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Pelican Bay's inmate firefighters find a place to do some good

Members of Pelican Bay State Prison’s inmate firefighting program practice outside their firehouse. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
Members of Pelican Bay State Prison’s inmate firefighting program practice outside their firehouse. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
“We’re clamp sliding! We’re moving!” 

Three firefighters in heavy yellow jackets and helmets are crowded around a bulky hose connected to a fire engine — a pale yellow one, not the traditional red. The hose is blasting water 20 feet in front of them, and on command the firefighters begin to maneuver through a corridor of wooden pallets that have been set up outside the firehouse to simulate a burning structure.

The nozzleman — that’s the firefighter on the front of the hose shouting the commands — begins to move forward, and the guys behind him follow as water continues to shoot wildly around.

“I need a push!” he shouts, and the heel — that’s the last man on the hose — pushes forward, giving the nozzleman enough slack to control the front of the hose and strategically blast water — his own personal geyser.

Twenty feet behind them another yellow-clad group has helmeted up and is gathering around a different hose, preparing to perform the same drill. Behind them is the yellow fire truck the hose is connected to, manned by a seventh member of the team. And directly behind him a blue Pelican Bay State Prison tower looms large.

“We’re still in prison, you know,” Michael Lewis, one of the senior firefighters on the team said, looking back at the tower. “All it takes is a quick look over there to the land of misery and doom — we see that every morning. It’s a grim reminder of the reality of my past behavior.”

If not for the yellow fire engine, the prison towers and the menacing barbed wire fence 30 yards away, anyone watching the firefighters gathered around the hose might think that volunteers at one of the local fire departments were running their regular drills. And they’d be right, except this particular group of volunteers are prisoners.

The firefighters, left to right: Nicholas Tucker, Steven Rhem, Vincent Washington, Chad Johnson, Stewart Miller, Michael Lewis and Lemar Wanzo. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
The firefighters, left to right: Nicholas Tucker, Steven Rhem, Vincent Washington, Chad Johnson, Stewart Miller, Michael Lewis and Lemar Wanzo. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
 

“It keeps us humble,” said Nicholas Tucker, another inmate firefighter, referring to the tower. “It gives you a lot of gratitude for being over here (at the firehouse).”

The inmate firefighting program, which is now statewide but began at Pelican Bay when it was built 27 years ago, takes low-level offenders and puts them on a fiery road to rehabilitation. According to the inmate firefighters, the program is a potential path around recidivism toward personal betterment and a potential life outside of the prison walls.

“What can you say? You thank your lucky stars that you’re not in there,” Lewis said, referring to Pelican Bay’s maximum security area. “You’ve got a chance to get this turned around and go the right way. Thank your lucky stars that you’re in a place to do something good, not only for the community but for yourself. Something positive.”

And while the prisoners serve their time, life outside the prison walls isn’t as far away as it may seem — in one inmate firefighter’s case — in a 17-year sentence. That’s because these prisoners are regularly called on to help local volunteers with everything from vehicle collisions to structural fires to confined space rescues.

“I’ve found working with inmate crews has been really, really good,” said Kurt Watkins, training officer for Crescent City Fire Department and Crescent Fire Protection District. 

“Their training is very good; their attitude is very good; and their willingness to work is very good. They’re very consistent, and in fire service consistency is a big deal.”

Considering how much the Pelican Bay team trains for such calls — up to 40 hours a week, according to Pelican Bay Fire Chief Ryan Wakefield — that consistency shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. While a typical paid firefighter on the outside might work 24 hours on, 48 hours off, Wakefield said, the prison firefighting team is basically training for their job from about 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day of the week.

“Firefighters at a paid department, they might be there every third day,” Wakefield said. “We’re here every day. By the virtue of our schedule we’re here 24/7.”

Twenty-four/7 begins at 5:45 a.m., when the team wakes up. There’s no bell or alarm or wake-up call, just a biological adjustment to a routine that’s largely absent from where most of them came from — the Level 1 minimum security facility, or as it’s commonly referred to, “The Ranch,” which is where low-level offenders are kept.

“You just settle into a routine, biologically I guess would be the right word for it,” Tucker said. “Over there you’re going to get up to get breakfast if you choose to. That’s part of the lessons of being here, settling into a routine. It’s like having a job in the real world.”

While prisoners at The Ranch might spend the morning sleeping or watching TV in the morning, the seven inmates at the firehouse are waking up for breakfast and exercise. And even though 5:45 a.m. might sound a little early, that routine and promise for personal betterment is a powerful fuel, the inmates agreed, not to mention the perks that working and living at the firehouse brings.

“It’s a live-in program,” Wakefield said. 

“No one else does a complete immersion, everyone else goes home (to the minimum security facility) at night. This program would prefer they have no affiliation with what’s going on over there.”

