A recent change in Arkansas law could benefit the Pine Bluff Fire and Emergency Services Department by lowering the age at which firefighters can be hired.

During a meeting of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee Wednesday, Chief Shauwn Howell said the law now allows cities to hire firefighters at age 18. The minimum age was previously 21. Howell said his department’s policy has not yet changed to reflect the new law.

Howell said that hiring firefighters at 18 would benefit the department’s numbers, but he questioned whether an 18-year-old would have the maturity to handle some of the day-to-day activities, particularly lifesaving efforts.

“I think they would need a longer period of training to make sure they are ready,” he said.

The idea of creating a Junior Fire Academy, which would allow high school students to gain first-hand experience in firefighting activities, could be a way to bridge the gap. Council member Win Trafford, the chairman of the committee, suggested Howell contact not only the local high schools but Southeast Arkansas College.

“Dr. (Steven) Bloomberg is doing all kinds of things at SEARK, and he may be able to implement something that would help the fire department,” Trafford said.

Howell said the department currently has 14 vacancies and is conducting recruiting efforts in a number of ways, including on social media and word of mouth. He said that since the department can now test applicants immediately, instead of waiting to conduct one or two big tests annually, the hiring process can move quicker.

Questioned by Council member Ivan Whitfield, Howell said that less than 50 percent of the department’s members currently live inside the city limits.

The question came up after Police Chief Kelvin Sergeant introduced six newly-hired police officers who began work Monday. Of the six, half were born and raised in Pine Bluff.

“They’re starting their training and will go to the (Arkansas Law Enforcement Training) Academy in September,” Howell said. “That means that around this time next year they will be ready for solo patrol.”

Sergeant said the six new officers bring the department’s total to 130, 11 short of full strength.

On another subject, Sergeant said that City Grant Writer Tiffany Copeland had been working on a grant for body cameras and that Tyson had awarded the department a grant of $13,529.

Sergeant said the department was also working with the group planning Forward Fest, which is scheduled for June 22. He said the group has asked for 22 officers to help provide security, and they will pay those officers to work.

He said the group has also asked for an additional eight officers to be paid by the city, but Sergeant said he had not agreed to that because it would mean paying those officers overtime.

“I’m not going to mess up our regular staffing,” he said.

Questioned about how much it would cost, Sergeant said if six officers and two sergeants were involved, the total would be $1,830, while if the group included six officers, one sergeant and one lieutenant, the total would be $1,859.

Whitfield also asked about utility bills for the former fire station at 30th Avenue and Ash Street that police will be using as a substation for the Violent Crimes Unit.

Sergeant said when the fire department was in the building 24 hours a day, seven days a week, utilities cost about $5,000 annually. With the Police Department using the building eight to 10 hours daily, he said the costs would be around $4,500.

He also said that while the department received information that led to an arrest in a recent homicide, the person who provided the information was not qualified for a reward. No one has come forward with information on any of the other unsolved case, he said.