Since the fall of 2018, a unique joint venture between Cal Fire, the California Conservation Corps (CCC), and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has been exclusively training formerly incarcerated people to become firefighters.
These returned citizens receive training for 18 months at the Ventura Training Center, similar to what they would receive from any other formal firefighting academy, according to an article in the Ventura County Star.
“This is one of the only programs in the world like this,” said Jerry Brant, Cal Fire Battalion Chief and facility supervisor.
The cadets are trained in hazardous material spills, structural fire and rescue, and
wildland brushfire fighting as well as first aid. They are also offered a chance to earn their high school diplomas and receive assistance in setting personal life goals.
Brant said over one hundred men have completed the course and are now gainfully employed as professional firefighters. Most of these formerly incarcerated new firefighters have been hired by Cal Fire itself.
The facility trains up to 80 participants at a time. Each trainee receives room and board as well as a monthly stipend. The program is only open to people formerly incarcerated in California’s prisons who were not convicted of arson, sex crimes, or prison escapes.
Since the first cohort’s graduation in May of 2020, up to 31 cadets have completed training every few months. In the just job training.
“By me actually having people there that believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself… it supported me, it woke something up in me,” said Javon Wright to the Ventura County Star. Wright is a trainee who spent almost nine years in prison.
Such success stories are still overshadowed by a competitive job market for firefighters, where the formerly incarcerated have faced discrimination over their criminal records when applying for the coveted jobs.
New hope for equal consideration was given through the passage of Assembly Bill 2147 in 2020. The new law allows such firefighters to petition to have their criminal records expunged.
So far, nearly 20 graduates from the Ventura Training Center have successfully completed this process, says Liz Fay, the program coordinator for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition at the facility.
Given the program’s success, a second training facility was proposed in 2021, but Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed the bill allocating funds for it in January of this year.
A new a law on the horizon, Senate Bill 1062, may also help the job prospects for trainees by providing funds to Cal Fire to hire 1,000 additional firefighters. SB 1062 has passed the California senate and is waiting on approval from the state assembly.