• Thu. Jun 23rd, 2022

Nonprofit helps formerly incarcerated firefighters find jobs

ByDebra J. Aguilar

Jun 2, 2022
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For years, California, Florida, Oregon, Washington and other states have relied on incarcerated men and women to fight wildfires. They are trained to do grueling work while earning only a few dollars, sometimes as little as $2 a day.

Incarcerated workers who serve as volunteer firefighters are helping contain and fight blazes as wildfires have become more frequent and intense while the U.S. Forest Service has struggled with staffing shortages due in part to low wages. Now, a nonprofit group — with help from foundations and others — is helping incarcerated people who have trained as firefighters secure a career in the profession once they get out of prison.

It is not easy to overcome the obstacles leading to a stable job as a firefighter. Brandon Smith knows these challenges first hand. In 2012, he was at Wasco State Prison, near Bakersfield, California, about eight months into his sentence for nonviolent charges, when his prison counselor suggested he move to a camp. firefighters. He could live there and learn to fight fires while earning the same certifications as California’s seasonal firefighters.

At Bautista Conservation Camp in Riverside County, Smith came to love firefighting. It was one of the first times he was out in the wild, and he was good at what he did. He became the leader of his manual team, wielding a chainsaw at the front of a team that cut flammable brush and trees to create perimeters containing fires.

“When you’re incarcerated, you have this stigma of being a public nuisance, but being a firefighter gave me the opportunity to give back to the community and also gave me a sense of pride,” Smith said. “It was something I wanted to continue as a way to give back to the community once I got home.”

But after serving his sentence in 2014, the path to a job as a firefighter was unclear. The certifications he received while incarcerated did not count and he was not even able to apply for certain positions due to his criminal record.

Together, Smith and Royal Ramey, who became close friends in fire camp, enrolled in a state-run fire academy to re-gain their required certifications. The classes were familiar – they had been through this before – and they graduated as the top two in their class.

Betty Ashe, a now-retired U.S. Forest Service battalion chief, helped them get their first job battling the Lake Fire, which burned more than 31,000 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest in 2015. They both spent several years as wildland firefighters.

Smith and Ramey understood how a lack of access to information or networks could hold back their peers, so they began helping other incarcerated and previously imprisoned firefighters find their way. The two eventually founded the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program and now work there full time.

The nonprofit organization offers training so participants can get the credentials they need for certain state, federal, or private firefighting jobs. Participants spend time in the classroom and in the field doing fire prevention work such as clearing forests on public lands and clearing flammable vegetation around homes. Participants earn $17.50 per hour while they train.

A grant of nearly $500,000 from the State of California helped the organization grow from a strictly volunteer effort. And in recent years, foundations have started to take notice. Early supporters included Google.org, which provided $500,000. Venture philanthropy organization New Profit donated $40,000 and The Worker’s Lab, which supports efforts to make workers safer and more secure, awarded $150,000.

Current donors to the foundation include the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which gave $304,000; the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which gave $120,000; and the JM Kaplan Fund, which donated $175,000. This year, the James Irvine Foundation presented Smith and Ramey with its Leadership Award, which came with a $250,000 prize.

“We really need people who are trained and able to help fight these wildfires,” said Charles Fields, vice president of program implementation at the Irvine Foundation. “At the same time, we have a lot of people coming out of jails and prisons looking for opportunities to become productive citizens in our society. It’s not easy to get back on your feet and find a job with the skills that will pay a living wage.

The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program addresses these two important challenges and brings them together, Fields said.

The nonprofit now has a budget of $3.4 million and has trained more than 3,000 people and helped more than 140 people find jobs.

Through a partnership with the University of Southern California, students studying for a master’s degree in social work serve as case managers to help interns find housing, obtain driver’s licenses and access social services. mental health, if necessary.

Additionally, the nonprofit organization works with other partners to help participants navigate the justice system. In 2020, California passed a law that allows formerly incarcerated firefighters to petition the courts to overturn their convictions upon release. If approved, they don’t have to wait until their parole ends to apply for municipal and county fire department jobs or to pursue the EMT qualifications required for most fire service positions. full-time and better paid firefighters.

With the help of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, the firefighter recruitment program has successfully filed 38 applications, of which 12 have been granted to date and 21 are pending.

The fire training organization plans to continue to expand its work. A Bay Area funder, Tipping Point Community, has provided $150,000 to help the Los Angeles-based group expand to Oakland, where it will soon begin working with fire camp alumni returning to the city. bay area. And last year, he started the Buffalo Fire Crew, a private, nonprofit firefighting group that includes many graduates of the training program.

“Our program is here to help people… make that 180-degree transition,” Smith says. “Go out and really be public servants; go out and prove to the community that my past doesn’t define me.

The Associated Press’s coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits is supported by the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content. For all of AP’s philanthropic coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.