Baton Rouge firefighter Sheffrey Hines knew early on what he wanted to be when he grew up.
As a child, Hines, 38, said he was infatuated with fire and becoming a firefighter was his dream.
“I always knew what I wanted to do,” he said. “It was very clear to me.”
People like Hines, who became a Baton Rouge firefighter three years ago, are less common than a decade ago, said Robert Combs, a spokesman with the Fire Department.
During the past six to eight years, the number of people applying to become a city-parish firefighter has decreased by at least 30 percent, Combs said.
An average of about 600 people used to apply every 18 months for a spot in the department’s training academy, Combs said. During the past few years, the average number of applicants has dwindled to about 200, he said. In January, 239 people applied.
Of those applicants, only 50 passed a series of written and physical tests required to be eligible for admittance into the department’s Aug. 13 training academy, Combs said. Administrators selected 35 people to attend.
Recruitment efforts already are under way for an academy administrators hope to hold next year, Combs said. The deadline to apply with the city-parish Human Resources Department is Aug. 9.
“A hefty applicant pool is necessary to graduate the highest quality of firefighters,” Combs said. “That process is getting harder and harder with fewer people applying.”
Chad Major, chief of research with the Fire Department and president of the Professional Firefighter Association of Louisiana, said fire departments across the state are facing recruitment challenges.
Some of the reasons include the physically demanding nature of the job, increased training requirements, pay restrictions and an overall shift in work ethic, Major said.
“I call it the generation factor,” he said. “Today’s 19-year-old is like a 13-year-old in my day in terms of maturity and willingness to work.”
Combs said several young people he’s encountered are “looking to make the easy money of the electronic age,” and are not interested in “such a physically demanding career.”
In addition, Combs said, the requirements to become a firefighter have increased since the job calls for firefighters to also be first responders in medical emergencies.
“The increased requirements might be scaring some people off,” he said. “People might not apply because they think they aren’t going to make it.”
Carrl Howard, a district chief with the city-parish’s Fire Department, said he wasn’t convinced he was cut out to be a firefighter when he joined the department 28 years ago, but he took the job because he had recently been laid off and needed work, which was hard to find during the early ’80s recession.
It took awhile, Howard, 56, said, but eventually he was hooked on fighting fires. There came a time, he said, when “it was no longer about the money; it was about the job.”
And the job, Howard said, is about making a difference in people’s lives. It’s about saving a woman from her burning home, rescuing a baby from a locked vehicle and checking on an elderly person confined to his home, he said.
Being a firefighter is also about camaraderie, Howard said.
“It’s like serving in the military,” he said. “There is a common bond among us — we are friends for life.”
As for the money firefighters make, Howard said, “it’s not that bad.”
“We all sacrificed something to get here,” he said. “But, I’ve always enjoyed it and I’ve always (financially) made it.”
Hines agreed and said “there is an opportunity to have a real good career” as a firefighter. He admitted, however, that many entry level firefighters have second jobs.
Several firefighters, he said, are electricians, painters and construction workers. Hines is a barber.
The money firefighters make on the side supplements their base salary, which comes from city-parish and state funds and ranges from $29,266 to $48,920, according to information provided by Combs and Fire Department spokesman Curt Monte.
Entry level firefighters make $29,266 and are paid while attending the academy, Combs said. After their first year on the job, their pay increases to $36,000 a year, he said.
From that point on, firefighters receive an annual 3 percent raise up to $42,920 a year, Monte said. Firefighters also get $500 a month from the state in hazardous duty pay, bringing the maximum amount a city-parish firefighter can earn to $48,920, he said.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary of firefighters in 2010 was $47,730. The median salary reported was $45,250 and the majority of firefighters nationwide earned between $31,990 and $59,000.
Shane Stillman, president of the Baton Rouge Firefighters Association, Local 557, said Baton Rouge’s firefighter pay is in line with the Southern average, but a handful of other jurisdictions in the state pay more, persuading some local firefighters to move, he said.
“Better paying jobs is a factor that is contributing to our decreased applicant pool,” Stillman said. “I know people who have left for that very reason.”
There’s also a fear that the firefighting profession is unstable since many departments nationwide have had to lay firefighters off due to decreased municipal revenues, Stillman said. That trend has not caught on in Baton Rouge, which has continued to add emergency personnel rather than lay them off, he said.
“We’ve been fortunate,” Stillman added.
Despite some layoffs in the industry, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has said the number of firefighter jobs are expected to grow by 19 percent from 2008 to 2018.
Combs said the job of a firefighter will never be obsolete because it can’t be automated. His department will continue to actively recruit applicants and strive for large applicant pools.
People wishing to apply for a firefighter position with the Fire Department must be between 18 and 35 and have a high school degree or a GED.