Fox & Hounds: If California is Burning, Why is it Turning Away Experienced Firefighters?

By Lars Trautman

Like the hydra of legend, California’s wildfires appear an inexhaustible force that simply multiplies and redoubles devastation in response to attempts to defeat it. Indeed, despite Herculean efforts, the Mendocino Complex Fire recently earned the unwelcome distinction of growing into the largest wildfire in California history, while the Carr Fire has claimed multiple lives on its way to becoming one of the most destructive fires the state has ever seen. Meanwhile, climate change virtually guarantees the beast will only get stronger.

And while presidential suggestions that firefighters don’t have enough water because it’s being dumped into the Pacific have rightly been dismissed as uninformed, there are actual points of concern about the state’s ability to continue combating these blazes. Fire officials are struggling, for example, to ensure they have enough firefighters to meet these unrelenting infernos. So why then are fire departments across California turning away experienced fire fighters?

Simply because all of the blood, sweat and tears that many of these candidates have spent protecting Californians from wildfires has been during their time as inmates.

The Golden State has enthusiastically relied on inmates to serve and protect the state as firefighters since the 1940s. The program is attractive to inmates, as it promises slightly better prison pay, good time credits, and the chance to be outside and do rewarding work.

The arrangement is mutually beneficial to the state. Instead of having to pay a starting firefighter salary, which typically runs at least $40,000 a year, the state is able to pay inmates around $2 a day and another $1 an hour during active firefighting. All told, this helps California save about $100 million a year.

Once freed, however, these same individuals are all but barred from translating their firefighting skills into a career. Some fire departments have an outright ban on anyone with a felony conviction, but most deny employment indirectly by requiring Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification. While such a requirement may seem innocuous, a 2008 law makes it unattainable for most former inmate firefighters due to mandatory prohibitions on certain criminal records, including anyone with two or more felonies. Further, the EMT certification board is unable to take mitigating factors into account in most cases, leaving little recourse after a denial.

Originally passed following the revelation of improper conduct by some EMTs, this blanket ban results in the state’s advancement of exceedingly incoherent logic and incentives. Individuals with a criminal record are deemed too dangerous and untrustworthy to become certified in lifesaving techniques, yet those same men and women are handed potentially deadly tools and sent out into the community to fight fires while serving time. It makes little sense to allow them to use chainsaws but not CPR.

Similarly, since the amount of time that has elapsed since the offense and the depth of individual rehabilitation are currently irrelevant to EMT certification, there is, quite perversely, only one way in which some fire departments would allow these individuals to serve as firefighters again: commit another crime and do so as an inmate.

There’s also reason to believe that California’s inmate firefighters are more likely to successfully reintegrate back into society. Although the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has largely refrained from keeping recidivism numbers specifically on these inmates, one report found that their recidivism rate was almost 11 percent lower than the overall prison population. This strongly suggests that given a chance to plead their case before a certification board or hiring committee, they would be particularly well positioned to show they’ve reformed and are ready to contribute in the workplace and the community.

Providing inmate firefighters access to firefighting jobs on the outside could be a boon for recruitment at the inmate fire camps as well as civilian firefighting departments. As California has reduced its inmate population, it has begun to struggle to maintain its inmate fire camps at full capacity. Being able to rebrand the experience as the first step on a future career path could help incentivize participation while also pushing back against criticism that the current model is little more than a dangerous form of indentured servitude. Likewise, hiring at civilian departments would benefit from allowing them to take advantage of an experienced group of candidates in whom the state has already invested training resources.

To its credit, Cal Fire is opening a firefighter training and certification program this fall for former inmate firefighters seeking to stay in this line of work. But with space for just 80, it is only a drop in the bucket that still fails to address many of the other hiring barriers these individuals face.

With many scientists predicting that California’s fire seasons will be longer and worse in future years, the fires blazing now are likely just a taste of what’s to come. If the state wants to rise and meet this threat, it should do more to let its inmate firefighters keep on fighting even after the shackles come off.

See the article in Fox & Hounds here.

Jonathan Haggerty