New legislation supports volunteer firefighters
KALISPELL, Mont. - Where there's smoke, there's usually a firefighter and, in the state of Montana, that firefighter is most likely a volunteer. A new law going into effect Thursday benefits volunteer firefighters. It will allow them to collect up to $3,000 in allowance per a year for their work. House Bill 555 protects firefighters from losing retirement pension eligibility. In 2011, the legislature moved an act allowing them to collect $300, but that wasn't enough. Volunteers collecting more than $300 risked forfeiture of the Volunteer Firefighters' Compensation Act because they were seen as paid employees. "A vast majority of the departments in Montana are volunteer, just strictly volunteer," said Jeremy Patton, a volunteer firefighter with the Bigfork Volunteer Fire Department. Out of 388 fire departments in the state, 374 of them are volunteer. "A lot of people, they don't do it for the money," said Bigfork Fire Chief Wayne Loffler. "They do it to give back to the community." Loffler volunteered for 30 years before becoming chief seven years ago. He says this legislation is a "thank you" for the time and effort firefighters are putting in. "It's really great the legislators are understanding of the time these people sacrifice," he said. A majority of volunteers means most firefighters have other full-time jobs, commitments and, in most cases, family to balance around the risky job of fighting fires. "If people realized what things go on here and what we do. When that tone goes off and the emergency happens, they expect you to be there as soon as possible, but they don't understand a lot of these people are coming from their homes at nighttime," Loffler said. The Bigfork Volunteer Fire Department provides many of its volunteers with a small stipend to reimburse them for gas and the time they spend training. Loffler says the fact that the legislature is helping them protect their retirement is huge, because it may influence current volunteers to continue volunteering. He says his department could use more volunteers. State Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick (R-Great Falls) was the primary sponsor of the bill. He hopes it will have a positive impact on public safety and encourage more staffing in volunteer fire departments as a whole.