Inmate firefighters learn life skills

Published 2:44 pm Friday, November 23, 2012

Through Decatur County’s inmate firefighter program, some prison inmates not only learn viable work-related skills, but they also can help save lives and property.

Lt. Steve Enfinger, of Decatur County Fire and Rescue, serves as the program coordinator. The program, which has been used in Decatur County for three years, trains county inmates to serve as additional firefighters. Those inmates receive the same training that any other firefighter would undergo.

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“This is not only a great rehabilitation program, it’s also beneficial to Decatur County,” Enfinger said.

On Tuesday, the newest collection of inmate firefighters was working at the DCFR training facility, participating in their first simulated “live burn.” Enfinger noted there is a good amount of turnover through the program, because the inmates eventually are released from the Decatur County Prison, and new inmate firefighters have to be trained to take their place.

The program has been very successful in cutting the recidivism rate. Enfinger said that there have been about 20 inmates who have completed the firefighter program, and only one of those inmates has returned to jail since being released. Any inmate who has completed the firefighter program and has been released from jail is also eligible to pursue full-time employment at a paid fire department, as long as it is five years or more after his original conviction date.

“Becoming a part of something challenging, and becoming part of an elite brotherhood, gives these inmates purpose and the desire to better themselves,” Enfinger said. “They hold themselves to a higher standard, and most eventually become productive citizens in the community.”

Enfinger said that any inmate firefighter candidate must first go through a vigorous training program, to ensure that they are serious about the commitment. Decatur County Prison Warden Elijah McCoy selects the candidates for the inmate firefighter team, and they then begin their training at the DCFR central headquarters.

At that point, Fire Chief Charlie McCann, Enfinger and other DCFR shift training officers further screen the candidates in order to select the best ones. After six weeks of classroom instruction by DCFR’s own instructors, the inmate firefighter candidates must pass the Georgia Firefighter Standards and Training Council’s written and practical exams, including the live burn simulation. However, training and learning continues every day, just as it does for paid firefighters.

“These candidates put forth 110 percent to becoming firefighters, and are continually challenging themselves,” Enfinger said. “In fact, the last group of candidates named themselves ‘Challenger I,’ and their motto was to save lives, protect property and overcome any challenges, while achieving personal growth.”

Enfinger noted that the program also offers tremendous benefits for Decatur County citizens. For example, there are two volunteer fire stations in the southern part of the county, which are manned by two inmate firefighters and one paid firefighter each. These stations can be manned even during the day, when most volunteer firefighters are working at their regular jobs.

“This greatly reduces our response time to emergencies,” Enfinger said. “It also publicly influences our county-wide ISO ratings. The rest of the inmate firefighter team helps provide manpower at the central fire station.”