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Hop onto a search engine and use the words "firefighter workers compensation" and dozens of lawyers' websites will pop up.

It appears there's a cottage industry for lawyers willing to fight for firefighters trying to get coverage for illnesses and ailments related to their work, including back injuries, cancer and emphysema.

In some states, firefighters who get injured by fighting fire are exempted from workers compensation. The rationale says that being a firefighter is inherently dangerous and risky. In many states, Montana currently included, the onus is on the firefighter to prove that a disease or condition was a result of battling fires. Proving that firefighting gives any person, say, lung cancer, may be difficult. After all, people who don't fight fires can get the disease, so proving it can be hard.

Yet a state like Montana desperately needs firefighters. Sadly, with the rise of near-catastrophic wildfires, we need more and more fighters all the time. And just because we have infrared monitors and more sophisticated tools to fight fire, when it gets to the literal boots-on-the-ground phase of battling blazes, it still means coming face to face with fire and toxic smoke.

If climate change continues, we've been told to prepare for even more fires and more intense fires. That means the state and local communities will need more help. The least the state should be able to do is make sure that if those firefighters are in harm's way that we take care of them into the future. We have plans to protect law enforcement officers injured on the job. We have an entire system to help veterans who suffer as they sacrifice themselves for our country: Why do we treat firefighters differently?

Sen. Nate McConnell, D-Missoula, is carrying the Firefighter Protection Act, and it shifts the burden of proof for the illness from the patient (read: firefighter) to the insurer.

Opponents of the bill worry that by adding this provision, workers' comp rates rise rapidly. However, after similar legislation was passed in Idaho, the Gem state actually saw a decrease in rates, according to a story by Michael Woodel of the Helena Independent Record.

State Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, carried a bill, Senate Bill 29, which would require the coverage. It has already cleared the Senate. It would require all volunteer firefighters to be covered by 2022. While McConnell's bill looks to be more comprehensive, we also believe that Thomas' bill is another step toward making sure we protect those who put their life on the line, even if it only covers volunteers.

It's also worth noting that many firefighters around the state are already covered by insurance provided to them by their employers or by the city or counties. In other words, it's not like this creates an unreasonable burden on every agency in the state. Rather, it helps equalize the playing field between those firefighters who have protection and those who do not.

It's sad to think that even when firefighters perform heroically and stop wildfires that those same fires could still prove to be deadly.

What's even worse is the idea that no one will be there to help if it happens.

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The Billings Gazette

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