough money to go around.

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Should we cut from existing programs to support a new program? I know that there is some funding mechanism in this bill, but it will grow, government programs always do. This decision was the hardest I have had to make this session and last session. I do not take it lightly, but I am going to stand by it.

Vince Ricci is a legislator from Laurel, representing House District 55. He sits on the Business and Labor Committee.