Incarcerated firefighters are receiving help to continue their careers after their release thanks to the efforts of a non-profit started by formerly incarcerated firefighters.
The California-based organization, known as the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program, was started by Brandon Smith and Royal Ramey. They became friends while serving time at the Bautista Conservation Camp in Riverside County, according to an article by The Associated Press.
The two grew frustrated trying to navigate the barriers that stopped them from working as firefighters after being released. They decided to do something to make it easier for their peers to find a firefighting job. Their program now has a budget of $3.4 million and has trained more than 3,000 people, said the article.
“When you’re incarcerated, you have this stigma of being a public nuisance, but being a firefighter provided an opportunity for me to give back to the community and also give myself a sense of pride,” Smith said. “It was something that I wanted to continue… once I came home.”
However, Smith and Ramey found that the certifications they earned through the prison fire camps were not accepted; they had to be retrained in classes they had already taken. In addition to retraining, they faced additional barriers because of their criminal records.
Their non-profit provides the necessary training to formerly incarcerated firefighters, so they attain the proper certifications for relevant entry-level local, county, state, federal, or private firefighting jobs.
People in the program receive training in the classroom and in the field, where they do actual firefighting as well as fuel removal and controlled burning. Trainees earn $17.50 an hour and graduate with the certification needed for higher paying, full-time jobs.
Charles Fields is the vice president of program implementation at the James Irvine Foundation, which helps fund the non-profit. He told the AP, “We really need people who are trained and who can help fight these wildfires. At the same time, we have a lot of folks who are coming out of jails and prisons and who are looking for opportunities to become productive citizens in our society.”
In 2020, a new California law cleared a pathway for formerly incarcerated firefighters to have their criminal records expunged. A key service of the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program is to help participants petition the court to expunge their cases when they are released. If their petitions are approved, they can apply for jobs and get EMT certification before their parole ends.
Smith said, “Our program is here to help people… make that 180-degree transition.…To go out and truly be public servants; to go out and prove to the community that my past does not define me.”