Inmates Face Wildfires Then Prejudice

Earlier this year, as wildfires ravaged the state, prisoners from Warner Creek Correctional Facility were sent to help professional firefighters as part of a 70-year-old program which offers prisoners the opportunity to learn a trade, while also providing extra help to the firefighters already in place.  

ABC News covered the story of the 20 prisoners from Warner Creek Correctional Facility, who worked the fires near Paisley, Oregon, in September. One of the prisoners, Eddie Correia, age 36, told ABC News, “This gives us a different opportunity, rather than going back to something that we already know, which is guns, gangs, violence and drugs.”  

10 of the prisoners directly fought fires, and the other 10 worked in camp, serving food, cleaning trash, and performing other duties. ABC News reported that the men earn $6 a day for their work.

Finding a Place to Use Those Skills 

However, many former prisoners who have trained as firefighters have a difficult time finding a place to use those skills. According to an email from the Oregon Fire Recruitment Network, it can be incredibly difficult for a person with a criminal record to find work in a city department or rural fire district.  

“In almost every case, if an individual has any sort of criminal record, that will dismiss them from moving forward in the process of becoming a firefighter,” the Network wrote. “In some rare exceptions, if the criminal record is not major (non-felony) and significant time has passed without recurrence, then those situations are looked at on an individual basis and that individual may be brought onto the department.” 

The Network also shared that there are other obstacles that almost always prevent people with a felony conviction from being hired as part of a municipal system. One main reason is because most firefighters are also required to be EMS providers, and the Oregon Health Authority will not certify anyone with a felony conviction, no matter the circumstances. “Therefore, most departments won’t bring on a single role fire responder because so much of the work that is done requires EMS interventions, as the majority of our calls are EMS related, including motor vehicle accidents.” 

The State Steps Up 

This is where the Oregon Department of Forestry steps in. ODF, in accordance with Oregon’s Ban-The -Box Law, does not ask about criminal history during the initial hiring process, specifically before the interview stage of hiring. Concerning the issue of the need for an EMS certification, Jason Cox, public Affairs Specialist for ODF says, “ODF’s firefighting division is oriented toward wildland firefighting and does not directly provide emergency medical services, so eligibility for EMS licensure is typically not an issue.” 

The hiring process for ODF still has some requirements that people applying will have to meet. “On-the-ground wildland firefighting is physically demanding work,” Cox says, “and the applicant would need to be able to meet the physical fitness requirements.” Many of the jobs that are available through ODF will also require an applicant to have a driver’s license, so the applicant will need to be able to obtain one.  

 Cox says, “We cannot disqualify an applicant solely on the basis of a felony on their record. There is an evaluation and nexus to the job. In addition to checking qualifications and relevant experience, we seek references just like for any other potential employee and those play into the hiring evaluation.”  

So, it would benefit a person with a felony conviction to seek references that can attest to their training and character.  

In order to apply for an Oregon Department of Forestry job, visit the state’s online application system.   

By Kyra Young