Friday, November 30, 2012

LACoFD to Train 700 Inmates Per Year through Fire Camp Program

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Los Angeles County Fire Department Camp 12 Inmate Fire Crews
 Los Angeles County Fire Department will now be training between 500-700 inmates for our fire camps each year due to the passage of California Assembly Bill 109 (AB 109) on April 5, 2011. Under this bill, local law enforcement now has the ability to manage lower level offenders in smarter and more cost-effective ways as a means of lowering prison overcrowding and helping to rehabilitate inmates into society. On October 15, Camp 12 personnel began the task of training the first class of 100 State inmates on fire behavior, fire line safety, fire line hazards and use of hand tools, as well as standards of behavior and professionalism.

"We have to instill in them the same sense of preparedness and orderliness that we have in the fire service, but we only have two weeks to do it," says Fire Captain Hall Stratton, who serves as one of the instructors. "We cover the same ground that we do for the paid crews, but reformatted for a different audience."

Among the challenges our personnel face in teaching inmates include working with an audience who may or may not have graduated high school and, in some cases, may not be able to read or write.

"Our only requirement is that they speak English, because they have to be able to follow verbal commands," says Stratton. "But on the fire line they don't have to read or write. Just because they can't read or write doesn't mean they're not good for the fire crew, because they may be the strongest guy on the crew."

Instilling professionalism, camaraderie and teamwork is also part and parcel of fire line training. Thankfully, the Sheriff's Department personnel at the Wayside Honor Rancho Facility, where Camp 12 is located, spent the last seven months preparing the inmates for our fire
camp training. 

In addition to cleaning up and repainting several of their rundown buildings with Fire Department artwork and logos for classroom space, nine Sheriff's deputies also spent time getting the inmates physically fit for the arduous work involved in being on the fire line.

"A huge part of building a fire crew is building the camaraderie and pride, and the Sheriff's went a long way into creating that," says Stratton. 

"To have the crews already have some of that instilled in them, and be physically ready as well, helps us to concentrate on fire business."

In order to qualify for being part of a fire crew, the inmates need to be categorized as non-violent offenders and not be convicted of committing arson. Part of the incentive of working on a fire crew for these inmates not only includes having their sentence cut in half, but also being able to have a possible career when they are released. "While our Department does not hire convicted felons, others do and I have heard from some inmates who have gone on to have careers with the United States Forest Service or CAL Fire," says Stratton.

While the Sheriff's Department had more time to prepare for the influx of inmates, our personnel had less time to create the lesson plans, quizzes and other teaching aids for their classes. However, Stratton, as well as Fire Captains Bernard Deyo and Mark Mihaljevich, along with Fire Fighter Specialists Joe Spindler, Jason Toshack, Greg Waters and Damian Ybarra, and Fire Suppression Aides Michael Scavarda, Nathan Sotro, Brandon Weiner and Joshua Zavala, each took on a subject and started to develop the curriculum for this unique audience.

"We had two goals when we set out how to build this program," says Stratton. "One: Everything we teach them we reinforce over and over again. And two: Never sit in the classroom for more than an hour. Always do something physical so that they're able to be on a crew and start swinging those tools tomorrow if they have to."

Our personnel are particularly grateful for the hard work the Sheriff's Department put in to get the first class ready for training. But for the Sheriff's deputies, it's all in a day's work. "It's a team effort," says Sheriff's Deputy A.J. Ayala, who was a smoke jumper prior to joining Los Angeles County, and understands the challenges firefighters face. "We get the bodies into shape and you take over the training.

 In the end, we have the same goal – get the inmates rehabbed, get them skilled and get them out of the system."

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