In the November edition of FIRE CHIEF, Robert Rielage, the chief of the Wyoming (Ohio) Fire-EMS, offers in his “Volunteer Voice” column several interesting suggestions for dealing with staffing pressures borne of the economic crunch that many departments are experiencing. The gist of the column is that departments today need to be innovative and creative in their thinking like never before.
Reading the column reminded me of a news item I saw a while back. The Florida Times-Union reported that Camden County, Ga., which borders Florida and has just under 50,000 residents, is considering assigning jail inmates to fire stations. Two would be assigned to each station and they would respond to all emergencies, working alongside actual firefighters. The inmates would be unguarded, though they would be monitored by a surveillance system and supervised by actual firefighters, who would be trained for that task. Such a move reportedly would save the county a half-million dollars annually.
This strikes me as sheer lunacy. But what do I know? I’m not a fire chief, so I can’t fully appreciate the budgetary pressures that they are experiencing right now. In order to test my thinking, I thought I’d ask a couple of chiefs what they thought. Rielage was one. I also wanted the perspective of a career chief, so I reached out to Charles Werner, whom I have known for years through my work with sister publication Urgent Communications, and who is chief of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department.
As it turns out, I was right: Camden County’s plan is nuts.
In an e-mail response, Werner shared the following thought: “This is ridiculous. We are going to send people with drug crimes and thefts into houses where they will have unprecedented access to personal belongings? What happens if an inmate decides he wants to escape during a rescue situation? And what if a person with a drug conviction — not just an arrest — comes across personal medications? This seems like a great deal of liability.”
Rielage shared similar concerns and then added a few more. Though the use of inmates in wildfire situations has precedent — for instance, the Florida-Times Union reported that 4,000 firefighting inmates currently are stationed at 45 camps in the state of California — the setting is very different than what would be encountered in a populated area.
“In a wildland situation, they are usually in a very remote area with very little property,” Rielage said. “In an urban setting, you are working daily with people’s property. The temptation would be astronomical.”
Rielage added that another big question concerning Camden County’s idea concerns whether firefighters could trust inmates with their lives, as they do with each other.
“We need to know that the folks who are entering with us are not only going to give their full attention, but literally their full service to each other in the event that something unspeakable happens,” Rielage said. “A team concept has to be in place if you are going to be able to put your trust in each other when you are going into a life-threatening situation, and I don’t think that is going to be there with inmates.”
Indeed, times are tough for the fire service, and many departments are hurting. But there must be ways of coping with the current fiscal crisis that are better than what Camden County is contemplating. Thinking outside the box has its limits.
What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.