Inmates help battle wildfires, but when freed, many can’t get firefighting jobs

Cursory background checks that pull up criminal histories often disqualify people, even if just the year before, they were helping put out wildfires


By Adesuwa Agbonile
The Sacramento Bee

The first time Amika Sergejev Mota drove on a fire truck was also the first time she had seen the world in nearly five years. Convenience stores, fast food drive-thrus, people walking on the side of the street –– for a moment, they all took on a strange, ethereal power.

Then, the truck stopped, and Mota got out – in full firefighter gear – to do her job.

For 2 1/2 years, while she was incarcerated, Mota worked as an inmate firefighter at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. She is one of many. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the state typically has about 3,000 inmate volunteer firefighters. They stay in conservation camps, and can often work for up to 24 hours straight containing California’s wildfires on 15-person hand crews. This year, they made up nearly one-fifth of the force fighting the wildfires that raged across California.

“There’s a lot of fires in California that would not be put out without hand crews,” said Jim Matthias, a division chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The inmates also do conservation work, preserving parks and maintaining forests. For their work, they are paid $2 a day – plus a dollar for every hour they fight wildfires, according to Alexandra Powell, a CDCR spokeswoman.

But when those inmates are released, it can be hard for them to turn their months of work into steady jobs as firefighters on the outside. Cursory background checks that pull up criminal histories often disqualify people, even if just the year before, they were helping put out wildfires.

That means that people like Mota can spend years saving lives while incarcerated, and then struggle to find a place to do the same work after they are freed.

Mota is a mother with an 8-week-old baby. She works for the Young Women’s Freedom Center, advocating for women who were recently released from prison. But before that, she was trained in how to fight both wildland and structural fires and respond to motor vehicle accidents as a firefighter in Cal Fire Station 5 in Madera County.

She, with nine other women who made up her crew, responded to fire calls within 30 miles of the prison. If you saw them on the side of the street – responding to a vehicle accident and extricating injured bodies, hosing down a house in flames, or containing grass fires – you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart from the professional firefighters they worked alongside.

“We had a lot of respect in that community as firefighters,” Mota said. “We did a really good job out there.”

In other places, inmates are sent to deeply rural areas, where they live in low-security conservation camps. Before they get the jobs, though, they have to be cleared by CDCR as “low-level” offenders – those with criminal convictions relating to arson, sexual assault or gang violence are barred from the program. Then, they go through rigorous training. By the end of it, they are just as competent as a seasonal firefighter at Cal Fire.

“They have just a sense of pride, a sense of worth, that they may not get anywhere else,” said Tracy Snyder, a spokesperson for the camps program. “They’ve saved homes, lives – horses at the Thomas Fire. They do an excellent job and they are respected as firefighters while in the program.”

Mota echoed Snyder’s sentiments. For her, it was rewarding to serve the community in a tangible way.

“It was amazing. Half the time, you could hardly believe you were doing that work,” she said. “It was the best thing I could actually do for myself while I was incarcerated.”

But of all the women on her crew, Mota knows of only one who was hired to be a firefighter –– she now works as a seasonal firefighter, according to Mota.

Mota decided against pursing a career in firefighting. The wages she would have earned as a seasonal firefighter were too low, most of the jobs were in rural counties, and she had family in the Bay Area. The chance of her being hired as a full-time, municipal firefighter was slim. From her perspective, inmate firefighters getting steady employment as full-time firefighters seemed to be the exception, not the rule.

At first glance, it can seem like there are no barriers to the formerly incarcerated to work as firefighters. To work for Cal Fire, you have to satisfy only one requirement –– be 18 or older.

But, according to Cal Fire information officer Scott McLean, the department gets thousands of applications. The process is competitive. And Cal Fire is looking for applicants with bulked-up resumes.

To practice as a seasonal firefighter, firefighters need only training in basic first aid and CPR. But most also have other certifications, like an emergency medical technician certification. To be promoted to full-time firefighter, or an engineer who operates the fire truck, the certification is essentially a requirement. The same goes for most urban fire departments, like Sacramento Fire.

