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Penal firefighters are battling California fires. Once released, they can't fight fires full time.

I was trained and paid peanuts to do the job while I was serving time. Now I'm suing to change the law so I can pursue it as a career.
Image: Members of the Delta Conservation Crew, made up of inmate firefighters, clear a fire line on the Walbridge Fire, part of the LNU Lightning Complex fire, in Healdsburg, Calif., Aug. 23, 2020. (Max Whittaker/The New York Times)
Members of the Delta Conservation Crew, made up of inmate firefighters, clear a fire line on the Walbridge Fire in Healdsburg, Calif., on Sunday.Max Whittaker / The New York Times/Redux Pictures

Wildfires continue to devastate California, and the pictures on TV and in newspapers are nothing compared to the searing heat of being near them in real life and the seriousness of knowing that it is your job to prevent people’s homes and businesses from being burned. I know because I’m currently serving as a seasonal firefighter. But when I hang up my uniform at the end of this season’s fires and stop risking my life to protect the safety and property of my fellow Californians, I’ll be out of a job.

It’s not right for California to train people in firefighting while they are incarcerated and then keep them from turning those skills into a profession.

California has a program that trains low-risk people in the penal system with basic firefighting capabilities to serve on the front lines. But once those in custody are released, as I was over a decade ago, state law won’t let them become regular, full-time municipal firefighters — even though California is suffering from a firefighter shortage. The government can call on penal firefighters to put themselves in danger for just $2-$5 per day, plus $1 per hour when fighting fires, but then denies them the ability to get a stable, full-time job using those same skills once they’re released. I’m suing the state to change that.

Since I ran into trouble with the law nearly two decades ago, I’ve been able to turn my life around. That’s thanks in part to the firefighting camps I attended while in custody, which gave me skills, focus and purpose. Today, I am a seasonal firefighter with a department in California. I love this work and it is an honor to serve, protecting lives and keeping homes and businesses safe.

Dario Gurrola near Alturas, California, this summer.Institute for Justice

Yet because of my past convictions for carrying a concealed knife and, on a separate occasion, assaulting a security guard while intoxicated, it is impossible for me to become a full-time municipal firefighter in California. Nearly all of the state’s 900-plus fire departments require EMT certification. But California bans anyone with a single felony conviction from getting an EMT certification for 10 years after their release. For people with two felonies, like me, there is a lifetime ban.

So, while I can serve seasonally (which doesn’t require an EMT certification), or as a volunteer, I can’t have a career at a municipal fire department. Without the certification, I can’t take the lead on calls or assist in giving certain medications. I can’t count on making firefighting a career with consistent benefits and pay increases. That makes no sense. If I'm qualified to do the job part-time, then there is no good reason to bar me from applying for full-time positions.

This ban is not just limited to firefighters. Many jobs requiring first-responder skills — including wilderness guides, gym attendants and stadium staffers — also use EMT certification as a hiring credential, making those occupations off-limits to people like me.

And there are many other barriers to honest work imposed on former inmates trying to overcome their past. In seven states, licensing boards can generally deny licenses to practically anyone convicted of any felony, even if it has nothing to do with the job they’re trying to get. In 17 states, those credentials can be denied without ever considering whether an applicant has been rehabilitated. These ill-conceived restrictions can have devastating consequences: One study found that states with stricter licensing laws had higher rates of re-offending.

To end the harmful and unnecessary EMT certification prohibition in California, I recently filed a lawsuit against the state with the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm that fights to protect the right to earn an honest living. I’m fighting not just for myself, but for the many thousands who reenter society and want a fresh start to pursue a fulfilling career.

It’s not right for California to train people in firefighting while they are incarcerated and then keep them from turning those skills into a profession — especially when the training program is presented as a way to do just that. The experience of firefighting training camp when I was 19 and in juvenile custody planted a seed in me. A fire captain told me that if I ever wanted to change my life, I could become a firefighter.

Growing up, I had always hoped to be a first responder and to help people. Coming from a family of public servants — my father is a retired San Diego sheriff, while my uncle and my brother both served in the Marines — I wanted the opportunity to serve the public, as well.

When I was released from state custody in 2011, I contacted the U.S. Forest Service, which let me work in its fire services department during the 2013 and 2015 seasons. Following that experience, I took fire science college classes, volunteered and went on ride-alongs to further develop my skills. I also completed a 212-hour EMT basic training course and passed the national EMT exam. But when I started seriously looking into full-time jobs, I found out about the state’s barriers for EMT certification.

I’m fighting not just for myself, but for the many thousands who reenter society and want a fresh start to pursue a fulfilling career.

I regret how I behaved when I was younger, and I credit two things for helping me turn my life around. First, I accepted Jesus Christ, and my faith has given me the direction to stay on the straight and narrow. Second is my pursuit of a career in firefighting and dedication to serving the state I love.

Finding rewarding work is one of the most important ways to help people move on after they have been incarcerated. California is unjustly and counterproductively using my past to deny me my future.