Georgia County Considers Using Inmates as Firefighters

ABC News | October 11, 2011
By Colleen Curry

A Georgia county looking to save some money is considering using inmates from a local prison to fill out its fire department ranks rather than hiring trained firefighters.

Camden County Administrator Steve Howard told ABC News today that the Board of Commissioners is looking at a proposal that would use inmates from a nearby prison for firefighting, though he noted that no official proposal had been made nor any vote taken.

The plan, according to the Florida Times Union, would include putting two inmates in each of three existing fire houses,  which could allegedly help save the town $500,000 in fire insurance costs by boosting the town’s fire coverage. Howard declined to discuss the specifics of the proposal with ABC News.

Under the model used by neighboring Sumter County,  the inmates would not be guarded by prison staff while at the firehouse, but instead would be overseen by fire department supervisors who would receive “correctional training.”

The inmates chosen to be part of the program would be low-level criminals, according to the report, with convictions for robbery, theft, or drug charges. They will be available during all shifts to help fight fires, unlike paid firefighters, who are given time off after working 24-hour shifts, the report said.
As a result, the county could save on the typical costs of about $6,000 to train a firefighter, $2,000 to outfit him, and about $40,000 to pay his salary and benefits. Camden County’s public safety director 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 newspaper reported.
The inmates in question have professed support of the plan, according to one commissioner.
“I’ve been told these inmates are very enthusiastic about being a firefighter,” Commissioner Jimmy Starline told the paper. “It’s an opportunity to break that cycle. This is not like a chain gang. Life at a fire station could be a whole lot more pleasant than life in jail.”

But the firefighters are not as happy.  Stuart Sullivan objected to the commission’s plan, telling them it would tarnish the department.

“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.

Mark Treglio, a spokesman for the National Association of Firefighters, said the proposal could compromise the safety of firefighters, the trust between the department and the community it serves, and the privacy and safety of homeowners.

“I’m totally against it,” Treglio said. “As firefighters, people put their trust in us. We see them at their worst, having trouble breathing, or three in the morning when they might not be fully clothed and not at their best, we have that trust.”

Treglio contends that introducing prisoners into their operations would violate that trust.

“Now you’re going to be bringing people that have been before judges, convicted of crimes, and all it takes is for someone to say, ‘Oh I’m missing something out of my house and the only other people here were firefighters.’ They’re not going to differentiate between prisoner and firefighter,  and the distrust in community, it’s just not a good equation.”

Treglio, based in Jacksonville, Fla., said the firefighters in Camden County are against the proposal, but have not spoken out about it in order to protect their jobs.