GREAT FALLS - Jason Baker started his career as a firefighter 20 years ago with the Missoula Rural Fire District. Adapting to every call is one of his favorite parts of the job. His first day on the job at Great Falls Fire Rescue was on July, 3rd 2000.
Baker found a love in helping those that need help the most: "It's tough sometimes because when people call 911 it is their worst time. To be that kind of calm that can come in, try to help them out and try to find a solution to their problem has been pretty rewarding."
But in the spring of 2016, Jason was the one looking for a solution. He went to the doctor for difficulty breathing. The doctors thought he had bronchitis but the symptoms never went away.
In August, Baker's doctor did a chest x-ray. They thought he had pneumonia but his symptoms were not clearing up.
"I had a CT on October 11th and I got the phone call on October 12th. That’s when he told me we found a large growth in your left lung,” Baker said.
Baker went to work on October 13th, 2016 not realizing that this would be his last shift on a fire truck for the rest of his life.
"Adenocarcinoma is the scientific name for the cancer that I have but it can affect multiple organs,” Baker said.
Over the past year, Jason has battled stage four cancer, going through multiple treatments.
Montana State Council of Professional Fire Fighters President Joel Fassbinder says the professional fire departments in Montana are using the best gear and equipment that money can buy but that is not good enough in today's firefighting environment.
"Currently today, an on the job cancer is not considered an on the job injury. The burden of proof falls on the firefighter to prove that it happened on the job. As you can imagine, such a burden of proof would be almost impossible as you're going through cancer treatment,” Fassbinder said.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, firefighters are developing everything from colon, lung, to melanoma at a faster rate than the general population.
"Everything in today’s environment has some sort of chemical component. It is usually labeled as a fire retardant or fire resistant chemical. When they reach a certain temperature they began to give off gas, then our members are starting to absorb those gases which are causing these crazy cancers,” Fassbinder said.
According to the International Association of Firefighters, cancer is now the leading cause of death among firefighters.
“The slogan in Montana has always been the last best place and right now we are last in protecting our firefighters. That is certainly nothing to be proud of and it is not for other reason than politics,” Fassbinder said.
Montana, Mississippi, Delaware, and North Carolina are the only states that do not have some kind of presumptive care in place.
Fassbinder says they have been working for almost two decades to get presumptive care legislation passed in Montana.
"The Republican-led legislature refused to work with us on identifying funding revenues for the bill. It was a comprehensive bill. The problem lied within that caucus on disagreement on funding sources,”
House District 25 Representative Jeremy Trebas says that the word presumptive is the reason it will never get through Republican legislature because of the way it changes the law.
Trebas says he believes that legislation protecting our firefighters can pass but with different
"I think the solution really is to set up a special insurance pool for those claims and the liability to rest over here. This place will be separate from the state and work comp systems. It then takes it out of the hands of the municipalities and towns too. Ultimately I think it should be their responsibility but if we need and want a safe solution I think it really is going to be in a special insurance pool,”
If Montana had presumptive care with annual physicals in place, Baker could have been diagnosed a lot sooner.
Baker says he is ready to tell his story in hopes that it might one day help another firefighter.
"We are taking precautions. We are cleaning our gear, we are clearing our equipment and our tools but it is one of our occupational hazards now,” Baker said.
Baker is now back on the job, but after a year of treatments it is unlikely Baker will be able to do what he loves most, ride in a fire truck.
In September, the United States House passed the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act.
The registry will be used to improve monitoring of cancer among firefighters, as well as collect and publish information regarding cancer among firefighters.
The Firefighter Cancer Registry Act is currently in a United States Senate committee.