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Fighting for a Fresh Start, California Man Sues State for Right to Firefighting Career

Despite firefighter shortage, former inmates trained to fight forest fires are blocked from full-time positions

Sacramento, Calif.—If California trains inmates to fight fires, why does it stop them from becoming full-time firefighters after their release? With a shortage of firefighters in rural areas and fires an increasing threat, why are qualified applicants rejected out of hand because of old, irrelevant crimes? Now a California man is challenging a rule that keeps him from making a fresh start by serving the public.

Dario Gurrola first fought fires at a juvenile-detention fire camp run by the state. After being released and deciding to turn his life around, he started to work as a seasonal firefighter. Finding the work satisfying and knowing that there are open jobs in California, Dario completed firefighting training, EMT training and passed the national EMT exam. But even though he is allowed to work as a seasonal or volunteer firefighter, by state law he is legally barred from emergency medical technician (EMT) certification, a requirement for full-time firefighting jobs. Now, Dario is teaming up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to challenge California’s lifetime ban on two-time felons applying for the state EMT license.

“Fires are an increasing threat to California, yet the state unjustly denies thousands of people the opportunity to become full-time firefighters,” said IJ Attorney Andrew Ward. “Dario served his time and now he wants to serve the public using the skills he learned while incarcerated. The EMT certification is a basic qualification proving knowledge of life-saving skills. Dario proved himself working part time in the field and it’s past time that he, and others like him, can serve as full-time firefighters.”

“I am dedicated to serving my community and my state by using the some of the same skills I learned while incarcerated,” said Dario. “It doesn’t make any sense that I’m allowed to be a firefighter if I work seasonally, or if I volunteer, but can’t make a career out of firefighting. I’m sure there are many others, just like me, who have turned their lives around and would like to give back. I hope my lawsuit will open this door for me and for people across California.”

California categorically bans anyone with two or more felonies from ever applying for an EMT certification. EMTs are not paramedics and the certification does not grant one the right to drive ambulances or enter homes. Instead, it is a basic certification proving that an individual can administer non-invasive lifesaving techniques such as CPR. More than 60,000 Californians are certified EMTs and they practice in a diverse variety of careers.

Most California fire departments require applicants for full-time positions to first be certified as an EMT. However, volunteer and seasonal positions do not require the certification even though the tasks performed are often identical to those of full-time firefighters. Dario is employed as a seasonal firefighter by the Cal-Pines Fire Department. He would prefer to apply for one of the many open positions for full-time work but cannot because he has two felonies on his record. In 2003, he was convicted of a felony for illegally carrying a hidden knife, which he kept for protection. And in 2005, while under the influence of drugs and alcohol, he got into a fight with a security guard and was convicted of felony assault.

Dario was one of the thousands of inmates that California annually employs at fire camps across the state. Non-violent, minimal custody inmates are trained to work on fire lines and perform conservation and community service projects that reduce the threat of fires and flooding. Volunteers at the camps receive the same training as seasonal firefighters and do much of the same work. After his release, Dario started working for the U.S. Forest Service and only found out about the felon ban after he completed the fire academy and all of the training and testing requirements EMT certification.

“It makes no sense that these men and women can serve as seasonal or volunteer firefighters but can’t become career firefighters,” said IJ Attorney Joshua House. “More broadly, there is a growing consensus that harsh laws like this one aren’t working—for those looking for a fresh start after prison and for the public. A categorical ban on obtaining EMT certification needlessly excludes thousands of qualified individuals from an array of jobs that they could use to support themselves and to serve the public. In this case particularly, California is poorly served by reducing the number of firefighters.”

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