Fighting the flames; Austin Fire Department facing recruitment struggle

Published 10:00 am Monday, March 20, 2017

The Austin Fire Department is finding it difficult to recruit new members, and it’s looking to national and local resources for help.

“We just aren’t getting the number of applicants we need,” Austin Fire Chief James McCoy said.

The department is in need of three to six more firefighters as it faces pending retirements, and others are out on medical leave. That has McCoy researching ways to increase recruitment.

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“I’m doing research to see how we can reach out and get those candidates,” McCoy said. “My job is to find resources and find out the successes that other departments are having.”

The fire department responded to 954 calls for assistance last year, and fires in Austin last year caused over $470,000 in damage, according to data McCoy presented recently to the Austin City Council.

An Austin firefighter pulls hose up to the roof while fighting a house fire early in 2016 at 803 Third Ave. NE.

An Austin firefighter pulls hose up to the roof while fighting a house fire early in 2016 at 803 Third Ave. NE.

The AFD had a staff of 10 full-time firefighters, 21 part-timers and three training firefighters in 2016. But three part-time firefighters resigned. This year, the AFD has 10 full-time, 21 part-time firefighters and three part-timers in training. However, three part-timers are on medical leave, so only 18 are currently available.

Ideally, McCoy would have 24 to 27 part-time firefighters on the force.

McCoy says there are several reasons as to why recruitment has been so difficult.

“Time is a major factor,” he said, referencing his part-time firefighters, many of whom work for the fire department in addition to their regular employment.

Last year, the department had over 1,500 hours of cumulative training.

“With the training and level of commitment involved, a lot of people don’t have time nowadays,” McCoy said.

Another issue is the way in which people look for jobs. “Social media is big today,” said McCoy. “It used to be that people would look at the city website for the job notice. But, it’s important for us to get our job announcement out early on social media and let people know that we are taking applications year-round and that we will get back to them when the recruiting and training process starts.”

McCoy says that, while the AFD staff is sufficient for current operations, the shortage of firefighters is felt most severely in the summer months.

“When some of our firefighters are on summer vacation, it only leaves us with X number of personnel to fight a fire, so we have to call neighboring departments for help,” McCoy said.

In order to join the AFD, applicants must pass a physical agility test, a written examination and an oral examination. A new recruit in training receives $9.50 an hour and $14 an hour once training is complete. Austin firefighters are also eligible for a pension plan.

For more information about recruitment, call 507-433-3405 or visit