USA — A select group of inmates may be exchanging their prison jumpsuits for firefighting gear in Camden County.
The inmates-to-firefighters program is one of several money-saving options the Board of County Commissioners is looking into to stop residents’ fire insurance costs from more than doubling. The county is also considering whether substations or a volunteer force could improve its Insurance Services Office, or ISO, rating.
The inmate firefighter program would be the most cost-effective choice, saving the county more than $500,000 a year by some estimates. But that option is already controversial, drawing criticism from the firefighters who would have to work alongside – and supervise – the prisoners.
The concept of inmate firefighters is hardly new. California inmates fought fires in the 1940s, when World War II caused a firefighter shortage. Today, there are more than 4,000 firefighting inmates stationed at 45 camps throughout the state.
Many others have firefighting inmates, but they typically operate in their own crews out of their own firehouses, supervised by a guard and primarily fighting wildland blazes. The Camden program would put two inmates in each of three existing firehouses, and they would respond to all emergencies – including residential – alongside traditional firefighters. The inmates would have no guard, but would be monitored by a surveillance system and by the traditional firefighters, who would undergo training to guard the inmates.
County Public Safety Director Dennis Gailey said using the inmates strictly for wildland fires wouldn’t be realistic in Camden County because there are so few of them. Crews of strictly inmates wouldn’t work, he said, because they need traditional firefighters to supervise them. One traditional firefighter with correctional training can supervise up to three inmates.
ARE THEY DEDICATED?
Firefighters question inmates’ dedication
Gailey said there is “a lot of contention” among local firefighters about working alongside inmates. One firefighter, Stuart Sullivan, spoke to county commissioners during a recent meeting, asking them not to “tarnish” the department he is so proud to be a part of.
Sullivan asked the commissioners if they would want inmates coming to their homes for an emergency in the middle of the night. Firefighters choose the profession because they have a passion for serving the public and helping people, he said, while the inmates would only be there as an alternate way to serve their sentences.
“If you vote to bring these inmates into our working environment, you jeopardize not only the employees’ well-being, but the safety of our citizens,” he said.
Sullivan declined to comment further to the Times-Union.
Despite the opposition among firefighters, Commissioner Jimmy Starline said those who have worked alongside inmates have found them to be hard workers.
“I’ve been told these inmates are very enthusiastic about being a firefighter. It’s an opportunity to break that cycle,” he said. “This is not like a chain gang. Life at a fire station could be a whole lot more pleasant than life in jail.”
If the program is approved, it will be open to inmates who:
– Committed only low-level crimes, such as drug offenses and thefts;
– Have a record of good behavior;
– Pass an interview process;
– Agree to not use cell phones, have visitors, or leave the station unless responding to an emergency. One violation would result in immediate removal from the program.
The inmates would not be paid for their work, but upon release they would be able to apply to work as a firefighter 5 years after their conviction dates instead of the normal 10.
Camden is still in the preliminary stages of looking into the program and has submitted paperwork to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to find out if it qualifies.
“If we get the state’s approval, then it will become a proposal and we will have public discussion on it,” Starline said.
PROGRAM HAS WORKED
The state’s inmates-to-firefighters program uses state prisoners, but Camden County does not have a state prison. If Camden’s proposal is approved, the county would use prisoners from Sumter County, where inmates already work alongside traditional firefighters.
“We would have a sort of satellite off their program,” Starline said. “They would pull the inmate, train him, and send him to us.”
Sumter County’s program has been in place for two years. Although there was some outcry about it at first, Sumter County Administrator Lynn Taylor said she’s had only positive feedback from the community about their performance.
She said there are 15 inmate firefighters in the department.
“It’s worked out quite well,” she said. “This is a measure that governments are looking into to provide the same high level of service in the most economic way possible.”
She said the program saves the county a tremendous amount of money because each inmate is available around the clock on all three shifts. A typical firefighter works one 24-hour day and then has two days off. The 15 inmates are filling the slots of 15 firefighters per day; the equivalent of 45 slots.
“That’s what makes this so appealing,” Starline said. “If it was a one-for-one ratio, that wouldn’t be so attractive.”
He said it costs about $6,000 to train a firefighter; $2,000 to outfit him; and about $40,000 to pay his salary and benefits. With each of six inmates working all three shifts, the county would save more than $100,000 a year per inmate, Starline said.
Public Safety Director Gailey said it would cost $10,000 to $15,000 to feed and outfit each inmate; install security measures such as surveillance systems; and provide correctional training for traditional firefighters.
The quest to offer more fire services in Camden County began after the ISO rating system recently changed. If the county stays as it is, its rating would jump from a Class 4 to a Class 10. Because a higher number indicates a lower level of protection, premiums would increase. For example, the annual fee would climb from $767 to $2,042 for the owner of a $200,000 home.
The new ISO rating system stipulates that, if a county’s fire stations are 10 miles or more apart, as Camden’s are, it must have at least four firefighters per shift. With two firefighters per shift, the county needs to add firefighters or build substations, which would be unmanned.
Starline said the county expects the substations to cost $200,000 to $250,000 each, though he thinks the estimate is high. The substations would be primitive buildings.
Another option, building up a volunteer force, doesn’t seem promising, he said.
“The volunteer program is currently not very successful because of the economy,” he said. “It just doesn’t seem to be working nationwide.”
With the inmate program, there is never a shortage of people who want to participate, Starline said. He visited Sumter County to see its program in action. Sumter County had three inmates who had to return to prison, he said: two for cell phone violations, and one who “didn’t fit in.” They were easily replaced with other inmates.
Despite the financial appeal of the inmate program, Starline said he understands that area firefighters feel like the program would be a “slap in the face.”
Although he’s open to suggestions, Starline said he said he hasn’t heard from anyone with an alternative that would work as well.
“I’m not here trying to get inmate firefighters,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is operate our county as economically as I can.”