Special Utah committee hearing aims to fix error in firefighter retirement benefits

May 16, 2023, 10:13 PM | Updated: May 17, 2023, 1:24 pm

Matt Hambleton, a firefighter with the Unified Fire Authority, died on April 12, 2023, after servin...

Matt Hambleton, a firefighter with the Unified Fire Authority, died on April 12, 2023, after serving for more than 20 years. (Utah Task Force 1/Facebook)

(Utah Task Force 1/Facebook)

SALT LAKE CITY — When the Utah Legislature meets for its special session Wednesday, lawmakers will hear about HB1003 — which deals with retirement benefits for the families of firefighters.

Last month, Matt Hambleton, a firefighter with the Unified Fire Authority, died. He had been a firefighter for 28 years and headed up many projects, including the heavy rescue program.

His higher-ups said he performed thousands of hours of training to crew on that and other specialty programs. He was also part of Utah Task Force 1 and went to New York after 9/11 to help with operations there.

But when he died last month, he was part of what legislators and lobbyists call a clerical error, which meant his family would only get half of his life insurance plan.

It stems back to a bill passed in 2018. At that time, legislators passed the law, including what’s called Division A and B public safety and Division A and B firefighters. The law would entitle beneficiaries of 20+ year employees, who had died not in the line of service, to 75% of the average of the highest three years of service. But for some reason, Division B firefighters were left off the bill.

At a Retirement and Independent Entities Committee hearing Tuesday, lawmakers said they had reviewed the 2018 bill and all verbiage, including the Division B firefighters. Division B public safety and firefighters don’t pay into social security during their working years. As a result, they don’t get social security paid to them during retirement.

In Utah, there are 13 fire departments that are entirely Division B workers. So, this “clerical error” could potentially affect thousands of Utah firefighters after they reach 20 years with their department.

Monica Hambleton found out about the bill and the mistake that would mean she would only get half of that 75% just days after her husband’s death. She said her husband’s coworkers quickly came to her aid.

A handful of them sat next to her Tuesday during the committee hearing, in which the bill passed unanimously. It now goes to the full House and Senate for votes.

Monica Hambleton said her late husband was “the life of the party,” and his former coworkers agree, although they said his antics were never present when they were on official business.

Monica Hambleton said the support of the firefighters saved her this last month.

“I couldn’t be standing here today without them,” she told KSL TV. “They helped me get through the funeral. They helped me get through this.”

Unified Fire Authority Fire Chief Dominic Burchett said Hambleton was a stellar firefighter and a good friend, and he is missed.

“He was a huge part of our fire department,” Burchett said. “The biggest thing he was known for is his time with heavy rescue.”

Burchett said he’s thankful Gov. Spencer Cox agreed to put this item on the agenda for Wednesday’s special session. Monica Hambleton agrees and is thankful for her late husband’s teammates that are now making sure she and her family are taken care of.

“There are no words,” she said. “His other family rallied — his firefighter family rallied for our family.”

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Special Utah committee hearing aims to fix error in firefighter retirement benefits