Wildfire fighters in Montana are on their own if they develop lung disease on the job, after state legislators rejected a bill that would have provided them with health benefits for occupational illness.
Firefighters “know what they’re doing,” Rep. Mark Noland (R-Bigfork) told the legislature. “That is their profession, that is what they chose, and we do not want to, you know, slight them in any way, shape or form, but it is something they’re going into with their eyes wide open.”
“That is asinine, ridiculous, reprehensible, and irresponsible,” responds Wildfire Today Editor Bill Gabbert. “He is assuming that when firefighters began their careers they knew there was a good chance they would damage their lungs. If that is common knowledge now, or was 20 years ago when the firefighter signed up, why haven’t the employers already established coverage for presumptive diseases?”
Gabbert notes that “there is a great deal we do not know about the effects of breathing contaminated air on structure, vehicle, and wildland fires.” But even so, “many agencies and government bodies have already established a list of presumptive diseases that will enable health coverage for firefighters.” He cites British Columbia as a jurisdiction that “recognizes at least nine ‘presumptive cancers’ among firefighters, including leukemia, testicular cancer, lung cancer, brain cancer, bladder cancer, ureter cancer, colorectal cancer, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”
Gov. Steve Bullock noted that 46 other states already offer presumptive illness protection for firefighters, and Colorado introduced a bill to improve its coverage earlier this month, Wildfire Today reports.
“As someone who has been involved in wildland fire since the mid-1960s, and who is currently on the Missoula Rural Fire Board of Trustees, I’m really disgusted with the Republicans on the House Business and Labor Committee who voted to ‘table’ the vote on SB 72 which would give Workers Comp coverage to firefighters who develop job-related cancer,” writes Dick Mangan, a past president of the International Association of Wildland Fire, in a Wildfire Today editorial.
“So, soldiers and police officers die in the line of duty, and that’s OK too? They know the risks, and make the choice, just like firefighters,” Mangan suggests. “Maybe we should extend that logic to state legislators: JFK, RFK, George Wallace, Ronald Reagan, and Gabby Giffords were politicians killed and/or wounded doing their jobs. So, if a Montana legislator should suffer a similar fate, should we just tell them and their families that ‘they entered with their eyes open?’”
In his news report on the vote, Gabbert notes that “only one Republican on the House committee voted for the measure. Apparently, in Montana treating firefighters injured on the job is a partisan issue.”