Fayetteville City Councilman Chalmers McDougald read an article in Up & Coming Weekly recently about retired Fayetteville Fire Chief Benny Nichols’ efforts to create a fire service internship program 15 years ago. The concept was one whereby students at E.E. Smith High School, Fayetteville Technical Community College and Fayetteville State University would pursue a career in fire science. Nichols’ idea resulted in the construction of the multi-million-dollar Fire Station 14 on Langdon Street in the heart of the African-American community. It was much more than a fire house. It contained classrooms and dormitories for student interns enrolled in the program.
With the advent of internet studies, the idea as Nichols envisioned it, never got off the ground. The program of classroom and online studies is still available to students at all Cumberland County high schools. But the hands-on elements never came to pass. According to Deputy Fayetteville Fire Chief Hieu Sifford, the program has not yet yielded an applicant who has been hired by the FFD – even though Nichols established what is now a $30,000 scholarship fund with the Cumberland Community Foundation. A year or so ago, the Langdon Street fire station was renovated into fire department headquarters, and a meeting room is still available for use as a community center.
McDougald is as disappointed as anyone that Benny Nichols unique idea never developed as he envisioned. “Now we’ve got to try something else to recruit African Americans,” said McDougald. Fewer than a dozen of Fayetteville’s 331 firefighters are black, according to Fire Chief Ben Major. The department is recruiting now, and the hope is that young black men and women will apply. Applications are only accepted during open enrollment, which is getting underway. Typically, as many as 400 people apply. Following physical agility and written tests as well as drug screening and background checks, that number is usually reduced to 150 or so, according to Major. But only 30 can be enrolled in the training academy at FTCC. Of that number, this time around only five firefighters will be hired. That’s the number of retirees leaving the force during the next three months. There are no other vacancies. “We’re always fighting a losing battle,” said Major of the numbers game.
What he characterizes as lack of interest among African Americans limits even further the likelihood of any blacks being hired this time. “We can’t get them in the door until we get them on the doorstep,” observed the chief. “We have to let people know who we are and that we want talented folks to apply,” Major added.
This is the first fiscal year in which graduates of a two-year technical school with associates degrees can earn an additional $1,500 a year over and above the starting salary of $33,280. Graduates with baccalaureate degrees earn an additional $3,000, bringing the starting wage up to more than $36,000. Major says after five years on the job a firefighter with a degree can expect to earn $42,000; after 10 years $48,000. Thanks to a new step plan, fire department employees receive guaranteed pay raises every year. And there are always opportunities for promotion. The fire chief believes a full-time recruiter, like the police department has, would greatly improve the agency’s ability to more aggressively seek out candidates from under-represented populations. Chief Major is a graduate of E.E. Smith High School and Pembroke State University. He is African American.