A win for wildland firefighters: Families of 2 fallen Hotshots to receive benefits
PRESCOTT - One question appeared to get an especially affirmative response from the veteran wildland firefighters who testified in the three-day hearing on whether the widows of two fallen Granite Mountain Hotshots should receive survivor benefits.
Over and over, the attorneys on both sides asked the question: Were the seasonal Hotshots on the Granite Mountain crew regularly assigned to "hazardous duty"?
In a vote Friday afternoon, the local fire retirement board also answered the question with an unqualified yes.
The Prescott Board of the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System (PSPRS) voted unanimously that the widows and children of fallen Hotshots Sean Misner and William Warneke were entitled to survivor benefits.
In their explanations before the vote, the board members said they believed that Misner and Warneke had satisfied the qualifications for enrollment in the PSPRS, including the crucial question on regular hazardous duty.
"They fought on five fires while they were with us," board member Ray Hardyman said. "That's hazardous duty, as far as I'm concerned."
As it became apparent Friday afternoon that a majority of the board members supported their claim, the two widows - Roxanne Warneke and Amanda Misner - hugged, and were joined in the area behind the attorneys' table by fellow Hotshot widow Juliann Ashcraft, who had earlier won a similar decision from the board.
"Finally, the wildland firefighters get recognized for what they do," Roxanne Warneke said after the hearing. "This is a win for wildland firefighters."
Warneke and fellow claimant Amanda Misner also emphasized that the decision was a win for the two small children who were born after the June 30, 2013, wildfire that killed their husbands and 17 others on the Granite Mountain crew.
Both women were pregnant at the time of the Yarnell Hill wildfire, and went on to have their babies in the months after the tragedy. The survivor-benefit claims they filed were on behalf of themselves and their children.
The two women said this week's decision would help to ease their minds about their children's futures. "It's one less worry," Warneke said.
Although the children will never know their fathers, Amanda Misner said, "They are beautiful pieces of our husbands that we'll always have."
"They were worth the fight," Warneke added.
Along with the "hazardous duty" question, much of the hearing focused on several basic PSPRS eligibility criteria: a requirement for at least six months of work; a requirement that the employee was a "municipal firefighter"; and a requirement for full-time work.
On the "hazardous duty" issue, the City of Prescott had maintained that the Hotshots' work consisted of a variety of tasks, not all of which were hazardous.
Friday morning, city Human Resources Analyst Melissa Fousek testified that she believed neither Warneke nor Misner were eligible for PSPRS.
Patrick McGroder, attorney for Misner and Warneke, asked Fousek repeatedly whether she had "any personal, any foundational information" to back up her claim that the Hotshots were not regularly assigned to hazardous duty.
Even though the Hotshots' duty was hazardous while they were fighting a fire, Fousek said, they were not regularly assigned to hazardous duty. Their payroll was coded differently for the various duties, she said.
The city also claimed that the seasonal Hotshots were not "municipal firefighters" - another point that McGroder disputed, noting that the city had previously enrolled 17 permanent Hotshots in the PSPRS, and had deemed them municipal firefighters.
City Attorney Jon Paladini said in his closing arguments that the case centered on "a question of law and a question of interpretation. Then you can look at the facts."
For instance, he maintained that the state statute sets out a specific definition for "hazardous duty," which he said is "not what Webster's Dictionary" would define as hazardous.
And on the issue of whether Misner and Warneke had worked at least six months, McGroder argued that the city had "engaged" them to work until the end of the fire season in October 2013, even though the two men died before reaching that point.
Paladini responded that the seven-month work schedule might have been Hotshot Superintendent Eric Marsh's "expectation" for the seasonal Hotshots, but added, "the city didn't have the same expectation."
Mayor Marlin Kuykendall, who serves as the chairman of the local fire board, earlier voted against the Andrew Ashcraft survivor retirement benefit, saying at the time that he needed more time to consider the evidence.
On the Misner and Warneke claim, Kuykendall voted for benefits, and said afterward: "We're glad to get this behind us so everyone can start moving forward."
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