Helping Inmate Firefighters Go From Jailhouse To Firehouse

By Jack Karp | October 27, 2023, 7:09 PM EDT ·

firefighter in the woods

Despite being trained and working as a firefighter while incarcerated in California, Anthony Pedro struggled to find work in the role after his release thanks to rules largely barring ex-offenders from receiving required certifications. So Pedro took matters into his own hands and launched the Future Fire Academy, a program designed to help others like him to get work as professional firefighters. (Courtesy of Anthony Pedro)

Anthony Pedro fell in love with firefighting while working as an inmate firefighter in California.

When he was released in 2018, however, he struggled to get a full-time job fighting fires.

"It wasn't easy. I was even homeless for a while, sleeping in my car," Pedro told Law360. "The transition was hard."

Pedro did eventually become a professional firefighter and now works for Red Hawk Tribal Fire 42 in Shingle Springs, California. But the transition from inmate to civilian firefighter can be nearly impossible for many other former prisoners trained to battle fires while behind bars.

Several states rely on inmates to fill out short-staffed firefighting crews, with most prisoners fighting wildfires while some augment municipal fire or emergency medical services. But many of those states have licensing requirements that bar certain ex-offenders from fighting fires after they're released. The stigma of being a convicted felon heightens those barriers, firefighters and attorneys say.

So Pedro and other former inmates, along with lawyers and lawmakers, are using educational programs, lawsuits and legislation to help these former prisoners overcome the barriers to become professional civilian firefighters.

"Fire doesn't judge. It's going to burn. It doesn't care who's fighting it," Pedro said. "And if there's people that are more than willing and eager to run toward fire when everyone else is running away, then why not allow them to help?"

Stigma and "Brutal" Regulations

Prisoners in at least 14 states, including California, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada, work fighting wildfires, according to a 2022 report from the American Civil Liberties Union and the University of Chicago Law School.

More than 2,500 inmates have passed through Colorado's State Wildland Inmate Fire Team, and in Georgia, inmate firefighters responded to 895 structure fires and 780 brush fires in 2021, according to those states' departments of corrections.

Prisoners make up 10%-15% of California's wildland firefighting force, according to the nonprofit Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program, or FFRP, which helps former inmates become full-time firefighters after release.

"Historically, California has placed an enormous reliance on currently incarcerated individuals to fill employment gaps in the forestry workforce," a spokesperson for FFRP said.

But despite their "extensive training and experience," those who attended prison fire camp face high barriers to getting full-time jobs fighting fires when they return home, according to the FFRP spokesperson.

In California, for instance, most fire departments require emergency medical technician certification for employment. But anyone with a felony conviction is barred from being certified as an EMT for at least a decade, and those convicted of multiple felonies are banned for life.

Those rules "are particularly brutal," said Giovanni Pesce, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, which works with formerly incarcerated firefighters who hope to become civilian firefighters.

Though Pesce has had some success getting former inmates hired to fight wildfires by California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, he said he has never seen a previously incarcerated firefighter hired by a municipal fire department.

"There's really no leeway on the part of the Emergency Medical Services folks to look at somebody holistically," Pesce said.

The credentials prisoners earn in inmate fire camps also don't transfer after release, meaning all former inmates hoping to be professional firefighters have to get re-credentialed, according to FFRP's spokesperson.

And re-earning those credentials can be prohibitively expensive for people just out of prison, Pedro pointed out.

Former inmate firefighters are also hampered by the same stigma that blocks other people who have run afoul of the law from various jobs, attorneys and firefighters say.

As a result, many of those who want to use the firefighting training they were given in prison to give back to society and move on with their lives can't do so, Pedro said.

Two of his friends who fought fires with him while incarcerated, for instance, found that no fire departments would take them, even as volunteers. Instead, one was rearrested for robbery and committed suicide in his cell. The other died of a drug overdose, according to Pedro.

"So basically they ended up going back to their old ways that ended up getting them incarcerated to begin with," Pedro said.

Smoothing the Transition

These barriers are what inspired Pedro, who served nine years for second-degree robbery, to start the Future Fire Academy, he said.

The eight-week program offers training, certifications, field work, mentorship and job placement to individuals who have had an encounter with the justice system and those from other underserved communities looking to enter the fire service.

"All the issues that I learned firsthand, I added to the academy to help folks that are justice-involved have a little easier transition," Pedro said.

Twenty-six cadets have graduated from the program so far, 21 of whom have been hired as professional firefighters, a success rate of 81%, Pedro said. Many of those cadets have found positions at the same fire company where Pedro now works and with which the academy partners.

"And they're now in leadership roles in the department," Pedro added. "It's really refreshing to watch them grow."

Pedro's Future Fire Academy is not the only effort of its kind.

The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program, started by formerly incarcerated firefighters, also provides training, networking and connections to job opportunities for ex-inmates who served in California's fire camps and now want to become civilian firefighters.

FFRP has placed more than 200 people in jobs in the forestry sector, a spokesperson told Law360.

"With the ongoing and increasing threat of California wildfires, and the lack of career support for individuals entering the workforce post-incarceration, California needs the aid of these people as much as they need FFRP's support," the spokesperson said.

Fighting Fires and Fighting in Court

Other inmate firefighters and their attorneys are turning to the courts to chip away at the barriers keeping them from becoming civilian firefighters.

