Being a Prison Firefighter Taught Me to Save Lives

 Chivis Martinez  TY Gus Borderland Beat Marshall Project

Note: This is not a post about the narco war, so if that
upsets you simply do not read the post.  This is a
post about the integral inmate firefighter force that has long supplemented
CalFire in fighting those nasty wild fires of California, which seemingly now
has no season but rather appears most of the year.

My son just completed a 40-day deployment in
NorCal.  

He texted me on Labor Day week saying “Hey Ma, I will be
off by Labor day how about I go for a visit and BBQ?”  I was excited, we do not live close to each
other, when he travels to me it is a treat. But that never happened.  He had no replacement.  In fact he is a Public Information Officer,
but this time he was on the fireline.

These historical record-breaking fires, of which our Yaqui
was in the middle of, were different in many aspects, one is the CalFire force
was without their usual inmate FF force. 
Because of a prison outbreak of Covid-19.

Many of you probably didn’t know about inmate FF’s.  They are terrific and are fireline qualified fire
fighters doing the same work as FFs. 
They are an invaluable resource. 
They go into the work knowing they may die, and knowing they will never
be hired in a fire department. 

In the last three years 3 inmate  FFs died in action.   There is a bill that will allow inmates to
be hired as long as their convictions are not of certain types such as violent
crimes.  I support that bill for many
reasons.   Read one man’s story below….Chivis

 

There’s a full-fledged firehouse
equipped with engines at San Quentin Prison. To work for the department, which
serves the facility and over 100 units of mostly employee housing on the
grounds, prisoners have to interview with the fire chief and captains and go
before a panel composed of the warden and other staff. You have to be a good
fit and know how to work in a team. And they only consider people who have a
record of good behavior within the last five years—that means few or no
disciplinary write-ups or infractions.

You cannot have been convicted of arson, sex offenses, murder
or attempted escape, and you have to be at the lowest security level. When I
applied in 2016, I had five years left in my sentence. Dozens of guys were
trying to get into the firehouse, but they only take nine to 12 at a time. I
thought I was in great shape—I was on the San Quentin A’s baseball team, and I
played football. But I was nowhere close to being in firefighting shape. We had
to be able to hike more than a mile with a 75-pound hose on our backs. I didn’t
think I was going to make it at first.

It wasn’t really the act of firefighting that made me want to
join. Initially, I just wanted the job because I would get to sleep in a room
by myself, eat good and train dogs. Plus those guys just look cool. Who as a
kid didn’t think firefighters were awesome?

Joining the department was also an opportunity to escape the
politics and culture of the prison. I wouldn’t be confined to a cell or have COs
hanging over my shoulder all the time; I would be treated like a human being. 

After years of incarceration, I was sold.

I didn’t expect it, but firefighting would
be the most influential thing I’d ever taken part in. Being a member of the
department meant being available 24/7 for calls inside and outside the prison.
On the outside, we had house fires, medical emergencies, car accidents and
grass fires. Inside we responded to cell fires, provided CPR and transported
bodies from housing units to the hospital. In my nearly three years on the job,
I did CPR almost 50 times. Only four people lived.

The sad truth is that San Quentin has an aging population of
people either dying of old age or giving up. There were suicides and a fentanyl
outbreak. Sometimes we’d get five overdoses in a week. In 2017, almost 20
people died of various causes. I did CPR on every one of them.

On one call, a gentleman had fallen off his bunk and hit his
head. He went through three rounds of CPR and two with the defibrillator. On
the third round of CPR, I felt him gasp for breath and I could feel his
heartbeat underneath my hands. I said to my captain, “Holy shit, I think he’s
breathing!” He lived and was back on the yard two days later. I can’t explain
what it feels like to have someone come back to life under your hands. There’s
nothing like it.