Forging a More Diverse Generation of Firefighters in Marin County

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All morning, Armando Jimenez and Jesus Chavez shoveled piles of brush into a wood chipper, the strong smell of laurels wafting around a playground, parking lot and baseball field in the Memorial San Anselmo Park. If a fire were to approach, it would approach a steep, wooded hill which was, until this morning, covered with eucalyptus, acacia and other brush, but which now appears to be clean-shaven, cleared of small trees, branches and twigs – all good fuel for a fire.

Thanks to the work of Jimenez and Chavez, if a spark were to hit that hill and start a fire, it’s now much less likely to climb through brush like a ladder and start a crown fire in the tops of tall trees, threatening homes. neighbours.

Jimenez and Chavez, and the other members of their crew, are part of the first cohort of Fire Foundry, a job training program aimed at changing the way firefighters are recruited in Marin County – one of the most California’s wealthy, but also one of its most segregated.

Fire Foundry student Jesus Chavez clears brush for a wildfire hazard mitigation project near the Marin County Fire Department in Woodacre on September 15, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The program provides full-time employment (primarily clearing vegetation and other fuels to protect against future fires), temporary housing at the fire station, food assistance, mental health support, tutoring , free uniforms and boots, free courses at the College of Marin, and training in the use of new fire technologies, such as remote sensing programs and predictive services. The goal is to bring more people of color and women into the Marin County Fire Department and the field in general.

Setting his helmet aside, Jimenez sits down at a wooden picnic table. “I really want to see more minorities in the fire service,” he said. “This is the main [that] it made me want to get into it. »

The 21-year-old was born and raised in Mexico and came to the United States in 2010.

Both in Marin County and across the country, the diversity of fire departments is dismal. Of the county’s 80 full-time firefighters, nearly 83 percent are white men. About 7.5% are white women, an equal percentage are Latinos, and Asian firefighters make up just 2%. None of the department’s full-time firefighters are African American. In the county, 3% of the population is black, 16% Latino and 6% Asian. Slightly more than half of the population is female. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2019, 96% of American career firefighters were male and 82% were white.

The feeding programs that direct people to fire academies are largely the same. This is despite a body of research papers (PDFs) suggesting that communities are best served if first responders resemble the community they serve.

“We’re trying to break that mold,” said Marin County Fire Chief Jason Weber, who originated the idea for the Fire Foundry, which helps trainees gain the skills needed for long-term jobs. and well paid. “We’re trying to break systemic cycles of poverty, generational poverty, and it has to do with the importance of a sustainable salary career.”

The reality of climate change, said Rhea Suh, current president of the Marin Community Foundation, is that the adaptation and mitigation it will require will come at enormous costs. There is an opportunity, she said, for governments and organizations to connect middle-class unionized jobs — firefighters, pipe fitters, track workers — with the people who need them.

“We know the fires are happening. We know the sea level rise is happening. Why can’t we really think about the pipeline for these positions?” she says. “These may be the great jobs of the next century.”

Several men in gray shirts and yellow helmets circle around a man leaning on a chainsaw.
Field Supervisor Darrell Galli leads a training lesson for the Fire Foundry team at Woodacre on September 15, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Forged by many hands

This is during turbulent times in 2020 – COVID-19, a presidential election, the worst wildfire year in recorded history and a summer of racial reckoning that followed a white Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd, a man black – only discussions on fire The foundry has picked up speed.

It took the cooperation of an array of partners to form the program. These partners included Conservation Corps North Bay, College of Marin, Marin County, Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority and others.

“It was a moment of momentum. All of these groups came together to build something,” said Sofia Martinez, equity analyst at Marin County, one of the program’s co-founders. sectors of life. Especially when it comes to emergency medical care. response or disaster response in general, they want to see people on the ground and they want to interact with people who understand their lived experiences.

College of Marin, Stanford University and UC Berkeley are also Fire Foundry partners. Martinez said the program benefits from their researchers who are “passionate about changing the way things have been done historically” and the proximity to Sonoma and Napa counties, where the destructive Glass, Kincade and Tubbs fires have burned.

Sukh Singh is a lab manager at the UC Berkeley Disaster Lab, which seeks to use technology and innovation to solve the problems facing humanity. He heard about the idea for the program in early 2021 and has been part of the development team, designing marketing and communications materials and helping with recruitment.

“I immigrated from India,” Singh said. “I had never thought of becoming a firefighter.

He was surprised to learn that firefighters can make a lot of money, especially for those who also administer emergency medical aid, and believes that if more people knew about it, they might be attracted to the profession. Depending on the city or county, starting salaries for a paramedic firefighter can range from $80,000 to $140,000 per year.

Knowing that might have made the job more interesting for him growing up, Singh said. “And that would have been one of the things [that] could have convinced my family,” Singh said, “because we were very low income growing up — that this could be a worthwhile and important career field.

Fire Foundry student Jesus Flores (left) wraps his arm around fellow student Luis Alducin during a break from their work on a wildfire hazard mitigation project near the Marin County Fire Department at Woodacre on September 15, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Success and defeat

Fire Foundry is in its infancy and has not been tested. This year, the program was unable to retain the full list of female recruits. Seven started the program and two remain: One is now at the Santa Rosa Junior College Firefighter Academy. The other took a defensible space inspection job with the Marin County Fire Department.

Nationwide, 96% of career firefighters are male. Increasing the number of women is therefore a priority for Fire Foundry. The architects of the program plan to make some changes for next year: more flexibility in schedules, earlier and more frequent mentoring and greater adaptation to the specific needs of individuals. Weber hopes the changes will help with retention and the program will spread across the state.

County watchers and supporters are encouraged by the comprehensive approach offered by Fire Foundry compared to other training programs.

“I know the [conservation] world very well,” said Suh, of the Marin Community Foundation, “and it is and always has been dominated by white men. She previously led diversity programs at the Department of the Interior, appointed by former President Barack Obama.

“I’m fascinated that there are people on the ground like the fire chief in Marin who says to himself, without any kind of outside pressure, ‘We have to find a sustainable way to maintain our pipeline and […] if we’re going to attract more people of color, more women, we have to have a different attitude and posture.'”

For his part, Chief Weber hopes the program’s model gains traction. They tried to build it using mostly existing funds and personnel.

“We’re trying to create something new that can be replicated or recreated statewide,” he said.

Back at the wooden picnic table, 23-year-old Jesus Chavez said school was a struggle for him in the past. Now he’s back in the classroom learning how to be a paramedic. “I have to deal with it. It’s something I want to do — become a better person for myself,” he said.

As a child, he wanted to join the fire department, but didn’t know how to get in. He applied for Fire Foundry after seeing an Instagram ad. He fell in love with hard work outdoors alongside other firefighters.

“They get dirty,” he said. “I like it. Everyone is close, like a whole family.”

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