RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The number of people applying to the Raleigh Fire Department is the lowest it’s been in at least three years.

According to the city, 446 people applied to become a firefighter this year, compared to 795 in 2020, and 665 on 2019. Raleigh Fire Chief Herbert Griffin said the drop in interest started prior to the COVID pandemic.

“It’s not about the numbers, it’s about producing the most highly qualified candidate to serve,” said Griffin.

He added, “People are looking for gratification, they’re looking for job security and things of that nature. There are so many different things that different generations are looking for.”

President of the Raleigh Firefighters Association Andrew Davis believes low pay is a major factor, and that some applicants turn to other cities with better compensation and benefits. The starting rate for a Raleigh firefighter is $38,058 a year, plus a 3% raise after graduation.

“I’ve been with the department for eight years now and I just crossed making $17 an hour,” said Davis. “I may be biased, but I think what we do is worth more than $17 an hour.”

Davis has been advocating for firefighters to make more of a living wage and receive better PTO. To make RFD more competitive with other cities, Davis wants the Raleigh City Council to approve an education incentive in next year’s budget that would give current and future firefighters a 5% raise for having an associates degree, and a 10% raise for those who hold a bachelor’s degree.

RFD has at least 37 vacancies it needs to fill. Some have been retirements, others are resignations. Davis said some are over pay.

“We have had at least 15 resignations this calendar year,” said Davis. “Some have gone to other fire departments that pay better, that can’t be ignored.”

Griffin recognized the uptick in resignations, but added, “With the exit interviews that I read, it’s not like they’re going for more pay, they’re just changing careers.”

The North Carolina Firefighters Association believes pay is one factor for the lower applicant turnout, but adds interest in career and volunteer firefighting is down nationwide.

“That’s a true statement,” said Griffin. “The last organization I worked for, soon to be the third largest fire department [the Houston Fire Department], they actually had 138 people apply for 70+ positions. When they’re customarily used to 1,500 people applying. So that just shows you the dynamics of the career and how it’s looked at and the actual traction right now. So it’s up to leadership like myself to make sure the job offers generational rewards for everyone.”

The firefighter applicants will begin their decent month training at fire academy in April.