Story, photos by Dana Simas, CDCR Public Information Officer
Children often dream of careers as crime-busting police officers or life-saving firefighters. Sierra Conservation Center (SCC) Fire Captains Scott Long and Paul Vizcarra chose both, and today they’re on the job.
They are firefighters and sworn peace officers responsible for the duties required of both. As firefighters, they must have graduated from a certified fire academy, including emergency medical technician (EMT) training. To work for California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), they must have also passed the correctional officer academy.
Fire Captain Scott Long worked as a firefighter for five years before joining CDCR. Fire Captain Paul Vizcarra worked for Salida Fire Department before he joined the CDCR ranks.
CDCR operates 27 fire stations at prisons across the state.
SCC operates a full-fledged station with one Fire Chief, four Fire Captains, and eight volunteer inmate firefighters.
The Fire Captains each work staggered 48-hour shifts, eight to nine days a month, living on prison grounds when on duty.
At most fires stations, when firefighters have completed their shift, they can leave. For the inmates assigned to this fire station, they make that their home 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Supervision of the eight inmate firefighters is the responsibility of the Fire Captains, both at the fire station and when responding to emergencies outside of the prison.
The Fire Captains wear multiple hats while fulfilling the role of not only a fire house captain but also trainer, supervisor, mentor and cook.
They’re responsible for teaching volunteer inmate firefighters how to respond to all-risk emergencies including structure fires, vehicle accidents, and hazardous materials response.
Also on the extensive list of duties, they conduct safety inspections, including checking the 800 fire extinguishers located around SCC.
Daily inventory and inspections must be done to make sure all equipment is in proper working order before the fire station gets a call. The amount of equipment at the station doesn’t make this a small task.
“When we go out, someone’s life is on the line so stuff has to work,” said Fire Captain Paul Vizcarra.
So far this year, SCC’s fire station has responded to approximately 160 calls. They respond just like any other fire engine, having only 60 seconds to put on the dense, heavy fire suit and jump on the vehicle prepared to respond to whatever meets them at the scene.
To be best prepared to respond to any incident, Fire Captains teach inmate firefighters numerous life-saving measures, how to use rescue tools such as the Jaws of Life for vehicle accidents, how to rappel in order to respond to structure fires or cliff-side rescues, how to break and breach through barriers if visibility is next to zero, and how to maintain composure when faced with a dangerous situation such as being confined in a small area.
The SCC fire station also hosts numerous training activities throughout the year for nearby fire and rescue personnel.
From running up five flights of stairs with a water hose to simulating a zero-visibility rescue in an enclosure resembling a rat’s maze, it’s hands-on experience like this which make the inmates trained by SCC Fire Captains viable candidates for firefighter positions after their release from prison.
The training is extensive. It can take the inmate firefighters more than a year before becoming a full-fledged member of the fire house. The Fire Captains teach each of the inmates their roles and responsibilities when they decide to put on their fire suit and leave the inmate tag behind.
“Every seat on the engine has a job,” Fire Captain Scott Long said.
There are drawbacks however to having 80 percent of the available responders limited in the type of responses in which they can participate.
The inmate firefighters cannot respond to certain areas of the prison such as the sensitive needs yard. They also cannot drive the rescue vehicles, leaving the Fire Captain to also fill the role of “Engineer Fireman” by driving the rescue vehicle.
Given these restrictions, however, the SCC fire station is still a win for all involved, according to those with the program.
From the inmates who receive the training and life skills which many have used to gain employment at fire stations across the state upon their release, to the surrounding public who has seen their homeowner’s insurance premiums drop over the last three years thanks to the responses of SCC, the program has proven successful.
The training is rigorous and the risk is high with every call to which the SCC fire station responds. The institution Fire Captains have to trust each other, the equipment, the inmates and themselves ensuring they’ve done the best preparation possible to respond to life-saving incidents both inside and outside the prison walls.
Read more Day in the Life stories at http://www.insidecdcr.ca.gov/category/day-in-the-life/