Despite a congressional blessing to receive a monthly hazardous duty pay, military firefighters, like the ones shown here training at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, last year, do not receive the $150 monthly stipend. (Staff Sgt. Austin Knox / Air Force)
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They deal in hazardous materials and are among the first at a scene to contain explosive incidents like gas leaks and fuel spills. And for that, they have been authorized by Congress to receive $150 per month in hazardous duty incentive pay.
But it’s just a paper promise since none of the armed forces firefighters currently receives it.
Although Congress approved the incentive pay in 2005, lawmakers didn’t fund it. It is up to each of the services to pay for the bonus, and to date, that hasn’t happened.
“Just to be very frank with you, fiscal budget constraints and the money issues we’ve had throughout the years have precluded it from actually being implemented,” said Chief Master Sgt. Kevin Matlock, the Air Force’s fire emergency services career field manager.
The Air Force has about 11,000 firefighters, of which 5,859 are military, he said. So if each received the monthly $150 bonus, it would cost the service around $10.54 million each year. Not small change during a time when the country was fighting wars in two countries and is now faced with budget cuts for the next 10 years.
Failure to fund the bonus may also be because the threat of danger is lower, Matlock said, thanks to better construction standards and code enforcement than in the civilian world. That leads to fewer fires, most of which are single-room blazes that are extinguished in about 15 minutes, he said.
Currently, 1,599 officers and 5,506 enlisted airmen receive hazardous duty incentive pay for career fields including pararescue, tactical air control party, aerospace maintenance and transportation, said Lt. Col Rob Romer, deputy chief of the compensation and travel policy division.
While firefighting is a dangerous profession, it is not often that firefighters have to wear the Level A Hazmat suit, which looks like a spacesuit.
”Now, if you want to talk about hazardous materials in the auspices of a fuel spill or something like that, that may be a little bit more frequent; however, it doesn’t require the Level A protection,” Matlock said. “Those instances are very rare. I’ve been in 29 years, and I’ve only been on one — ever.”
Another reason may be few firefighters are killed on the job, said Donald Warner, who retired in January after serving as the Air Force’s fire chief for 11 years.
“When the bean counters look at it, that is always a factor: How many deaths and injuries and all that kind of stuff,” Warner said.
But no matter how much protection firefighters wear, they are still exposed to hazards every time they respond to an emergency, he said.
“There’s certain things that you just can’t predict,” Warner said. “Accidents happen, and it’s not always by negligence. It’s just things happen, you know — life happens around you.
“Sometimes, despite your best efforts, a roof is gonna fall in or a wall is gonna fall or something like that and catch you by surprise and kill you or badly injure you. You can’t avoid those kind of things.”