New California law to make it easier for former inmate firefighters to turn pro

It will streamline the process to expunge their felony records, helping clear the way to pursue careers in the field.

OAKLAND, Calif.—Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a new bill Friday that will accelerate the process for expunging the felony records of formerly incarcerated volunteer firefighters.

The new law is designed to make it far easier for them to earn an emergency medical technician certification, the first step in becoming a professional firefighter in most cities and counties.

For decades, thousands of inmate firefighters have battled wildfires across the state, working alongside professional firefighters in the scorching heat and smoke.

Yet the men and women prisoners who throw themselves in danger to help save lives and property often find it impossible to put their firefighting skills to use after their release, even in a state desperate for such labor.

This system will now undergo a significant change under AB 2147, making it easier for them to earn an emergency medical technician certification, the first step in becoming a professional firefighter in most cities and counties.

Former inmates have to disclose on applications for EMT programs and jobs whether they have been convicted of a felony. With the record eliminated, they could be considered as any other applicant. Some former inmates convicted of violent offenses, including arson, kidnapping, and rape would be barred from having their records expunged.

“I think that after seeing all these young men and women stand side by side with our other fire crews and knowing that they had no hope of entering that profession, I knew that it was wrong and that we needed to do something about it,” Assemblymember Eloise Reyes, the bill’s author, said.

The law received support from prisoners’ advocacy groups and at least one unlikely organization, the Los Angeles Lakers.

California has about 3,700 incarcerated people working in the inmate firefighting program, with about 2,600 qualified to work fire lines.