Andrew Wimer
Andrew Wimer · September 29, 2020

SACRAMENTO, Calif.—Fernando Herrera served in one of California’s inmate fire camps. He credits the experience with helping him turn his life around. Even so, Fernando is unable to get certified as a first responder because of his record. Now, Fernando is joining an existing lawsuit from the Institute for Justice (IJ) that challenges California’s ban on EMT certification for people with felony convictions.

“I made mistakes as a teenager and I regret the things I did,” said Fernando. “But serving in the fire camps showed me that I can give back to my community. Unfortunately, California says I can never get certified as an EMT, even though I was good enough to be a first responder while in prison.”

Fernando grew up in Marysville, California, and got involved with what he calls the “street lifestyle” when he was 14. While in detention, Fernando and his friends attacked another boy they had previously assaulted. Prosecutors threatened a host of charges related to the fight and previous incidents, prompting Fernando to take a plea deal that admitted to two adult felonies.

Following his time in custody, Fernando served with the California Conservation Corps, a state program that provides development for young adults through work in fire protection, land maintenance and other conservation work. Serving in the Corps, Fernando helped battle the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history.

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 work in a diverse variety of careers.

“California wants to exclude Fernando for the rest of his life because of things he did when he was 14 and 15,” said IJ Attorney Andrew Ward. “Fernando served his time and now he wants to serve the public. California should let him.”

California recently created a new law to let people apply to expunge their records if they served in the prison fire camps, A.B. 2147. However, the new law is limited. Most people with felony convictions still cannot apply for an EMT certification, regardless of rehabilitation.

“California took a step in the right direction by allowing at least some people who served in inmate fire camps to get into firefighting careers,” said IJ Attorney Joshua House. “However, the irrational EMT ban remains in place, so our lawsuit will continue, now with an additional client.”

Fernando and current plaintiff Dario Gurrola were two 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.

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