OLYMPIA – To state pension officials, it’s a simple thing: To be a firefighter, you must fight fires.
Tricia Schrom and Jane Bloomfield disagree. For a combined 74 years, the two volunteers have kept training records, answered the mail and paid the bills at their local fire departments. And without somebody doing those things, their attorneys argue, there wouldn’t be a fire department at all.
Two courts have agreed, saying the women are entitled to the $300-a-month pensions that the state provides for longtime volunteer firefighters.
Pension officials are fighting the attempt, and on Tuesday, the women’s case landed before the state Supreme Court.
“They’re not firefighters,” said Jerome Westby, an assistant attorney general for the state Board for Volunteer Firefighters, which booted both women from the pension plan.
Schrom and Bloomfield seemed to find some sympathetic ears, however, among the nine Supreme Court justices.
“I guess you want them out there throwing water on a fire to be considered a firefighter,” said Chief Justice Gerry Alexander. “But aren’t they all part of the firefighting effort?”
They don’t have to be actually holding a fire hose, Westby said. But they have to respond to fire calls.
Alexander countered with a story from his time in the Army. The clerks who issued paychecks and the cooks who staffed the mess hall were still a critical part of the fighting unit, the chief justice said, even if they only picked up a rifle once a year.
Maybe so, but state lawmakers were very clear, Westby responded. The pension laws repeatedly use the words “fire fighter.”
Westby also said that other people contribute a lot to their local fire departments without necessarily qualifying for pensions. A fire department chaplain may comfort grief-stricken family members. And even the elected commissioners who oversee each fire district don’t qualify for the pensions, he said – unless they fight fires.
The state first set up a benefits plan for volunteer firefighters in 1935. It was initially limited to payments for firefighters injured or killed on duty. A decade later, state lawmakers rewrote the law to allow longtime volunteers to sign up for a small pension. It was intended as a tool for recruitment and retention. It takes at least 10 years of volunteer service to qualify, and 25 years to get the full $300 monthly benefit.
Schrom has been a secretary at Grant County Fire Protection District No. 11 since 1961. The district began calling her a firefighter in 1988, and enrolled her in the pension plan. The closest she’s ever gotten to fighting a fire, she said, was delivering food and drinks to fire crews, and, once, to helping move things out of a home threatened by a blaze.
Bloomfield’s been the secretary of Whitman County Fire Protection District No. 12 since 1973. She’s been enrolled in the pension system as a firefighter for the last 24 years.
Part of the reason the state board is balking at adding administrative staff to the pension plan is that nobody seems to know how many people would qualify. There are about 600 fire districts in Washington that are at least partly staffed by volunteers, Westby said.
Board officials have said that they’re worried that if secretaries qualify for the pensions, what’s to stop the person mowing the lawn from trying to sign up?
Schrom and Bloomfield’s attorney, Brian Snure, says such fears are overblown. There’s a clear line, he said, between critical administrative staff and a person who cuts the grass around the fire station.
If Schrom and Bloomfield lose their case, Snure said, they’d at least like to get their pension contributions back, with interest. He said they’d also like an apology from the Board for Fire Fighters, which has accepted the women’s payments for years.
Justice Richard Sanders was skeptical that any apology would come.
“I don’t think the government ever says it’s sorry,” he said.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.