COVID-19 hazard pay should be allocated to bigger fire service issues

We don’t need short-term gratification; we need long-term attention focused on equipment and structure

Considering the significant social media discussion generated by the treasury secretary’s initial remarks about hazard pay for first responders, we put it to a vote: Should first responders receive hazard pay during the COVID-19 pandemic? The results: 66% answered yes and 30% answered no.

There are several local governments already providing hazard pay and stipends for first responders. See the list here.

Follow FireRescue1 for the latest news about hazard pay, like the proposed Heroes Fund, which would increase pay for first responders and other essential employees by $13 per hour.

Comments from Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin last week generated significant debate and discussion about hazard pay being include in the next round of federal stimulus funding.

COVID-19 has certainly challenged our response systems, the psyche of our responders and the relationships with our partners. The opinions are strong on both sides of the issue.

It’s easy to be attracted to the carrot – more money – being dangled before us.
It’s easy to be attracted to the carrot – more money – being dangled before us. (Photo/Getty Images)

It’s easy to be attracted to the carrot – more money – being dangled before us. However, I believe that we should be pushing for long-term sustainable financial benefits and advances in equipment and structure instead of feeding the frenzy of a 90-day fix.

Our structural systems and coordination efforts need long-term solutions for problems we have been experiencing for years – not a quick fix for the past couple of months. These are our real issues that hazard pay will do nothing to fix.

We see the struggle between health and emergency management at the federal, state and local level. Let’s fix THAT. We see supply stuck in cabinets for years, only to have dry-rot straps when we needed them 3 weeks ago. Let’s fix THAT. We see hospitals and health departments fighting over information, hiding behind HIPAA, and leaving responders hanging out to dry – though the Ryan White Act was just amended to cover THIS virus; the next new disease we’ll be having the same battle. Let’s fix THAT.

Short-term or one-time payments to firefighters or medical personal may help individually but does nothing for the greater impact on the fire service. Are you going to ask for your fix when the next disaster hits?

A Congressmen said last week: “These nurses, these doctors, healthcare workers, they're risking their lives. I'm sure when they walk to work or take the subway to work, they're wondering, will I catch this virus? But they're like the firefighters and police officers and construction workers were heroes of 9/11; these are our heroes today. And they should get hazard pay.”

Newsflash Congress-folks, and this is no hyperbole: We risk our lives EVERY time we go out the door. We don’t need short-term gratification; we need long-term attention.

Isn’t “hazard” what we signed on for when we joined the fire or EMS service? Wasn’t “hazard” what our firefighters faced on 9/11? Weren’t the SARS and MRSA outbreaks “hazards”? We face hazards like COVID-19 and other unknowns every time we go out the door, every day, of every year.

Let’s look at permanent tax breaks for paid and volunteer responders, unified recruitment and retention standardization, and other potential financial incentives for people to not only join as volunteers but also to attract and keep the paid employees we need. Let’s get our services solidified under one federal leadership instead of the divide and conquer happening now in FEMA, Transportation and the Interior. Let’s consider paying off a certain amount of paramedic, EMT or healthcare provider student (industry-specific) loans?

Everybody making $75,000 or less was just approved a $1,200 stimulus check. Do firefighters really need hazard pay on top of that? I mean REALLY NEED it? Maybe there are individual circumstances where the answer is yes, but my guess is the answer is more often no than yes.

We need this next stimulus money to support a sustainable supply chain that keeps up with expirations and new technology, to support our military reservists who are being called up to help us, and to support the greater good within our service – not to line our pockets with extra lunch money.

Thank you to Congress and Mnuchin for the thought, but hazard is what this firefighter signed on for 39 years ago.

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