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Montana firefighter health and safety bill passes committee

Posted at 7:24 AM, Feb 07, 2019

BILLINGS – Firefighters in Montana are one step closer to getting a health and safety bill passed in this year’s legislative session.

The Senate Business and Labor committee passed the Firefighter Protection Act by a vote of 9-to-1 on Wednesday, meaning it will move to the Senate floor this session. It’s something Montana firefighters have been fighting for, for a long time.

Chuck Hagan spent nearly a quarter century fighting fires and the former Lockwood firefighter has now been battling prostate cancer for the past year.

“People always think it can’t happen to me. Well, it did,” he said.

Chuck Hagan
Chuck Hagan is a former Lockwood firefighter. (MTN News photo).

Hagan can’t be sure whether the danger he faced from exposure to smoke and other chemicals caused the cancer, but he now knows that the chances of getting certain cancers are much higher in firefighters.

In fact, his longtime boss at Lockwood fire also had prostate cancer and did not survive, he said.

“We didn’t think about all the dangers. You know, ‘smoke cleared, let’s get this stuff off.’ If I had known what I know now I would have never done that.  We didn’t know everything as we should have,” Hagan says.

Equipment has improved and a lot more precautions are now taken to keep firefighters from being exposed to possible carcinogens. But risks still come with the job.

“I want to be super careful for myself and also for my co-workers.  We are all friends and family, basically,” says Lindsay Lambert, a Lockwood firefighter who is relatively new to the job after serving six years as a medic.

Lindsey Lambert
Lindsey Lambert, Lockwood firefighter. (MTN News photo)

Senate Bill 160, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Nate McConnell (D-Missoula) would shift the burden of proof for fire-related diseases from the patient to the insurer. Montana firefighters have been working for almost two decades to pass a law that would help protect them from on the job illnesses, such as cancer and other communicable diseases.

While the bill aims to make worker’s comp claims easier for firefighters by presuming that illnesses were caught from firefighting, an amendment to the bill that passed Wednesday also states that “nothing limits an insurer’s ability to assert that the occupational disease was not caused by the firefighter’s employment history as a firefighter.”

Both Hagan and Lambert believe that, if passed by the Legislature, the bill will make a big difference in helping firefighters get the protection they need without having to jump through so many hoops. “I think it would be super beneficial,” says Lambert.

A date has not been set for the bill to be heard on the Senate floor yet.

-Russ Riesinger reporting for MTN News