After a five-year hiring freeze — and loud warnings from union officials that the shrinking number of firefighters is threatening public safety — the New Orleans Fire Department said Friday that it has begun accepting applications for new recruits.
The department’s brief statement did not specify the number of jobs available, and the city did not immediately respond to questions seeking more information. But during the city’s budgeting process last year, Fire Superintendent Tim McConnell said a proposed $97.9 million Fire Department budget would support up to 40 new firefighters in 2015.
The City Council subsequently adopted a $96 million budget.
Whatever the number, any new recruits would be a boon for a department that last welcomed 38 new firefighters in 2010. The city now has about 600 firefighters, fire apparatus operators, fire captains and deputy chiefs, down from 824 before Hurricane Katrina.
News of more personnel was welcome to New Orleans Firefighters Association President Nick Felton, whose organization has long sparred with the city over back pay, pension fund payments and upkeep of the department’s equipment.
But Felton said even 40 new firefighters might not stem the department’s bleeding.
He has insisted for years that the city needs to make sure there are at least four firefighters on every engine that heads to a fire — two to get the water flowing and two more to head inside a burning structure.
“Officially, we need new firefighters. No doubt about that. But I question their methodology,” Felton said, implying that City Hall may be low-balling how many recruits are necessary.
Though McConnell originally proposed two recruit classes, Felton said three or four would be better because up to 30 firefighters retire a year, and another 10 or 12 leave because of better job opportunities elsewhere.
An entry-level New Orleans firefighter, classified as a Firefighter I, makes about $32,000 annually, according to the city’s job portal website. After one year of service and a certification, they receive $6,000 in supplemental pay. They also gain more pay boosts over time.
Felton argues that’s not competitive. In Austin, Texas — which recruited last year, Felton said — base firefighter pay starts at $50,922.
In a letter to the editor published Tuesday on nola.com, McConnell said nearly 2,000 people are on a waiting list to work for his department. He said the department has hired nearly 300 firefighters since 2005.
He also said the union was “spreading falsehoods” as part of a smear campaign against the department.
Anyone interested in working for the Fire Department may visit joinnofd.org or call its Office of Community Relations at (504) 658-4713.
Applicants must be at least 18 and have a high school diploma or GED degree. “Arrests and convictions for felonies or numerous misdemeanors are disqualifying,” the city said.
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.