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Fire News in Focus
by Adam K. Thiel

Inmates as firefighters? Why it can never work

There's a reason why we must hold our service accountable to a high standard of excellence and integrity

By Adam K. Thiel

Editor's note: Officials in southeast Georgia are considering a money-saving program that would put inmates in fire stations. No way, says Chief Adam K. Thiel.

This is one of those stories that made me check the date when I first saw it, wondering if it was an April Fool's Day joke?

But of course, it's October...

I've had the opportunity, on a few occasions, to see inmate firefighters work (supervised, of course) at wildland fires.

Without question they: 1) are fully capable of doing that demanding job under extreme conditions; and 2) face many of the same risks as any other firefighters.

I'm also a big fan of our local sheriff's inmate work crews, who (again under law enforcement supervision) perform a range of dirty jobs at an extremely low cost, such as roadway trash pickup, digging out snow-covered fire hydrants, landscaping, painting, etc.

That's not the same, however, as performing the daily response functions of a local fire department.

I'm often asked why fire and EMS departments, career and volunteer, often have such extensive processes for selecting their members.

My answer is simple: we're the only government agency that people actually invite into their homes, with no questions asked, anytime day or night.

That's a sacred trust, and the fundamental reason we must hold our service accountable to a high standard of excellence and integrity.

I can easily recall the times when a parent actually met us in their front yard as we arrived onscene, and without a moment's hesitation handed us their child; without any words, and with every expectation that we would make things better.

Could they (would they) do that with an inmate, even a low-risk inmate?

I find it hard to believe the citizens of any local jurisdiction would allow a proposal like this to advance very far, but I guess we'll see what happens...

About the author

With more than two decades in the field, Chief Adam K. Thiel FireRescue1's editorial advisor is an active fire chief in the National Capital Region and a former state fire director for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Chief Thiel's operational experience includes serving with distinction in four states as a chief officer, incident commander, company officer, hazardous materials team leader, paramedic, technical rescuer, structural/wildland firefighter and rescue diver. He also directly participated in response and recovery efforts for several major disasters including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tropical Storm Gaston and Hurricane Isabel.

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