Ex-felons on the fire line in California

The huge firestorms
up and down the West Coast last summer were impossible to miss as they inflicted
injuries, deaths, and massive property losses. Another glaringly obvious fact was
that our nation’s demand for firefighters vastly exceeds its supply. In
California in particular, this challenge highlighted how dependent the state is
on convicted felons to provide manpower for fighting its increasingly frequent

Inmate firefighters have been a fact of California life since the World War II era. Until recently, however, prisoners who trained and served as firefighters were ineligible for the same jobs they did behind bars after release because most California counties require firefighters to also have EMT certifications, which are often denied to those with criminal records. Last September, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill that would expunge low-level felony convictions for some former inmates, allowing them to take full-time jobs as firefighters.

Firefighters put out a fire on a power pole during the wind driven Bond Fire wildfire near Lake Irvine in Orange County, California, U.S., December 3, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Thus far, the legislation appears to be working as intended. The San Bernardino County Fire Department recently moved forward with a six-month pilot program whereby released inmates in good standing can take jobs beating controlling fires in the Golden State. The program has so far hired nine inmates, with another six currently undergoing background checks. The long-term goal is to develop a new 20-person crew.

This is an unmistakably good step for a number of reasons. First, California’s fire seasons will not be getting any easier in the short or long term. The state also faces a chronic firefighter shortage that was exacerbated during the 2020 season when prisoners were released early to help reduce COVID-19 infections. There simply weren’t enough firefighters left behind bars to fill these roles, while those on early release from prison with firefighting experience weren’t eligible to help out. Moreover, in normal times, states share firefighters, meaning it isn’t just California that benefits from loosening restrictions but the entire country. Other states ought to reciprocate by examining their own policies that keep those with criminal records out of emergency services roles, where they might contribute meaningfully.

The transition from prison to society is always a difficult one, and recidivism rates remain high despite best efforts. While employment programs for the formerly incarcerated have had mixed-to-poor results, it remains the case that unemployment doesn’t make reentry any easier. With so many occupations pre-emptively closed to those with criminal records, opening these jobs to ex-felons serves both their interests and those whose lives and homes may be threatened by fire in California and beyond.

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