It’s not easy becoming a firefighter. There are many hoops to jump through – certifications, written and physical abilities testing, interviews, background screenings. One problem with any part of the process, and the candidate is often out of the running. The hiring process tends to be unforgiving, even if a problem occurred long in the past.
Given the competitive nature of the process, and the fact that each hiring leaves qualified people behind, why would any fire department want to offer concessions for past legal troubles that show up on background screenings?
One reason is that in some cases, those with a checkered past may already be doing the job. In the State of California, 20% of all wildland firefighters are inmates in state correctional programs. Some of these inmates have been fighting fires for years, sometimes on the most challenging and dangerous fires in the state. Yet when they complete their sentences and are fully integrated back into the community, they are not eligible to even apply for the same job they had successfully done while incarcerated.
There have been efforts to advance legislation that would change the standards that automatically disqualify certain applicants because of criminal convictions. So far that legislation has failed, and no second chances are available to these potential candidates.
Bridgeport offers second chances
One place where second chances are a reality is the City of Bridgeport, Connecticut, the largest city in the state, with a fire department of 300 career members. Bridgeport currently has a city-wide program – the Mayor’s Initiative for Reentry Affairs (MIRA) – that allows applicants who would normally be eliminated due to past legal problems to get a second look during the application process.
Chief Richard Thode explained that the program started at the behest of elected officials and the mayor, who has a personal connection to the concept of second chances due to his own past criminal conviction.
The program involves a peer review committee selected for each hiring process by the chief and deputy chief of the department. Effort is made to make the committee as diverse as possible, and members sign a confidentiality agreement regarding the information they have access to during the process.
If an otherwise promising candidate is revealed to have a past legal problem that may be forgivable, that person is called to meet with the committee and explain their side of the story.
If hired, people coming in through this process are on probation for a period of time related to their past issues. So far, the department has hired five or six recruits under these conditions.
Thode told the story of one of the firefighters hired in this way. As a teenager, he was arrested on drug charges and spent 8 months in jail. But once he got out of jail, he changed his life. He got a job as a CDL truck driver, got married and had children. In his 30s, he came to the fire department looking for a second chance – and they gave him one. Entering the department in a recruit class of more than two dozen, few people knew that he had gone through a unique hiring experience. Thode added that he has proven to be an asset and valued member of the department.
Representing the full diversity of the community
Even with this kind of positive outcome, there is the question of why – why bother making these special efforts for some candidates when there are already more than enough prospective firefighters without those issues?
A big reason why this program is important to the Bridgeport Fire Department is its commitment to including and representing the community it serves. Compared to the rest of the state, people living in Bridgeport are significantly younger, less affluent and more racially and ethnically diverse. Although residency is not a requirement for employment with the city, the department wants to reach out to residents to become firefighters. In making this effort, Thode said, the department found that a zero-tolerance policy for past legal issues dramatically reduced the candidate pool.
Thode acknowledged that not all department members were supportive of the program at the beginning, but said it is a non-issue now: “The people we have hired through this program, it’s like they still have a debt to pay,” he said. “They’re motivated to prove that ‘I’m a second chance candidate and I’m going show you I’m not a mistake.’ Every person that we have hired under the program has been exemplary. They’re great employees.”
The Bridgeport Fire Department is committed to representing the full diversity of the community they serve – and this includes providing opportunities for some people who may benefit from getting a second chance.