Calif. county hires former inmates to work on wildland hand crew
As part of the San Bernardino County FD's pilot program, nine former inmates were hired to help reduce fuels and provide other fire-related services
Daily Press, Victorville, Calif.
VICTORVILLE, Calif. — Haroon Hasmain said he wanted to be a firefighter ever since kindergarten, when he saw a "Stop, Drop and Roll" video, but subsequent events delayed that goal.
"I had a lot of potential growing up, and I had a lot of hope for the future, and just things that ended up happening in my life led me down a completely different path, unfortunately," he said.
But now, that aspiration has become a reality.
Hasmain is one of nine former inmates hired earlier this month by the San Bernardino County Fire Department. He is now a member of the newly formed Endeavor Hand Crew.
The crew is part of a six-month pilot program that hires released inmates "in good standing" who will work to reduce fuels and provide other fire-related services, the department said.
In addition to the nine hired on Dec. 7 as Public Safety Employees who then began five weeks of training, six more are going through the background stage. The goal is to have a 20-member hand crew, county fire officials said last week.
"It's almost like a dream come true, it's too good to be true," Hasmain said in a department video. "There's still a chance to get on the right side of the fence."
More firefighters are needed as California saw a record-breaking wildfire season in 2020 that has so far burned more than 4.2 million acres, according to Cal Fire.
"With fire season being year-round and the amount of fuel reduction projects, the need for additional resources in our County is more prevalent than ever," said SBCFD Chief Dan Munsey. "Fuels reduction crews have proven to be an invaluable resource in more ways than one."
The pilot crew program was funded with $300,000 in start-up costs from the county Probation Department's share of state revenue provided through the California Public Safety Realignment Act.
The act, passed in 2011, requires that state prisons reduce their number of inmates by transferring low-level offenders to the supervision of counties, according to the SBCFD.
The program is scheduled to last from Oct. 6 through June 30, 2021.
Officials are hoping the program will lead to employment for the former inmates and reduce the number of repeat offenses.
Gabriel Dekker, another crew member hired in December, said he started going to jail "a little early" but was now "fixing it" through the Endeavor Crew.
"I definitely believe in second chances," he said in a department video. "I didn't until this program."
Former inmates interested in the program can only be admitted with a positive referral from the county probation and sheriff's departments and must have already served on a state or inmate hand crew.
As part of training, crew members learn wildland fire behavior, hand tool techniques, chainsaw operations, CPR and first aid, as well as small engine and facility repair, the SBCFPD said.
Once certified, the crew will go to work on mitigating large fires with brush clearance and a chipping program, but will also participate in sandbagging, flood prevention projects, roadway clearance and other tasks.
After a fire, the Endeavor Crew will assist in fuel rehabilitation and environmental recovery efforts, the department said.
Hasmain said he always had a respect for first responders and firefighters in particular.
"I just grew up looking up to them every day of my life and there's nothing that makes me more proud in my entire life than to finally be a part of a fire department in any capacity," he said.
Daily Press reporter Martin Estacio may be reached at 760-955-5358 or MEstacio@VVDailyPress.com. Follow him on Twitter @DP_mestacio.
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