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Firefighter launches training program for formerly incarcerated individuals: 'All of us are public stewards'

"You can look that person in the eye and say, 'Listen, I've been there.'"

Brandon Smith, firefighter

When Brandon Smith was released from prison in 2014, he faced plenty of obstacles. 

One of the biggest hurdles, Smith told the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in an interview earlier this year, was finding employment. That was despite the fact that, while incarcerated, he'd trained as a firefighter at one of the state's Conservation (Fire) Camps

Ultimately, Smith and Royal Ramey, another formerly incarcerated firefighter, found work doing what they loved — protecting their state from increasingly dangerous wildfire seasons

Soon, their shared passion turned into something else altogether. Smith and Ramey went on to co-found the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP), a nonprofit that works with people who are currently or were formerly incarcerated by helping them "transition into gainful employment as firefighters once they come home."

Smith serves as the board's Executive Director. For years now, he's trained firefighters and helped them find new careers with a stable, reliable income. As ABC 7 News reported, the FFRP has placed over 160 people in jobs in the forestry and fire sectors. 

Across the country, formerly incarcerated individuals are forced to navigate the same challenges Smith faced in 2014. In fact, recent data shows that a whopping 33% of people are unable to find employment within four years after being released from prison. 

The FFRP is attempting to push back against this trend by working directly with people in Fire Camps, the same program Smith participated in when he was incarcerated. 

"The most important thing for us is that we have that lived experience," Ramey told the CDCR. "You can look that person in the eye and say, 'Listen, I've been there.'"

In just five months, they're able to train candidates up to statewide standards. Still, Smith believes training is just a small part of the job. 

"What FFRP is showing is that there are many formerly incarcerated people who want to positively give back to their communities," Smith told the CDCR. "It's not just the fact you've been in a fire camp that validates you for this program. It's the fact you have made a commitment to transform your life moving forward. All of us are public stewards."

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