With the signing of Gov. Doug Burgum’s House Bill 1435, emergency responders and their families can feel a little more at ease if they die in the line of duty, because North Dakota will cover the cost of health insurance for surviving spouses and dependents.
Grand Forks Police Officer Cody Holte died in May 2020 after he was fatally wounded in an exchange of gunfire, and that incident sparked conversations for House Bill 1435.
“House Bill 1435 acknowledges the incredible sacrifices made by the family members of our courageous law enforcement officers, firefighters and other emergency responders every time their loved one walks out the door to go work,” Burgum said.
Here in Dickinson, the bill was monumental for first responders moving forward.
“It's a peace of mind for all first responders that are covered under the bill. If they do pay that ultimate sacrifice, their families will be taken care of in terms of their medical care. And I think that's huge for first responders across the state,” Dickinson Fire Chief Jeremy Presnell said. “It's just a step toward recognizing the commitment that the state's first responders have to protecting our communities, and just making sure their families are taken care of… All across the country since 9/11, there's been a fight for all kinds of presumptive illness and in bills like this to protect first responders and their families.”
Presnell noted the bill is important for new firefighters coming into the line of fire service. With new manufacturing techniques and the materials used to build furniture, newer homes possess more carcinogens. For those who work in fire service, they are exposed to a higher amount of carcinogens on a daily basis compared to others, which leads to cancer.
Even though fire personnel “decon” — or thoroughly wash firefighter gear — right after a fire call, there is still the exposure of carcinogens from the moment a firefighter gets into the truck to returning to the fire station, Presnell remarked.
The National Fire Protection Association has made big strides to incorporate preventative methods to avoid cancers for firefighters such as the use of personal protective equipment, annual physicals and deconing gear right at the fire scenes.
“Statistically, firefighters are going to die at a younger age; they develop certain types of cancers, other diseases that statistically prove that we do die at a younger age. So this is just that one more peace of mind that not only are we taken care of, but our families are taken care of too because they also give up a lot for us to do these jobs. It takes a lot of support from our families to be able to do these jobs from our full time staff to our volunteers. Their families are just as committed to protecting our community and supporting their significant others in being able to do this.”
For Lt. Mike Hanel of the Dickinson Police Department, House Bill 1435 recognizes the efforts and sacrifices made by law enforcement agencies across the state.
“Officers go to work each day knowing they may not make it home at the end of their shift. It is a reality that carries a burden, but that burden has just been lessened by HB1435,” Hanel said. “Every officer would agree that one final request that is most important — and more important than any memorial service, half-staff flag or name engraved at the National Memorial — is that their family is taken care of when they are gone. Families of law enforcement are already asked to sacrifice tremendously with call-of-duty absences, be it missed birthday parties, holidays, baseball games. But in the event the officer gives the ultimate sacrifice, that perpetual absence is devastating. By allowing fallen families to receive health insurance, it is one less stressor that will greatly assist in healing.”
He added, “We would like to thank the North Dakota Legislators, bill sponsors, Gov. Burgum and all citizens who supported this legislation. It is initiatives like this that remind officers that North Dakota cherishes its officers, and reinforces that we live in the most caring state in the nation.”
House Bill 1435 requires the North Dakota Public Employees Retirement System board to offer health and pharmacy insurance coverage at no cost to the surviving spouse and dependents of an emergency responder who dies in the line of duty. Under the bill, “emergency responder” includes a peace officer, member of a correctional facility staff, emergency medical services personnel or firefighter who is employed by the state, a political subdivision of the state or an institution under the control of the state Board of Higher Education. The bill has a retroactive application date of Jan. 1, 2010, according to a press release from Burgum’s office.
“Obviously this is a great thing for law enforcement, for its officers, for their families," said Lt. Eldon Mehrer of the Stark County Sheriff’s Office. "It really emphasizes the strong support that law enforcement has here in North Dakota from the governor’s office down to our state legislators, our communities, all of those things… (It’s) a huge positive thing for recruitment and retention of officers here in the state of North Dakota. I just can’t speak highly enough about the support that this bill got and just feeling very gratified that they were able to pass it.”
Mehrer noted the bill is a huge step forward for first responders and their families in North Dakota.
“It tells those folks, who are first responders, that their communities’ have their backs, they have our families’ backs. Our first responders families give so much knowing that when they walk out the door, it’s really an unknown what they’re going to face at work. There’s always that possibility, especially for law enforcement, (because) that loved one may not come home from work that day if something drastic happens,” Mehrer said. “I think it just… (puts) family members at ease if the ultimate sacrifice has to be given.”
The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, 75-18 in the House and 43-4 in the Senate. It was introduced by Rep. Zachary Ista of Grand Forks and co-sponsored by Reps. Mary Adams, Ron Guggisberg, Pat Heinert, Mike Lefor, Corey Mock, Emily O’Brien, Matt Ruby and Steve Vetter and Sens. JoNell Bakke, Curt Kreun and Scott Meyer.