Firemen’s Association asks courts to rule Billings airport firefighters eligible for better pension

By: - May 2, 2022 6:32 pm

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

A case that pits the state’s firefighters association against the state’s public pension board is headed back to a Lewis and Clark County judge after both sides were unable to come to a satisfactory agreement.

The case is largely a matter of déjà vu, as both sides have staked out their original positions in a matter that involves whether the firefighters at the Billings Logan International Airport should have the same pension as firefighters working in the rest of Montana’s largest city.

Currently, airport firefighters get a less generous pension, while the rest of the firefighters working in the city get part of the Firefighters United Retirement System, which takes into account the shorter, more physically demanding nature of the job.

In court briefings filed in April, the Public Employees’ Retirement Board said that because the airport firefighters are given a different test and because they are not appointed by the mayor or city administrator, they should be ineligible for the more generous Firefighters United Retirement System.

However, the Montana State Firemen’s Association, which is suing in Lewis and Clark County District Court, said that the City of Billings determines which tests to give applicants, and that the city has delegated the hiring process away from the mayor or council – both of which the firefighters cannot control. Furthermore, they argue that federal aviation law requires certified and trained firefighters at the airport for commercial flight service.

The case has been continuing for more than a year as the firemen’s association has fought to get the airport firefighters included in the firefighters’ pension system. The retirement board said that it’s in the difficult position of defending the human resources decisions of a third party, the City of Billings, as it explains why the employees who are called firefighters in city documents, use firefighting equipment and have training as firefighters should not be considered firefighters.

In a court briefing, Firemen’s Association Attorney Raph Graybill pointed out that the law doesn’t require any specific medical tests, and he said that Billings’ pre-employment testing for the airport firefighters’ “clearly exceed the generic, minimum requirements under state law.”

In the court documents, he said the decision won’t just affect the Billings airport firefighters, but also could have larger statewide implications, for example, allowing cities and governments to make minor changes to testing or change a title to avoid having to pay into the more generous pension program.

Those court documents also include job descriptions posted by the city that state that airport firefighting applicants must “have knowledge and ability to perform airport and aircraft rescue firefighting operations by responding to incidents and accidents that may involve fire suppression, life/property loss, hazardous materials, mass casualty and other emergency services.”

“The board’s decision was not only incorrect as a matter of law, it was also arbitrary and capricious because it lacked any reasoning, discussion or analysis connecting the specific battery of tests with the generic requirements of the statute,” Graybill wrote. “As it stands, the ruling allows local governments to evade the higher costs associated with FURS contributions by simply giving firefighters a different battery of tests – or, more likely, pointing out that firefighters in Great Falls, or Butte, or Anaconda or Glendive or Helena did not receive this specific battery of tests that (the pension board) now says hold the key, under state law, to whether a firefighter can participate in FURS.”

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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.