AUSTIN (KXAN) — Nearly 2,000 fewer people applied for the 2023 Austin Fire Department recruitment process than the previous one in 2021, the chief of the Austin Firefighters Association says. The application process was open from March 15-29.

“We’re seeing a tremendous drop in interest in the fire department right now,” Association Chief Bob Nicks said.

Roughly 1,370 applications were received during the recruitment period this March, Assistant Chief Richard Davis, who oversees our recruiting division at AFD, told KXAN. That number matched what Nicks provided us.

In 2021, which Nicks said was the last time AFD opened up its application portal, 3,270 candidates applied, he said. That number was already down from years prior.

“Usually we would have closer to 4,000,” Nicks said.

AFD did not provide application numbers for previous years, but KXAN filed a public information request to access that data.

“I can tell you that submitted applications were less than expected which seems to be the trend throughout the state,” Davis wrote in a statement.

The Texas State Association of Firefighters told KXAN departments are having difficulty fully staffing and recruiting across the state, but also said the reason for that varies city to city. AFD is not a member of the TSAFF.

“When you do not have a big pool of people to pick from you’re not going to get your best candidates,” Nicks said. “I heard somebody say recently from the city that, ‘well as long as we’ve got 40, we need to hire 40 cadets, we’re good.’ That’s absolutely short sighted.”

Nicks points to Austin’s cost of living compared to wages for firefighters as a reason for the dip in interest. AFD is in the middle of arbitration with the City of Austin over pay right now.

Nicks says they’re now competing with smaller Texas fire departments who used to be volunteer operated, but have professionalized.

“And along with that, they have an evolving pay scale that continues to rise where ours continues to lose steam compared to cost of living,” Nicks said.

The latest numbers and next steps are likely to be brought before the public safety committee.

“I fully expect the public safety committee of the city council to briefed on the status of the hiring process for AFD,” Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, vice chair of that committee, confirmed. “We’re in an exciting time and getting new recruits is the best way to fulfill our public safety needs.”

Kelly is also working towards adding new ladder trucks to AFD’s fleet. Her proposal is expected to be taken up during next week’s council meeting.

“By adding more aerial fire trucks and staffing them properly, we can significantly enhance our community’s safety and reduce the risk of devastating fires. This investment will also help our fire department respond more quickly and effectively to emergency situations, which could save lives and prevent property damage,” Kelly wrote on the council message board earlier this month.