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County to train inmates

Decatur County’s paid and volunteer firefighters, which have to cover nearly 600 square miles to protect life and property, could soon get some help from an unexpected place—the County Prison.

County commissioners instructed County Administrator Tom Patton to implement an inmate firefighter program, which would train trustees and persons being held in minimum security custody to assist with firefighting in the county.

The objectives of the project, which will be managed by Prison Warden Elijah McCoy and Fire and Rescue Chief Charlie McCann, include in part: Addressing firefighting coverage gaps and response times and providing an entry-level career path for former inmates.

The program’s backers said adding inmates to the county’s firefighting manpower could provide several benefits, including lowering property insurance premiums and more adequately preventing the loss of life and/or property due to fires and associated life-threatening hazards.

According to a memo provided to county commissioners, who held a one-hour workshop on the proposed program last Tuesday, the Georgia Department of Corrections operates 18 fire stations at state-run facilities, including four county prisons and a total of 220 inmates assigned to firefighting duties.

To take part in the program, inmates chosen by McCoy would first have to pass Georgia’s Work Ready program, which measures an individuals’ aptitude at various job-related functions, including reading comprehension and mathematics. The qualifying inmates would have to meet training requirements mandated by the Georgia Fire Academy and must complete the Georgia Basic Firefighter Course.

Inmate firefighters would work 12-hour shifts under the supervision of a paid county firefighter at one of four locations: the Attapulgus, Faceville and Blackjack volunteer fire departments, and the Decatur County Industrial Air Park off U.S. 27 North.

Patton said there is also the potential for the inmate firefighters to work with Georgia Forestry Commission rangers in combating wildfires, after receiving additional training.

The county government will provide about $10,000 to $15,000 to start up the program, and will also provide uniforms and firefighting gear and equipment for the program.

Ten inmate firefighters chosen by McCoy will have to meet stringent requirements, including having no convictions for arson or sexual offenses; working toward a high school diploma or GED; undergoing a weekly drug test and being screened for the ability to work with the public and supervisors.