Billings airport firefighters continue court fight for pension

Blood test is the difference between the two classes of city fire protection

By: - February 4, 2022 6:40 pm

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

The only thing separating Billings’ firefighters who respond to calls throughout the city and those who respond to calls at the airport is a blood test.

And that test, the city argues, is what makes firefighters in the city firefighters, but not those at the airport.

However, in a case that is heading to court, what may seem a battle over semantics or job classification is really a fight about the type of retirement each set of employees will receive.

Twice the Montana State Firemen’s Association has asked the Montana Public Employees’ Retirement Board to re-classify the airport firefighters. Doing so would entitle the airport firefighters to the more generous firefighter pension program instead of a public employees retirement.

Twice the board has refused, which has led attorney Raph Graybill to head to a Lewis and Clark County District Court to resolve the matter. District courts have the power to review final agency decisions.

For years, the City of Billings has denied that airport firefighters should be a part of the more generous firefighter retirement program, which is overseen by the Public Employees Retirement Board. Originally, the city had argued that a different battery of tests, a different appointment system and their job description was substantially different enough that they were airport employees, but not firefighters.

However, federal law requires that an airport the size of Billings’ Logan International Airport have fire protection that is trained in case of aircraft fire or disasters. Moreover, the city has admitted that the city’s normal firefighters do not respond to fire or medical calls at the airport, rather that’s handled by the firefighting staff there.

Those airport firefighters also operate firefighting equipment, for example large trucks, and train on fire exercises, which should entitle them to the same benefits, Graybill said. Furthermore, the attorney said that ultimately the city chooses what tests to administer and how to appoint firefighters such that airport firefighters don’t have an alternative.

“No one claims they don’t fight fires,” Graybill said. “In fact, everyone admits if there’s a fire at the airport or a medical emergency, that’s who will respond – just like other firefighters in the city.”

The only hang-up seems to be that when the city hires firefighters for any other location but the airport, they have a two-way chest radiograph, a lipid panel and prostate test. That difference, Graybill said, is the only thing separating the two and why the firemen’s association is challenging the ruling.

He said his clients, the city’s airport firefighters, are willing to undergo the more comprehensive testing if Billings requires it. So far, he said, the city has refused to consider the offer.

He said the legal precedent is important throughout the state because cities could start changing job titles to avoid paying higher wages or participating in more costly pensions. For example, a city could change all of its law enforcement officers from police to security liaisons and in doing so, pay less or offer fewer benefits.

“You don’t just look at their title, you look what they’re doing and what they’re trained to do,” Graybill said.

Previously, he told the Daily Montanan that the airport firefighters were victims of an excellent safety record at the airport because fires there aren’t common, but nonetheless they must be trained and ready in case of the emergency.

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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. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.

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