On Friday, as more than 1,300 incarcerated firefighters continued to battle record-setting blazes across California amid the worst fire season on record, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill that will cut a path for people who put out fires alongside professional firefighters while in state or county custody to be able to join fire departments once they return home.
California’s Conservation Camp Program saves the state approximately $100 million each year, since the CA’s approximately 2,600 incarcerated firefighters (a number recently reduced by COVID-19 releases) on 219 crews are paid approximately $2 a day, and another $1 when they’re fighting fires.
Despite doing dangerous, and sometimes deadly, work on the front lines of fire crews, imprisoned firefighters are paid a fraction of what traditionally employed firefighters make. Even worse, after release, these individuals are generally blocked from ever making a living wage as firefighter due to licensing barriers, despite their training and on-the-job experience.
“Rehabilitation without strategies to ensure the formerly incarcerated have a career is a pathway to recidivism,” said Assemblymember Eloise Gomez Reyes, the bill’s author. “We must get serious about providing pathways for those that show the determination to turn their lives around.”
Licensing restrictions make it difficult for people with felony convictions to become certified firefighters and EMTs. Yet fire departments are severely and chronically understaffed, leaving firefighters overworked.
Still, over the last few years, the state legislature has been unable to pass legislation that would outright ban agencies from denying firefighting work to people with felony convictions. The newly signed legislation doesn’t go quite so far.
Under AB 2147, people who served as firefighters while incarcerated will be able to petition the court to expunge their records and waive parole time, both of which will break down barriers to firefighting jobs for individuals who are otherwise qualified to fight fires professionally (and who are more experienced than new fire department recruits).
“This legislation rights a historic wrong and recognizes the sacrifice of thousands of incarcerated people who have helped battle wildfires in our state,” said Governor Newsom, thanking lawmakers for bringing the bill to his desk for final approval.
Newsom signed the bill at the site of the North Complex Fire, which had killed at least 10 people, with 16 more missing as of September 11.
AB 2147 faced opposition from the California District Attorneys Association, which argued that, criminal justice reforms like realignment and Proposition 47 have changed the makeup of the state fire camp program, which used to only allow “low-risk” people convicted of low-level crimes to participate. Expungement for formerly incarcerated firefighters should, according to the prosecutors, be reserved for people who served jail sentences, not those who were in prison. “Prison inmates who participate in conservation camp or fire camp already receive incentives and benefits such as increased conduct credits.”
Image via the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
The fly in-the-ointment-here is that these inmate firefighters are trained to fight wildfires and little else; 80% of a professional firefighter’s calls are for medical reasons: somebody’s been stabbed or shot; a restaurant patron has a heart attack or other medical emergency; there are injured to tend to in the auto accident out on the freeway.
So the question becomes: do we really want a Felon responding when grandma falls down the stairs at home?