For the formerly incarcerated, that is where the trouble starts.

The National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians, which issues EMT certification, reserves the right to deny certification based on an individual’s felony convictions relating to assault, property crimes and sexual abuse. According to the registry’s policy, decisions are based on the nature and seriousness of the crimes, and the amount of time that has passed since they were committed. They exercise sole and complete discretion over the applicants they reject.

But it doesn’t end there. After being certified by the registry, applicants have to apply to counties for licenses that certify them to practice as EMTs. According to California Emergency Medical Services Authority policy, applicants must be denied certification if they have committed sexually related offenses, committed two or more felonies, are on parole or probation, or have committed any felony in the past 10 years.

With lesser charges, medical directors have discretion. Applicants with misdemeanors can be given a probationary license, meaning they’ll have full licenses to practice. But if they receive another infraction, their licenses are revoked.

According to Samuel Stratton, legislative director for the EMSA Association of Medical Directors, the most common offenses for which he gives probations are DUIs, low-level assault charges and possession of marijuana.

“If it’s a level one felony (most serious felony) or others, such as felony child abuse, felony spousal abuse, some of the financial felonies, those individuals generally will not be certified as EMTs because they are considered a risk to the health and safety of the community,” Stratton said.

But he said that in his 12 years as a medical director, he’s rarely come across applications he’s had to deny because of criminal histories ––at most, two.

The national registry does not keep data on how many applicants they reject because of criminal histories. According to data from the EMSA Central Registry, of the 62,039 active EMTs in California, a little over 5 percent have criminal histories. The percentage of applicants denied for criminal histories varies from county to county. For example, in Sacramento County since 2014, barely 1 percent of applicants were rejected. Most were issued licenses without restriction. In Napa County, since 2015, 20 percent were rejected, with an additional 30 percent on probationary licenses.

But Ellen Hoeft-Edenfield, a career counselor who works with prisoners re-entering society, pointed out that those numbers may be artificially low, since those with more serious felony backgrounds are often discouraged from applying at all.

While Mota was working at her fire camp, learning and applying skills that made her comparable to professional firefighters, she was also being told that her options when it came to firefighting careers were limited. If she wanted to make firefighting a career, she would be relegated to seasonal jobs with the state or federal government.

“I knew even before paroling it just wasn’t reasonable for me,” she said.

But those at CDCR say it’s possible for inmates to become firefighters after they leave. Snyder, the spokesperson for the conservation camps, said EMT certification can be “an issue” for a parolee trying to get work in municipal departments, but she pointed out that there are plenty of state and federal jobs.

“I’ve seen parolees who are working in the camps now, on the Cal Fire side,” Snyder said. “They can get careers if they choose to, and they want to try, and they want to fight for it. It’s not impossible.”

Others are not as hopeful. Hoeft-Edenfield said she tells her clients not to consider firefighting jobs because of the EMT regulations. “I have to tell people right out –– I’m sorry, you can’t do this,” she said. “(EMSA agencies) are just turning people away with felonies, period.”

EMT certifiers say the regulations are necessary to protect public safety.

“EMTs often are entering the homes of vulnerable people –– often older widows or older widowers who are at high risk for having things stolen from their home,” Stratton said. “We have a large number of children who are not protected when the EMTs show up. There’s a risk that the child would be assaulted or molested. We really have to have someone who is not prone to anger, who is able to control their emotions.”

But in a state ravaged by wildfires, where firefighters’ overtime costs are soaring and backup from Australia had to be called in to help fight the Carr Fire near Redding, advocates for the former inmates like Vinuta Naik, a staff attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center, have a hard time understanding why firefighting agencies are turning away people with hands-on experience.

“I would sincerely hope that all these EMS agencies are looking at the fires, are looking at the need, looking at how much work needs to be done, and recognizing it’s not going to hurt to hire people with work experience,” Naik said.

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©2018 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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