I want to help out my brothers and sisters, show them the path that I took, and create new pathways for them.
by Brandon Smith, #LwC2020
April 28, 2020
I am the founding Executive Director of the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP). The state of California has a unique practice, which started about seventy years ago, of training people who are incarcerated to fight wildfires. Because of the increasing severity and frequency of wildfires in the state there is an extreme shortage of professional fire fighters. Today incarcerated fire fighters make up 30 to 40 percent of the fighting force in California, living in 45 fire camps throughout the state. FFRP’s mission is to help formerly incarcerated firefighters become professionals once they come out.
Starting FFRP was based on my own personal experience. When I was in prison I seized the opportunity to go to fire camp because the perks were so much better. Instead of being stuck in four walls of concrete, I was going out every day putting out fires. We had access to the surrounding community; when there wasn’t a fire to fight we performed services in the community. I helped clean a water treatment plant in a rural area, did brush removal for the elderly, and helped to build a baseball field. Being part of the community really centered my focus in the sense of giving back. When you fight fires and you’re saving folks’ lives, homes and communities you can take some pride in that. And then it keeps you on your toes. You have to stay physically fit and mentally alert because it’s a dangerous job. It was what I needed to get my life back on track and I grew to love it.
When I got out of prison I decided to go professional, but it wasn’t easy. It took me about a year to figure out how to make it happen. Then the first time I fought a fire as a professional, I found myself working with guys from the same fire camp I’d been in as a prisoner. We all did a double take! During dinner I spoke about how I had made the transition and quite a few men were very interested. That’s what gave me and my co-founder, who had also spent time in a fire camp, the idea of starting FFRP. That was in 2013. So far we’ve helped over 80 people enter the field professionally on an entry level basis. That means going from the prison wage of $24 a day to making $50-80K within 2 years of coming home.
One of the reasons why I got involved with JLUSA is because FFRP is gaining a lot of local attention now and I want to sharpen my advocacy skills. Being a firefighter is one of the ultimate public safety jobs. In fact people respect firefighters more than they do police officers. So coming from a position of being a “public nuisance” to the number one public safety job sometimes gets some pushback. People in fire camp are often told they can’t do it, there’s no way to make it happen. There are also licensing issues that come up. Our program spreads awareness to the folks incarcerated that they can do it and then we try to be a support system for them. I want to help out my brothers and sisters, show them the path that I took, and create new pathways for them.
Leading with Conviction has been a great experience. I’ve made a lot of personal connections and I talk and text to my peer mentor regularly. Multiple people have already said, “You want help in the advocacy space? Let’s talk about it.” Also, the coaching sessions with David have been great.