by Elizabeth Yang ’22
Published Oct. 4th 2020
Today, over 19,000 firefighters put their lives on the line to contain the California wildfires’ deadly blazes. Of those 19,000, over two thousand are inmates currently serving time in prison. For decades, prisoners aided California in combating these fires, which have become increasingly frequent over the past few years. While they longed to follow a path of becoming a firefighter upon release, the state denied them acceptance because of their incarceration record despite having risked their lives.
But that all ends now. On Friday, September 11th, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Bill AB 2147, extinguishing inmate firefighters’ records and paving the way for them to become firefighters when released. The bill states that inmates who have “[placed] themselves in danger assisting firefighters in defending the life and property of Californians” and “successfully complete[d] their service in the conservation camps… should be granted special consideration relating to their underlying criminal conviction.” This bill will enable released individuals to finally have the chance to earn their EMT certification and meet the requirements for municipal fire departments.
While all inmates are eligible to apply for California’s conservation camps that are in partnership with the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), not every inmate is granted acceptance. Serious and violent felonies, including murder, sexual offenses, and kidnapping, automatically make an inmate ineligible for the camp assignments. Since serious criminals are rejected, accepted inmates have the chance at a fresh, new life when they’ve completed their sentences.
Michael Gebre, a felon convicted of robbery in 2011, joined the program at 23 after rigorous and exhausting training. For several years, he fought alongside department firefighters to contain massive fires, including the Ferguson Fire, Mendocino Complex Fire, and Paradise’s Camp Fire, the deadliest California wildfire to this day. In 2019, he was released from prison early and even recommended a position in the academy by Cal Fire officials. While he was able to become a firefighter on parole, he had serious concerns about his position status for over a year due to his barred chances of receiving EMT certification.
“Without the training, I can’t get certain jobs,” he explained. “If I’m up against three or four other guys and they all have EMTs, I’m not ever going to get the job.”
Thanks to this new bill, Gebre, along with thousands of others, is lawfully eligible to apply for municipal departments that require EMT training. He now has the opportunity to pursue his passions and be of substantial help to his community.
A massive fire that has blocked California’s inmate firefighters’ career paths for over 80 years has finally been put out.