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Yarnell fire sparks hearing on firefighters’ benefits

In this 2012 photo provided by the Cronkite News, the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew clears a fire line through the forest. On Sunday, June 30, 2013, 19 members of the Prescott, Ariz.-based crew were killed in the deadliest wildfire involving firefighters in the U.S. for at least 30 years. The firefighters were forced to deploy their emergency fire shelters - tent-like structures meant to shield firefighters from flames and heat - when they were caught near the central Arizona town of Yarnell, according to a state forestry spokesman. (AP Photo/Cronkite News, Connor Radnovich)

In this 2012 photo provided by the Cronkite News, the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew clears a fire line through the forest. On Sunday, June 30, 2013, 19 members of the Prescott, Ariz.-based crew were killed in the deadliest wildfire involving firefighters in the U.S. for at least 30 years. The firefighters were forced to deploy their emergency fire shelters – tent-like structures meant to shield firefighters from flames and heat – when they were caught near the central Arizona town of Yarnell, according to a state forestry spokesman. (AP Photo/Cronkite News, Connor Radnovich)

In the aftermath of the Yarnell Hill Fire that consumed the lives of 19 firefighters, Arizona lawmakers are facing difficult decisions about what responsibility the state should have to provide benefits to fallen first responders.

House Speaker Andy Tobin, a Republican from Paulden whose district includes the area burned in the fire, called the House Public Safety and Military Affairs Committee into action for a special meeting on Tuesday to kick off the discussion on what the state should do to help the families of the deceased firefighters and rebuild the affected communities.

The deaths highlighted the disparities in benefits for firefighters who work seasonally during the wildfire season, and those who work year-round. Of the 19 fallen members of the Granite Mountain Hot Shot crew, which operated under the Prescott Fire Department, 13 were classified as seasonal part-time employees, and six were full-time.

The six full-time firefighters were enrolled in the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System, and their surviving spouses will receive between $57,000 and $101,000 annually, according to program staff at the meeting.

That is a much more robust payment than the families of their part-time colleagues, who were enrolled in the Arizona State Retirement System and will split a total of $86,000 in one-time lump sums, depending on how much each firefighter paid into the program.

Tobin told the committee that, although the firefighters knew what kind of benefits they were receiving when they signed up for the job, their sacrifice was the same as those who worked full-time and the system doesn’t give their families the benefits they deserve.

“Their survivor benefit packages were different, but they all died fighting that fire,” he said.

Tobin outlined a plan to provide the families of the 13 seasonal firefighters the same benefits as their full-time colleagues.

Tobin acknowledged that retroactively enrolling the fire fighters into the public safety pension program could violated the Arizona Constitution’s gift clause, which prohibits the state from making donations to individuals, associations or corporations. But he said there are other ways to ensure the families receive the money, such as starting an account funded by donations that Arizonans could make through a box on their income tax returns.

He also advocated for moving current part-time first responders into the public safety benefits system.

Tobin’s plan would also have the state to pay the city of Prescott’s bill of $5.2 million in death benefits for the six full time fire fighters.

He also wants the state to reimburse other agencies and cities that provided assistance fighting the fire and provide financial assistance to the Yarnell community for disaster-related infrastructure repairs, the costs of which are still not fully determined.

Rep. Justin Pierce, a Mesa Republican who chairs the committee, said Tuesday’s meeting was the first in a series to start the discussion on those and other issues surrounding the fire, the devastated areas and firefighters who lost their lives.

The hearing laid the groundwork for future discussions and featured presentations from both the Arizona State Retirement System and the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System bringing lawmakers up to speed with the differences between the two.

While Tobin has advocated for Gov. Jan Brewer calling a special session to deal with legislation on the issue, Pierce said he expects to hold three or more hearings on the issue in the coming months to hash out ideas before pushing actual legislation.

Unless there is a time-sensitive reason to push certain portions of the planned legislation before January, Pierce said he doesn’t expect a special session on the issue.

The Yarnell Hill fire was sparked by lightning June 28, and trapped the 19 members of Prescott’s Granite Mountain Hotshots on June 30 as it barreled toward Yarnell. The fire burned 13 square miles of brush before it was controlled July 12.

 

The specific legislative priorities Speaker Tobin highlighted are:

  • To reimburse any first responder entities who fought the Yarnell Hill Fire.
  • To provide financial assistance to the community of Yarnell for infrastructure repairs.
  • To cover the City of Prescott’s liability in the Death Benefit coverage for the 6 of the 13 uncovered Hotshots in P.S.P.R.S.
  • To fund the amount the other 13 Hotshots would have received if they were participating in P.S.P.R.S.
  • To prospectively allow part time first responders to participate in P.S.P.R.S.
  • To create a related Arizona State Income Tax deduction option on all A-4 forms.
  • To require P.S.P.R.S. to purchase catastrophic insurance to cover the liability of any future disaster.

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