People as young as 18 may now join certain Arkansas fire departments, including Texarkana's, because of a new law authored by the local delegation to the state legislature.
Texarkanians Rep. Carol Dalby and Sen. Jimmy Hickey sponsored Act 206, which Gov. Asa Hutchinson recently signed into law. The act lowers from 21 to 18 the minimum age for joining a fire department in Arkansas cities that opt to operate under civil service law for police and firefighters.
The change began with a request from Bill Smith, a Battalion Chief with the Texarkana, Ark., Fire Department, and was meant to expand the pool of potential recruits.
Nationwide, fewer people are choosing the fire service or law enforcement as a career, despite good pay and benefits, Smith said.
"Our hiring pool, police and fire across the nation, they're just not coming out like they used to to take the test, the entrance exam. Honestly I don't understand that, because where can you go without a college education in Texarkana and get a job making upper 30s right off the bat?
"When I started 20 years ago, there was over 100 people taking the test. Now we hover around 25," he said.
Competition with surrounding fire departments for recruits has been a concern at TAFD.
Less than 20 Arkansas cities operate fire departments under civil service law, which until now has meant those departments could not hire anyone younger than 21. Non-civil-service departments have long been able to pursue the 18-, 19- and 20-year-old recruits whom departments such as TAFD cannot hire.
TAFD may also have been losing younger recruits to departments in surrounding states.
"We've got the Texas side over here; they're hiring at 18. Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, the hiring age is 18. And it was only civil service departments in Arkansas that had the minimum hiring age of 21," he said.
The change will allow TAFD and similar departments to hire young firefighters before they settle into other trades and professions or join the military.
"What's happening is you have kids that are coming out of high school who want to be firefighters, but they can't get on because they're 18. And they go on and do something else," Dalby said.
The state-level firefighters union approves of the change and sees no downside to hiring younger recruits, said Matthew Stallings, political director of the Arkansas Professional Fire Fighters Association.
"That's already the age for the military, so if you're mature enough to carry a gun into battle, then it's reasonable to suggest that you could carry a nozzle into a house fire," he said.
Smith said a longer-term goal is to establish fire service training, such as the Exploring program affiliated with Boy Scouts of America, for local high school students.
About 120,000 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds lived in Arkansas as of July 2017, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.