Is a firefighter a firefighter: Billings says airport crews shouldn’t get firemen benefits

State pension board considers dispute between Montana’s largest city and some firefighters

By: - June 11, 2021 1:57 pm

Billings Logan International Airport firefighters during training (Photo courtesy of Mike Gates).

The job title is “Airport Firefighter.”

They drive large firefighting trucks that cost nearly $1 million.

They are required by federal law to provide protection in case of structure fires or airplane crashes.

Billings Logan International Airport Firefighter crews practicing fire suppression and rescue (Photo courtesy of Mike Gates).

The emblems on their trucks read, “Airport Fire and Rescue.”

But the City of Billings says that a force of city employees called firefighters who stand guard 24 hours a day aren’t really firefighters, and as such, shouldn’t be allowed to claim benefits in the state’s Firefighters United Retirement System, or FURS.

“It’s a distinction that probably only a lawyer would love,” said deputy city attorney Karen Tracy, who represented the city’s position at a hearing before the state pension board on Thursday in Helena.

At issue is whether the employees hired to be Airport Firefighters and Maintenance personnel are truly firefighters. Raph Graybill, who represents the Montana Firemen’s Association, said the Legislature has spelled out the definition of what makes a firefighter, and those who work at Billings Logan International Airport deserve to be in the firefighters pension system.

“We’re here because we believe the airport firefighters are firefighters,” Graybill said.

Even though the airport staff does other things like maintenance and responding to medical calls within the airport, federal law requires a firefighting staff at all times in order to land commercial aircraft, which means they have to be trained and ready — just like firefighters in the city.

“Based on what they’re asked to do, they should be in the system,” Graybill said.

The city said that the majority of the airport firefighter’s job has nothing to do with fire, and in fact, has more to do with operating heavy machinery, especially for snow removal. However, Graybill countered that city firefighters do similar things, spending only a minority of their time actually battling blazes.

“You cannot have an airport without firefighters,” Graybill said. “Call them whatever you like, but right now, today, federal inspectors are at the airport, and they would not let the city operate without these firefighters.”

Neither side was able to say for certain how much more the city would have to pay if those employees transferred, but there was a general consensus the city would be on the hook for more money because generally, the firefighters’ pension is more generous.

“It’s not that that we’re trying to get them in on a technicality,” Graybill said. “It’s that they’re being kept out on a false technicality.”

Graybill noted that other firefighting staff at other airports, including Great Falls, are members of the firefighters pension.

However, the city argued that because the requirements to be an airport firefighter are less stringent and because they don’t report to the city fire chief, they should be excluded from the pension.

“There is no chief. There is no assistant chief. There are different job descriptions,” Tracy said. “I was hired as a city attorney, not as a firefighter. I could meet all these qualifications (in state law) but that doesn’t make me a firefighter because I was not hired as that.”

Graybill and the firefighters said that state law – not the City of Billings – determine the definition of who qualifies and his clients meet the definition. Furthermore, the city can choose to have two different sets of criteria for hiring a city firefighter versus one who works at the airport, but it shouldn’t be left to a municipality to decide pension matters, because it may have a financial interest in steering one set to a less generous system.

Originally, the Montana State Firemen’s Association appealed to the Public Employees’ Retirement Board earlier this year. Previously, the pension board sided with the city. The association then filed a motion in district court, but put that on hold while Graybill made an appeal to reconsider the motion before taking court action.

The retirement board took no action on the matter Thursday, saying it wanted to digest the information and the presentations before deciding the issue. The next regularly scheduled meeting will be on Aug. 12.

“We would much, much rather resolve it here than in court,” Graybill told the board.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.