by Laura Lieff
Following an extremely mild winter that brought very little snow to Colorado, the state is ablaze with record temperatures exacerbating the extremely dangerous situation. Wildfires have been burning from Avon in the Vail Valley to High Park near Fort Collins and seemingly everywhere in-between. Buildings, homes and tens of thousands of acres of both private and national forest service land have succumbed to a constant streak of blazes and firefighters all over the state have been working on containment.
On the front lines saving lives is the most unlikely group of firefighters — convicted criminals from Colorado’s penitentiary system assembled by the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team (SWIFT). Formed by Colorado Correctional Industries (CCi), SWIFT is a team of fire crews providing hand crew support and assistance on wildland fires within Colorado. The inmates are from the Four Mile Correctional Center in Canon City, the Rifle Correctional Center and the Buena Vista Correctional Center.
Currently in its 11th summer, the SWIFT program came about when it was authorized by statute in 1998 and revised in 2001. The program started in 2001 just prior to the 2002 fire season and the authorizing legislation is 17-24-124 C.R. S. “The Inmate Disaster Relief Program.” CCi Service Manager Jack Laughlin was tasked with launching the program in 2001.
“We started the program in partnership with the Colorado State Forest Service and made ourselves available via the Interagency Dispatch system which manages firefighting resources throughout the region,” Laughlin explained. “We started with a single crew in 2002, added the Rifle crew in 2003 and the Buena Vista crew in 2004.”
So far this summer the SWIFT fire crews have worked on the High Park Fire near Fort Collins, the Weber Fire in Park County located west of Colorado Springs, the Lower North Fork Fire, the Hewlett Fire, the Sunrise Mine Fire, the Stuart Hole fire and several other smaller incidents. Fires have also taken them to Durango and Pueblo.
When the inmates are not on fire assignment they are doing forest-related work such as fuels reduction, fire mitigation, trail construction and planting. Fuels reduction is manipulation, including combustion or removal of fuels, to reduce the likelihood of ignition and to lessen potential damage and resistance to control. This process often includes thinning and prescribed burning.
What It Takes
To become part of the SWIFT program offenders must adhere to a list of requirements: They must be non-violent offenders, they cannot be convicted sex offenders, they must have a GED or high school diploma, they must be over 18 years old and it’s imperative that they have no disciplinary action for six months. Offenders cannot have any medical or psychological issues that require attendance in medical lines at the facility and they must waive parole or placement in a community corrections (halfway house) center for a fire season. They also have to be within three years of their parole eligibility and 10 years of their release date and be classified as minimum or minimum-restrictive custody.
As for the physical requirement, all convicts must pass a pre-qualification fitness test in order to be considered, the main component of which is a 1.5 mile run in less than 12 minutes. There are also pushup, sit-up and pull-up requirements.
According to Laughlin, he receives close to 300 applicants or inquiries annually for less than 100 openings and the process is very thorough. Offenders fill out an application, which is either available via someone in the program or via the offenders’ case manager. Laughlin and his team then review the applications and if the candidate is acceptable a fitness test and interview are scheduled.
“We take applications throughout the year, but we attempt to limit our training to once annually in February,” said Laughlin. “We then have crews available beginning in March for the early season fire work that has been common for the last few years. We take applications from qualifying offenders from all facilities and will either travel during the winter to facilities outside of our home units or have prospective candidates screened locally and then sent to a facility where we have a program. Even then staff can reject any candidate.”
All Around Advantages
The benefits of this program are symbiotic for multiple reasons. For the inmates, the program allows them to earn up to $6 a day while on fire assignment in addition to the 60 cents per day that all working inmates receive. It also gives them the opportunity to get out of their respective correctional facilities and be outside for an extended period of time and sometimes overnight. Offenders also earn an extra day of “good time” for every day they fight a fire which helps shorten their sentences.
“Participation in this program is a privilege and the offenders are typically respectful of the opportunity that is provided for them,” Laughlin explained. “They are often provided with a life experience that is both rewarding and life-altering. There are not many jobs in this world, especially inmate jobs, that provide the kind of satisfaction and positive reinforcement that this work provides.”
According to Laughlin, over 30 of the 600 offenders that have participated in the program have pursued the field after their release. While not all of them have become firefighters, many have obtained jobs in forestry management.
The public benefits from this program as well since the SWIFT crews do not rely on taxpayer money for compensation. Instead, they generate their own income by charging for their services to pay for equipment, supplies, vehicles, tools, etc. T hey also rely on fees charged to state, local and federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and non-profit organizations who contract with CCi for firefighting services.
Because CCi charges less than half the cost of a typical federal firefighting crew, Laughlin says the program has saved state taxpayers over $3 million during the past decade due to their lower costs and the “good time” offenders earn by participating in the program.
“This is a great program that instills a positive self-image in men that have not had much success in that area,” Laughlin noted. “It provides a valuable service to the citizens of Colorado and has saved those taxpayers millions of dollars.”
He continued, “The earned time does not go above the maximum that they can earn, but it allows the offender to reach that time much faster. In addition, because they have demonstrated that they can work and act appropriately back in society they are more likely to be viewed favorably by the Parole Board and Community Corrections Boards when they are eligible to apply.”
While some might be wary of inmates being front and center in dangerous situations, Laughlin and his crews have been earning nothing but praise.
“I know these young men are part of the corrections system but their dedication and skills are something to be commended,” said Bill Ralston, President of the Bear Trap Ranch Landowners Association. “Whoever is responsible for this concept/program needs to know that it is successful and is a surefire way to help these dedicated firefighters.”
According to Laughlin, this praise is well-deserved.
“We have a workforce that is motivated, readily available and geographically spread throughout the state to respond in areas that may not have any other hand crews available,” he said. “This business is very much a reputation-based business and if we are not an effective, professional resource we would not be utilized regardless of our price.”
All fire crews are supervised by two CCi staff members who provide correctional and fire line supervision. Each crew has at least one staff member that is certified as a crew boss. The crews all receive training as wildland firefighters — the same as anyone that is going to work on a wildfire. They also receive sawyer (power saw) training, basic incident command and first aid.
“Not only is this a viable trade, but the offenders receive college credit for their training and if they choose can enroll in an apprenticeship program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor,” Laughlin said. “Most importantly, this program — similar to all CCi programs — teaches the value of a work ethic, the merits of positive behavior and how to work within a team that has a common goal.”
For more information visit www.colo radoci.com or contact Jack Laughlin at jack .firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-269-4539.