Updated: Oct 18, 2021
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), inmate firefighters have been battling dangerous fires since World War II. In 1915, the CDCR set up road camps to provide able-bodied inmates a chance to work on projects throughout the state.
In the 1940s, when much of the workforce was exhausted because of the war, the department provided a workforce. They set up temporary camps to increase the number of firefighters in California and, since then, the state has relied on inmate firefighters as primary “hand crews.”
In 2015, approximately 40% of the firefighters were incarcerated, compared to 27% in the late 1990s. Reports show that more than 3,100 men and women, including juvenile offenders, are voluntarily serving on the force. On average, they work a collective 10 million hours annually, including responding to fires and other emergencies and handling community service projects such as park maintenance, reforestation, and fire and flood protection.
Inmates receive 64 hours of training before being dispatched. While the firefighters usually work 5 days a week, they are on-call 24/7. Despite the long hours, inmates firefighters are paid $2.90 and $5.12 per day and receive an additional one dollar per hour during active emergencies for their potential life-threatening efforts. According to an analysis of data from the State’s Controller’s Office, the firefighters they work alongside earn an average of $91,000 to $122,000 a year.
Bill Sessa, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, described the dangers inmate firefighters face. “The inmates ‘are not the ones up in the helicopters’ dumping fire retardant, they’re in the thick of it, cutting fire lines and helping to save large areas of California,” she said.
Despite their hard work, after the inmates are released, they are denied the licenses needed to become professional firefighters. In California alone, all 27 counties require every firefighter to be a licensed emergency medical technician (EMT). According to the California Legislation Information, almost anyone with a criminal record cannot receive this credential.
Fortunately, new legislation is being put into action that would make it easier for inmates to enter the workforce after being released. In 2018, the California Department of Forestry and Fire (CAL-FIRE) signed off a bill to certify former prison firefighters as emergency medical responders. This certification would be accepted by CAL-FIRE in place of an EMT license, allowing for inmate firefighters to apply for state professional firefighters jobs.
Additionally, a bill was proposed earlier this year by California Assemblywoman Eloise Gómez Reyes (D) that would make it easier for inmate firefighters to have their records expunged. The bill was passed on Aug 30, 2020, and officially signed on Sept 1, 2020.
Furthermore, on September 11, 2020, California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, signed legislation that would create a pathway for inmate firefighters to become professionals after their release. The bill would allow inmates to seek employment as state firefighters, without the barrier of a criminal record.
Through Teen Lenses: What’s your opinion on the new legislation that will allow inmate firefighters to become professional after their release?
“I think the legislation that was recently passed was really needed and I’m glad that the officials finally took charge. It’s really unfair for these firefighters to be risking their lives without the proper compensation and at least this way, California is rewarding these firefighters for their hard work.” Anonymous at Oakton High School, Oakton, VA
“This bill was super important for the firefighters and it’s important that it passed. It would have been ideal if it was put into action earlier but at least the inmate firefighters are being recognized and appreciated. I think that the work shouldn’t stop here though. The state of California needs to sign legislation that will raise the hourly pay for the firefighters, especially when they’re in life-threatening situations.” Aayush Nakshathram, 15, Sophomore at Chantilly High School, Chantilly, VA
“When I first heard about it, I found it really shocking that inmate firefighters were putting themselves in so much danger and still not getting properly paid for their work. I’m glad to hear about the bill because it provides the firefighters some reward, as opposed to not being qualified for professional firefighter positions. It lets them build their careers and lives without having lots of restrictions and trouble, which I think is really important.” Sumanth Kalluru, 15, Sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Ashburn, VA