This Ex-Inmate Risked His Life Fighting Fires in California — But He’s Banned From a Career Doing It

Dario Gurrola’s two felony convictions prevent him from getting the EMT certification required for a full-time job at most municipal fire departments.
June 19, 2020, 2:48pm
Dario Gurrola poses for a portrait. (Photo courtesy of the Institute for Justice)​

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Dario Gurrola has spent thousands of dollars and several years of his life trying to realize his dream of becoming a full-time firefighter in California. He’ll even be on the front lines for the next several months, battling blazes in the northeastern part of the state with Cal Fire.

But no matter the amount of work Gurrola puts in — or the number of fires he puts out — his criminal record means that he has almost no chance of ever getting a full-time position doing what he loves, even though he was released from prison nearly a decade ago.

Gurrola, a 38-year-old living in Alturas, a small city near the Oregon border, isn’t eligible for most full-time jobs at one of the state’s 900-plus municipal fire departments. He can’t get the emergency medical technician certification that’s required. A California occupational licensing regulation prohibits anyone with two felonies for a lifetime and those with a single felony for 10 years. Gurrola has two felony convictions, so he’s forever restricted to positions that don’t require the license, including seasonal and volunteer jobs.

Ironically, Gurrola first learned how to fight fires at one of the state’s inmate “fire camps.” At the time, he was caught up in the criminal justice system as a juvenile but hadn’t earned a felony record yet. The camps, which have existed since World War II, serve as training grounds for low-risk inmates willing to tame flames at low wages and great personal risk in exchange for reduced sentences and skills that could serve them once they’re released.

“Anybody who has the same drive, the same enthusiasm like me, but they’re blocked because of their past, they should have the opportunity to pursue it,” Gurrola said

Now, Gurrola is teaming up with the Virginia-based Institute for Justice to get a fair shot at obtaining his certification and a full-time firefighting career. Otherwise, he’d be waiting on an unlikely pardon from California Gov. Gavin Newsom to get his dream job.

The Institute for Justice filed a complaint Friday against officials with the California Emergency Medical Services Authority and Northern California EMS. Attorneys argue the blanket EMT licensing regulation is unconstitutional and irrational, especially since local EMS agencies have the discretion to deny people convicted of crimes that would mar their duties as emergency responders, anyway.

“All we’re saying is that if you are going to take away somebody’s ability to work, actually take a look at that person,” said Andrew Ward, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. “Make a determination — decide based on that individual. People should have the chance.”

Representatives with the California Emergency Medical Services Authority and Northern California EMS did not immediately respond to a VICE News request for comment.

One in three adults in the U.S. have a criminal record. And as many as 15,000 law provisions nationwide limit their ability to get occupational licenses that lead to jobs as barbers, milk samplers, and athletic trainers, to name a few. The Institute for Justice also currently represents two Pennsylvania women barred from becoming estheticians due to their criminal records, for example.

The rules, which criminal justice advocates have attacked as arbitrary and unnecessary, can present hurdles to people exiting the prison system and looking for the sort of skilled labor that makes them less likely to reoffend. In fact, states with significant occupational licensing barriers can also expect higher recidivism rates, according to Stephen Slivinski’s research. He’s a senior research fellow at the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty at Arizona State University.

“These laws are really designed to try to keep people out of professions,” Slivinski said. “This is just one more lever, or one more barrier.”

The regulations also likely impact people of color more, too, since Latinx people and African Americans have a higher rate of incarceration.

‘I feel like I earned it’

Gurrola’s brief experience at the fire camp came nearly 20 years ago as a juvenile in state custody. That’s when he fought his first major fire. But he never went to fire camp again during stints in prison — including one for a 2003 felony conviction of possessing a concealed dagger and another in 2005 for felony assault with great bodily injury. He was released in 2011.

Since then, he’s become a fully trained firefighter with dozens of certifications and extensive seasonal experience with the Cal Pines Fire Department and the U.S. Forest Service. Soon, he’ll get that experience from Cal Fire, the state’s premier firefighting agency. He’s also passed an exam with the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians, which shows he can provide CPR or administer oxygen, among other basic tasks.

“California clearly thinks Dario can fight fires,” Ward said.

Still, Gurrola was denied his EMT certification last year when he applied with Northern California EMS, due to his criminal past. He appealed — and was denied again.

“I feel like I earned it,” Gurrola said.

Right now, 2,200 fire line-qualified inmates are serving at fire camps like the one Gurrola attended, according to California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. They’re paid $2-5 a day, plus $1 an hour when they’re fighting fires. By comparison, civilian firefighters in the state earn an average of about $74,000 annually and get benefits, too, according to the Institute for Justice. Many ex-inmates from the fire program struggle to make that kind of living doing seasonal work alone.

But Gurrola remembers being told by a captain at the camp that he could use his training to turn his life around. That promise helped nurture a dream of becoming a first responder, like his father, a retired police sheriff. While the years that followed fire camp were hard — Gurrola was caught up in other crimes, some of which contributed to his felony record as an adult — the captain’s sentiment stuck with him. After he left prison, he began to devote his life to two causes: firefighting and his Christian faith.

“I always had these dreams of being able to pursue firefighting, remembering what my captain told me a long time ago,” Gurrola said. “After taking my steps with getting saved at church, I started from the very beginning: volunteering in church as a way to serve my community. I started to go to school, and at my college I was part of a fire science club. I started to actually volunteer at fire departments.”

If all goes well with the lawsuit, Gurrola hopes to inspire other inmates at California’s fire camps to work, as he did, toward a full-time career — even if it takes a long time.

“If this is truly what you want to do, if this is truly your passion, continue the good work, continue the fight,” Gurrola said. “The seed is being implanted right now.”

Cover: Dario Gurrola poses for a portrait. (Photo courtesy of the Institute for Justice)