- Associated Press - Thursday, July 16, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana lawmakers are trying to decide how to provide workers’ compensation to the state’s thousands of volunteer firefighters.

The Education and Local Government Interim Committee began on Thursday a study of emergency personnel benefits. Among other things, the panel will consider whether county governments have broken a 1997 agreement with the state that requires them to provide firefighters with workers’ compensation.

A new law allows volunteers to be paid up to $3,000 a year and retain a state retirement account, but stakeholders have yet to agree on how to fund insurance plans.

“We’re not trying to protect wages, as a volunteer that’s very difficult to do, but to at least get people’s medical care paid,” Montana State Fire Chiefs’ Association Chair Rich Cowger said in support of finding a route to insuring volunteers.

Cowger said most volunteers rely on chili feeds and bake sales to provide little guarantee of workers’ compensation. Some fire departments across the rural state have never been able to afford the expense.

“If you have to wonder between fueling trucks or providing insurance for your guys, you shouldn’t even bother filling up the trucks,” Cowger said.

Government officials and personnel representatives have been debating the issue for three years as firefighting demands continue to grow and incentives to volunteer wane.

Volunteers outnumber career firefighters in Montana by at least an 8-1 ratio, Cowger and Montana Association of Counties Director Harold Blattie said. They estimated that between 9,000 and 10,000 firefighters are working in Montana, but couldn’t recall the last time an accurate count was conducted. In some places, Cowger said, “it’s whoever shows up for the fire that day.”

Department of Natural Resources Chief of Fire and Aviation Ted Mead said roughly 400 fire departments operate in Montana. The volunteer population could fall under the committee’s broad study.

“Without a really good, accurate head count of where this is an issue, where it is not, it’s going to be hard to understand the issue,” State Forester Bob Harrington said.

All 56 counties signed on to Montana’s State-County Cooperative Fire Protection Program between 1967 and 1997. It loosely requires the counties to provide workers’ compensation insurance to anyone who may use equipment provided by the state. A 2013 statute allows local governments to provide insurance to volunteers if they are able.

Montana ranks 11th on the U.S. Fire Administration’s January list of states with fire departments entirely or mostly comprised of volunteers. The 10 states with more than Montana’s 94.2 percent-volunteer departments all provide state funds or require local governments to cover workers’ compensation for volunteers, with varying stipulations.

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