Video: Serving time by fighting wildfires
The first time Amika Sergejev Mota drove on a firetruck 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 two and a half years, while she was incarcerated, Mota worked as an inmate firefighter at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. And she is only 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 wildfire 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 California forests. For their work, they are paid $2 a day — plus a dollar for every hour they fight wildfires, according to Alexandra Powell, CDCR spokesperson.
But when these inmates are released, it can be hard for them to turn their months of work into a steady job as a firefighter on the outside. Cursory background checks that pull up criminal history often disqualify people — even if just the year before, that same person was helping put out the largest wildfire in California’s history.
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 when free.
Inside inmate crews
Mota is a new mom 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, and worked as a firefighter in Cal Fire Station 5 in Madera County.
She, along with nine other women who made up her crew, responded to fire calls within a 30-mile radius 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, except for their distinctive orange jumpsuits.
“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 job, 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 precluded from the program. Then, they go through a rigorous training period. 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 out 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 herself eventually 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. Also, the chances of her gaining employment as a full-time, municipal firefighter were slim. From her perspective, inmate firefighters getting steady employment as full-time firefighters seemed to be the exception, not the rule.
The barriers to firefighting
At first glance, it can seem like there are no barriers to the formerly incarcerated to work as a firefighter. To work for Cal Fire, you have to satisfy only one requirement — be 18 or older.
But, according to Scott McLean, Cal Fire information officer, the department fields thousands of applications. The process is competitive. And Cal Fire is looking for applicants with bulked-up résumés.
“You want to be appealing to those that are hiring,” McLean said.
To practice as a seasonal firefighter — a Firefighter I — firefighters need only training in basic first aid and CPR. But most also have other certifications — like an emergency medical technician certification. Because to be promoted to a full-time firefighter, or an engineer who operates the firetruck, 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 — the body that hands out EMT certification — reserves the right to deny certification based on an individual’s former felony convictions relating to assault, property crimes and sexual abuse. According to their policy, they base their decision on the nature and seriousness of the crime, and the amount of time that has passed since the crime was committed. They exercise sole and complete discretion over the applicants they deny.
But it doesn’t end there. After being certified by the NREMT, applicants have to apply for a license — which certifies them to practice as an EMT — from a local county office. According to the California Emergency Medical Services Authority policy, applicants must be denied certification if they have committed a sexually related offense, 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 more space for discretion. Applicants with misdemeanors can be given a probationary license, meaning they’ll have full license to practice but if they receive another infraction, their license is 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 in his 12 years as a medical director, he’s rarely come across applications he’s had to deny due to criminal history — at most, one or two.
The NREMT does not keep data on how many applicants they deny due to previous criminal history. According to data from the EMSA Central Registry, of the 62,039 active EMTs in California, a little over five percent have criminal histories. The percentage of applicants denied for criminal histories varies from county to county — in Sacramento County, since 2014 barely 1 percent of applicants were denied. Most were issued licenses without restriction. In Napa County, since 2015, 20 percent were denied, 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 altogether.
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. Tracy Snyder, a 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 even 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.”
Implications of EMSA policy
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,” said Stratton. “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 formerly incarcerated like Vinuta Naik, a staff attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center, have a hard time understanding why firefighting agencies are turning away formerly incarcerated 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.
Mota enjoyed the work she did while she was incarcerated. She thought she was good at what she did. So it was hard for her to wrap her head around the fact that when she got out, she couldn’t do the same kind of work.
“It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me because I knew that we were an outstanding fire crew,” Mota said. “We were responding in the community. And nobody was questioning our background as we were preforming CPR on their children or extricating them from a vehicle.”
Soon, though, some inmates might have an easier time finding employment. After a directive from Gov. Jerry Brown, in October an 18-month-long academy run by Cal Fire, CDCR and the California Conservation Corps is opening at the Ventura Conservation Camp, near Los Angeles. There, up to 80 recently released parolees who were part of fire camps will receive Firefighter I training.
“VTC will provide advanced firefighter training, certifications and job readiness support to create a pathway for former offenders to compete for entry-level firefighting jobs with state, federal and local agencies,” Powell said.
But some say that the training camp isn’t enough.
“That’s nothing,” said Naik. “You can help 80 people, but you need to help everybody across the entire state. These are people who need these avenues open to them right now. To give back to the community, and to really build wealth and equality and equity in their lives, we need to open up these jobs,”
This year, a bill – AB 2293 – was introduced by Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes that would have prohibited EMS agencies from denying applicants due to their criminal background. It gave the formerly incarcerated — including those who worked on inmate crews — the opportunity to pursue a firefighting career. But the bill was opposed by multiple bodies involved in the EMT certifying process and was eventually whittled down only to require EMS agencies to keep better data on people they deny due to criminal convictions.
So for now, people like Mota will have to cross firefighting off of a list of jobs they can apply for.
Naik said her formerly incarcerated clients were disappointed that the bill didn’t pass, but not surprised. “They’re far more realistic about the outcomes and the realities,” she said. “This is their lived experience. They’ve dealt with it before.”