Busy season for inmate fire crews

Inmate crew digs fire line as an air tanker drops retardant in the background
An IDOC crew battles the 2008 Snow Hole Fire.

BOISE, September 17, 2012 -- It’s not over, but already the 2012 fire season will go down in the books as one of the busiest in years for IDOC inmate fire crews. So far they’ve responded to more than 30 fires, and along the way they’ve won plenty of fans -- from citizens who are grateful to the crews for helping save their homes to wildland fire administrators who appreciate the inmates’ attitude, performance and conduct.

“Comments from other people at the fires have ranged from, ‘Standing above the other firefighting teams,’ to ‘Well-mannered’ to, ‘Did an excellent job with all tasks assigned,’” says Lt. Greg Heun at Idaho Correctional Institution-Orofino.

For inmates, a place on a fire crew is a plum assignment. By inmate standards the pay is good. It ranges from $1.25 to $1.50 an hour. Plus, the inmates say fire camp food is better than prison food, they enjoy working outdoors and they like being treated as firefighters and not offenders.

But often the offenders are not treated like firefighters. They are treated like elite firefighters. Lt. Glenn Armstrong, the project manager at SAWC, says in eastern Idaho inmate crews are considered to be on par with the “Special Forces” of wildland firefighting — the Interagency Hotshot crews.  And, Armstrong says, the inmates frequently outperform the Hotshots.

As an example, Armstrong cites a report written by a U.S. Forest Service administrator following the Halstead Fire, which was ignited by lightning on July 27 near Stanley. In his evaluation of the performance of the SAWC crew, the administrator wrote, “Man for man and as a team, this may well be the best overall crew I’ve worked with in the past twenty years.” The administrator said the inmates’ “productivity, attitude, motivation, spirit and work ethic” were outstanding.

Citizens who have seen the inmate fire crews in action also come away impressed. After the Avelene Fire near Idaho City in July, one family whose home was saved sent a thank-you card to Southern Idaho Correctional Institution. The card said, “They worked so hard in steep terrain, 100 degree heat and terrible conditions but they saved a lot of homes and we are grateful for their hard work.”

After the High Park Fire near Fort Collins, Colo., in June, correctional officers Christopher Sarver and Gary Acree say the inmates on the fire crew they were supervising were touched by the sight of hundreds of citizens lining the streets and holding signs thanking the firefighters for their hard work.

“I am truly amazed at the positive feedback we receive from the firefighting agencies,” says SICI Lt. Leroy Peneku. “The crew performance rating reports state that our crews are professional, hard working, take initiative and have a good attitude.”

Peneku says the correctional officers who lead the inmate fire crews as part of IDOC’s Vocational Work Projects program deserve much of the credit for the great reputation the department enjoys in firefighting circles. He says those officers are among the department’s best, and they’re held to higher standards.

SAWC’s Armstrong says the entire staff at the institutions deserve credit because every time a crew is dispatched the officers who are left behind must pick up the slack.

“I can have as many as eight officers that are assigned (to managing fire crews), so that’s eight positions not here to cover posts,” Armstrong says.  “But all of the officers here are dedicated to making this stuff happen.”

When a fire crew is deployed, the officers aren’t the only ones supervising the inmate firefighters. ICIO’s Heun says the inmates police each other because they don’t want to put their firefighting jobs at risk.

“When I was doing an inspection of the Steep Corner Fire camp, the food caterer found out who I was and came to me and told me how well mannered the inmates were in the chow area, better than any of the other firefighting teams,” Heun says.

A 22-man IDOC fire crew, made up of 20 inmates and two officers, generates $4,460 a day for IDOC. In addition to paying the wages of the inmates and officers, that revenue also pays for the crews’ travel expenses and training.



Story published: 09/17/2012
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