Firefighters usually work two or three straight 24-hour day shifts, followed by three or four days off. They eat and sleep at the firehouse.
It is usual in firehouses to operate a common “mess” because of the long shifts and the requirement that firefighters remain in the station unless called away on official business. Under this common mess arrangement firefighters will contribute to a fund from which the food for their meals is purchased. For example each member of the shift will contribute $15.00 or $20.00 per 24-hour day to the fund to cover the cost of three meals.
If the contribution to the fund is required by an official rule or regulation and is a condition of employment then it is deductible as an “employee business expense”, initially reported on Form 2106 and carried over to Schedule A as a “miscellaneous” deduction. If the contributions are voluntary they are not deductible.
Of course as with any deduction for “business” meals, only 50% of the actual contributions are deductible.
In Sibla vs Commissioner from 1977 it states “Where a fire department requires its firefighter-employees to make payments into a common meal fund a s a condition of employment, such expenses are ordinary and necessary business expenses under Section 162(a)”. In T.C. Summary Opinion 2004-63 the court upheld that “if the firefighters’ payments into a common meal fund are voluntary (not a condition of employment), the expenses constitute personal expenses and are not deductible”.
To calculate the deduction for the year you need to know the unique shift schedule of the particular fire department - is it 2-on 3-off, or 2-on 4 off, or 3-on 4 off – and factor in vacation days and holidays to determine the actual number of 24-hour days by which to multiply the daily fund contribution. Different levels of rank may have different shift schedules.
As I said, the meal expense of firefighters is a “miscellaneous” deduction and subject to the 2% of AGI exclusion. However when you add the meal amount to the other deductions available to firefighters – union dues, uniform cost and maintenance (the municipality will usually give their firefighters a flat annual “uniform allowance” that is included in taxable W-2 wages), equipment and supplies, continuing education (including classes to prepare for the captain’s exam) and travel thereto, etc – there is generally enough to exceed, if perhaps slightly, the 2% exclusion, which could “free up” other tax preparation and investment expenses.
If you are a firefighter who participates in a common mess fund, and your department does not specifically require in an official rule that members contribute to such a fund as a condition of employment, talk to your union and see what can be done to have the department make the contribution to the common mess fund an official requirement so you can claim a tax deduction for the contributions.