Dario Gurrola fought fires while incarcerated in California and later worked as a seasonal firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service after his release.

But when his felony convictions kept him from getting the state certification most California fire departments require, Gurrola sued California Emergency Medical Services and Northern California EMS, arguinjg that the state's lifetime ban on those with multiple felony convictions being certified as EMTs violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

"It is not the most discussed constitutional right out there, but it's very longstanding as a matter of common-law tradition that people have the ability to work in an occupation of their choosing subject to only reasonable government restriction, not unlimited government restriction," said Andrew Ward, an attorney with the Institute for Justice who represented Gurrola.

California's rules aren't "reasonable," according to Ward, who pointed out that Gurrola completed multiple firefighting and emergency medical training sessions, and worked as a firefighter both inside and outside prison.

"He would go into people's homes on medical calls and then just stand off to the side and not help because the state wouldn't certify him," Ward said. "That's irrational, and it's a constitutional violation."

In the end, however, the Ninth Circuit dismissed Gurrola's suit, saying that the state's felony ban is rationally related to the fitness of EMTs.

"There are no more potentially vulnerable patients than those who are involved in the medical emergencies to which EMTs respond," the court said in June 2022 as it affirmed a lower court's dismissal of the case.

Northern California EMS did not respond to a request for comment. Ashley Williams, California's EMS Authority's deputy director of legislative and external affairs, said the court's decision "reflects the careful consideration of the legislative and regulatory processes involved."

Other legal actions have met with more success.

In August, the Moraga-Orinda, California, Fire Protection District agreed to pay $97,500 to a woman who worked as a firefighter in prison after the district rescinded a job it had offered her because of her criminal record, in violation of California's Fair Chance Act.

The settlement was one of the largest of its kind, according to the California Civil Rights Department, which mediated the dispute.

While the Moraga-Orinda Fire Protection District said in a statement that it was committed to fair hiring practices, it pointed to what it said was "a serious omission" in the Fair Chance Act.

"The law exempts law enforcement officials from its provisions; however, it does not consider the role of fire department inspectors with peace officer authority," the district said.

But attorneys like Ward insist there's a basic unfairness in state governments and local fire departments keeping people who were trained as firefighters in prison from using that training once they're out.

"We know California thinks these people are fit to be firefighters because it uses them as firefighters while they are in prison," Ward said.

New Laws Help, But Barriers Remain

Some legislators are looking to change the laws that make it difficult for former inmate firefighters to battle blazes after prison.

California's A.B. 2147, which went into effect in 2021, allows defendants who successfully participate in a state or county firefighting program to petition a court to expunge their criminal record so they can be considered for EMT certification.

"Despite their low-level risk status, dedication and willingness to put themselves in harm's way, many who participate in these programs struggle to find permanent and stable employment once released," Assembly Member Eloise Reyes, D-San Bernardino, the bill's author, said in a statement when the law was signed.

Colorado's governor signed a similarly intentioned law, also in 2021. S.B. 21-012 encourages the state's Division of Fire Prevention and Control to hire former inmate firefighters, although it doesn't require the agency to make those hires.

The law does require the division to increase awareness among inmates of firefighting career opportunities, establish a peer mentor program and review how prisoner firefighting crews are used.

Not everyone is supportive of these legislative efforts, however. Several law enforcement organizations, for example, opposed California's law when it was being considered.

"Following the passage of recent decriminalization laws … California's state prison population generally no longer contains low level, low risk offenders. These inmates are the worst of the worst — high risk offenders who have committed very serious crimes," Brian R. Marvel, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, which opposed A.B. 2147, told Law360 in a statement.

"To allow for a judge's dismissal of their conviction simply because they participated in a Conservation Corps program, for which they already received a reward in the form of conduct credits, would be a slap in the face to their victims," Marvel said.

These laws have had only limited success helping inmate firefighters transition to full-time firefighting jobs, according to attorneys.

California's law, for instance, is conviction-specific, meaning that inmate firefighters can only clear from their record the conviction for which they participated in fire camp, Pesce said. That means that if a defendant completes fire camp under one conviction but still has prior convictions for previous crimes for which the individual didn't attend fire camp, they're still barred from being certified as an EMT.

"I'm sure it has helped some individuals. But the process by and large is not super easy or intuitive," Pesce said. "So it requires some kind of legal representation."

The cost of that legal representation is another barrier ex-inmate firefighters face, according to Pedro. Even with the discounted legal services his Future Fire Academy offers cadets, it still costs $1,500 for cadets to get their record expunged.

"Fifteen hundred dollars when you're paroled from prison is kind of a lot of money," Pedro said.

And judges still have discretion on a case-by-case basis to deny a defendant's petition for expungement, something they often do, according to Pedro.

FFRP has helped file 64 petitions under A.B. 2147, but only 43 of them have been granted, an FFRP spokesperson said.

"The bill is making an impact," Pedro said. "But it's still definitely a barrier."

And as climate change leads to an increase in fires, it's more important than ever to reduce those barriers so fire departments have the necessary staffing and former inmates can use their training to give back to society, he added.

"The fire service nationally is hurting for workforce. And who's willing to work? I think it's the justice-involved folks," Pedro said. "It's just a matter of making it a little easier for them, and that's what we're trying to do."

--Editing by Jill Coffey.

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