The program is the only one like it at Pelican Bay, Wakefield said, in that it’s the only job a prisoner can have that takes them out of regular prison life and keeps them totally immersed in the job. Other inmate jobs at the prison might offer opportunity for personal enrichment — prisoners can earn mechanic certifications working at the prison motor pool, for example — but a gig at the firehouse, which pays 32–45 cents an hour, is the only one where prisoners actually live where they work.

Which means, for starters, there’s drywall — not cement and steel like at The Ranch — and private bathrooms and showers.

“The bathroom doors are nice,” Stewart Miller, another inmate on the firehouse team, said.

Meals, like 6 a.m. breakfast, are brought over from The Ranch by either fire captains Ray Rook or Michael Knight and eaten together. It’s the same kind of food the other prisoners eat, of course, but sometimes even the cuisine can get an upgrade when you’re an inmate firefighter.

Pelican Bay firefighters inside their firehouse. “We fight what you fear,” it says on the wall behind them. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
Pelican Bay firefighters inside their firehouse. “We fight what you fear,” it says on the wall behind them. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
On calls to respond to fires or accidents outside the prison walls inmate firefighters are permitted to share meals with local volunteers and law enforcement, which Lewis said can be pretty tasty in comparison to the everyday prison food — “baloney sandwiches everyday,” Tucker said.

“When we get pizza or cheeseburgers — it’s huge,” he continued. “When you go without normal food, that’s a big deal.”

“I’m going to put pastrami sandwiches on that list,” Lewis added. “You get treated like a regular person when someone comes around with a plate of chicken wings. It makes you feel normal again.”

The sharing ends there, Wakefield said, pointing out that something like a cigarette wouldn’t be allowed to be given over, but just the food is enough to make a prisoner feel like a person again.

When the team isn’t responding to a call, which can happen at any time day or night (more often that not it’s to fires inside the prison), the firefighters continue with their routine. 

After breakfast it’s time for chores and equipment check and prep, with each prisoner taking care of his respective duties according to his knowledge, training and, when it comes to daily chores like cleaning bathrooms and food trays,  his seniority. 

Lewis, for example, who has been a part of the team for 3½ years — longer than any of the others — has been placed in an engineer role and, among other duties, is responsible for upkeep on one of the trucks, “making sure it’s ready to go, battle-ready.” 

Tucker, who’s been on the team for about a year less than Lewis, fills another engineering role, while Chad Johnson is an expert in small motors and repair. Wakefield said the prisoners’ various roles are merit-based, and the fire captains assign them accordingly.

Equipment-specific prep takes up the next hour, or as long as it takes to make sure the team is ready to roll out if a call comes in. 

“We all take it really seriously,” Lewis said.

Wakefield said the team has responded to about 55 calls since January, which can involve anything from structure fires somewhere in the county to a false alarm for popcorn burning in a Pelican Bay kitchen, although the team wouldn’t take the truck for a burnt popcorn alarm, he added.

After prep and chores is physical training, which encompasses running, weight training, pushups, pullups and anything else it might take to keep the team in peak physical shape, Wakefield said. The quest for a better life after prison might keep the inmate firefighters waking up at 5:45 every morning, but competition between team members doesn’t hurt.

“Old Steve Rehm, he can bench the most — he’s putting up 280, I believe. The oldest guy, a 53-year-old man.” Tucker said.

“Since we’re on that subject, I’m 53 years old and I run the fastest mile-and-a-half,” Lewis replied.

The inmate firefighting team  responds to fires both inside and outside the prison walls. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
The inmate firefighting team responds to fires both inside and outside the prison walls. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson

At around 9 a.m. there’s a daily meeting where the fire captain on duty goes over what kind of training or duties are planned for the day. These are prioritized based on what needs to be done around the firehouse, as well as which skills individual prisoners need to learn in order to earn State of California firefighting certifications, the first of which can take about a year to earn.

Then the firefighters get to work for the rest of the day. Lately, confined space training has been on the schedule, which Watkins said fills a big void in the county’s rescue operation needs. He said that currently the closest certified confined space team is in Eureka and that having a fully trained team in Del Norte will be invaluable.

The Confined Space Hazard Assessment and Control Program is basically a system that manages risks associated with working in confined spaces like in manholes or inside storage tanks. The training required for confined space rescue takes a lot of time, according to Watkins, and is appropriate for members of the firehouse team.

“It’s a huge need in our community,” Watkins said. “Them taking on this responsibility is a huge plus for the county because the resources are limited. It involves rope rescue and confined space entry and air monitoring. Confined spaces are all around us, not just sewer holes and vaults — there’s a ton of them around.” 

The equipment required for the prisoners’ training isn’t always what would typically be found at a normal department — take the wooden pallets used to build a mock structure, for example — but Wakefield said they work with what they have. 

Sometimes the team participates in live fire training on real structures with local departments. There’s also that old yellow fire truck that the prison firefighters have been working with for years, he said. It’s due to be replaced with a newer one this week, a donation from the University of California in Santa Cruz.

“It’s red,” Tucker said. “The yellow one looks a little bit like being incarcerated.”

Reach Aaron West at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

 


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