Following West Fargo officer's heart attack, Burgum signs bill expanding coverage for cops, firefighters

Both chambers of the North Dakota Legislature unanimously approved House Bill 1279, which expands workers’ compensation coverage for full-time firefighters and police officers.

West Fargo Police Chief Denis Otterness speaks at a bill signing on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. West Fargo Police Officer Tim Brown, who recovered from a heart attack suffered in 2021, stands behind Otterness.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — When West Fargo Police Officer Tim Brown suffered a heart attack on duty, the community rallied around him, but a state-run workers' compensation agency couldn't cover him during the recovery process.

After working several years as a cop in Memphis, Brown joined the force in West Fargo at the beginning of 2021. The heart attack came while booking two women into the Cass County Jail in October of that year. The officer, then 29, was flown to Omaha for specialized care while in critical condition.

An online fundraiser amassed nearly $25,000 for Brown and his family, but North Dakota Workforce Safety and Insurance, or WSI, didn't extend workers' compensation to the officer. He hadn't worked in the state long enough to qualify for the benefits.

Under the existing law, police officers and firefighters must have served five years in North Dakota before it is presumed their injury is a result of their work.

A bipartisan group of Fargo-area lawmakers led by Republican Rep. Shannon Roers Jones saw Brown's case as a hole in WSI's coverage of first responders that needed to be addressed through legislation. The remedy came together even faster than she expected.


Both chambers of the North Dakota Legislature unanimously approved House Bill 1279, which expands workers’ compensation coverage for full-time firefighters and police officers. Gov. Doug Burgum signed the proposal into law on Monday, Feb. 6.

The legislation provides workers’ compensation coverage to full-time police and firefighters who suffer heart attacks, strokes or other "cardiac events" within 48 hours of engaging in a strenuous job-related activity. The bill also counts police and firefighting service in other states toward the five-year requirement.

A clause in the bill means it will retroactively apply to Brown and two firefighters who were denied coverage because they had not served enough years in North Dakota.

Burgum said the legislation sends out a message that North Dakota takes care of those charged with protecting the public.

"We’re grateful to the Legislature for its decisive action on this bill, which will provide the coverage these officers and firefighters deserve while helping to address our workforce challenges and ensure our police and fire departments are fully staffed to keep the public safe," he said.

Brown sat beside Burgum as the governor signed his name to the bill on Monday. Burgum gave his pen to the uniformed officer after the ceremony.

West Fargo Police Chief Denis Otterness acknowledged lawmakers and the governor for fast-tracking the legislation.

“At the end of the day, it’s about everybody behind me here, all the police officers, firefighters that do go out every day to put their life in jeopardy to serve everybody else, and certainly Officer Brown and the struggle that his family has been through. We have been beside them the entire time,” Otterness said at the bill-signing ceremony. “Just a heartfelt thanks to everybody that really put this on the front burner and got things done.”

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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