Judge rules Billings’ airport firefighters aren’t legally firefighters

By: - July 28, 2022 5:35 pm

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

They drive fire engines. They can put out structure fires. They respond to medical calls. They’re required to have firefighting training by the Federal Aviation Administration.

But a Lewis and Clark County District Judge has ruled that the employees who work as firefighters at Billings Logan International Airport are not firefighters, at least for the purpose of receiving a state pension.

In a fight years in the making, the Montana State Firemen’s Association had challenged a Billings City decision that the airport firefighters in Montana’s largest city were eligible for the more lucrative Firefighters United Pension Fund, rather than the less generous Montana Public Employees Retirement. Both are managed by the state’s Public Employees’ Retirement Board, which had determined that because the city requires different tests for employment, that the firefighters at the airport shouldn’t be classified as “firefighters” the same way as the other municipal firefighters.

The Firemen’s Association appealed the decision of the PERS board to district court, and Judge Mike Menahan ruled that it’s not the battery of tests administered by the city that matters, it’s the purpose of those tests.

The firefighters had argued that state statute doesn’t outline a specific battery of tests, allowing cities and other government to determine which test best suits them. Menahan acknowledged that the test used for municipal firefighters and the one used for airport firefighters were similar, if not nearly identical, but what they were used for matters the most.

“The board found the CDL examination did not meet the statutory requirements because its purpose is to determine whether a person is physically qualified to drive a commercial motor vehicle rather than to determine ‘if the applicant is free from any mental or physical condition that might adversely affect the applicant’s performance of the duties of a firefighter,’” Menahan said. “The court agrees with the board that the purpose of the medical examination matters.”

Menahan gave an example of both sets of fire personnel taking a pulmonary function test.

“It is conceivable that a respiratory problem which would adversely affect a person’s ability to perform the duties of a firefighter may have no effect on the same person’s ability to operate a commercial vehicle safely,” Menahan ruled. “Thus, the same person, undergoing the same tests, may meet one standard without meeting the other.”

“The Board is very pleased that the Court agreed with our interpretation of the law.  The Montana State Firemen’s Association has long been an important partner of the Board and we’re relieved to hopefully have this longstanding issue behind us,” said PERS board president Maggie Peterson.

Firemen’s association attorney Raph Graybill had previously told the court that if such a decision by PERS was allowed to stand, it would mean that government could administer an inadequate battery of tests so that firefighters wouldn’t fit a technical, legal description of “firefighter” and therefore be ineligible for the more lucrative pension system. A move like that could save a city substantial money because the contributions to the public employees’ system would be lower.

Each government can determine its own testing protocol, and it is not standardized by the state or optional for prospective firefighters.

“The City of Billings created a loophole that means that its hardworking airport firefighters can’t access the benefits they deserve. The Firemen’s Association understands the Court’s decision. It is now reviewing what steps to take next to ensure all firefighters who put their lives at risk for their communities are able to access the benefits they deserve,” Graybill said.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on July 29 to add in comments from the PERS 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. 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.