Seems everyone needs to squeeze some pennies these days. Fire departments are laying off firefighters or closing stations across the country. Camden County, Georgia, is looking at a different way to cut costs. The Board of County Commissioners is considering using inmates from the state prison in Sumter County to fight fires.

That is just one of the options the Commissioners are looking at to deal with recent changes in the ISO rating system. Under the new system, according to a story on the Jacksonville Times-Union Web site, if the county doesn’t make some changes, their ISO rating will fall from Class 4 to Class 10. That would impact home owners’ insurance premiums. For example, the annual premiums on a $200,000 house would rise from $767 to $2,042.

Again, according to the Jacksonville Times-Union story, the new ISO rating system says fire stations 10 miles or farther apart must have at least four firefighters on each shift. Camden County’s stations, which are 10 or more miles apart, currently are manned by two firefighters. The cost of building additional, bare-bones stations doesn’t seem economically feasible to the county. They have also rejected the idea of creating a volunteer force to man stations.

Instead, the county is looking at the diametrically different idea of using inmates [talk about a non-volunteer force]. Inmates could be considered as firefighters if they:

  • Committed only low-level crimes, such as drug offenses and thefts;
  • Have a record of good behavior;
  • Pass an interview process;
  • Agree to not use cell phones, have visitors, or leave the station unless responding to an emergency. One violation would result in immediate removal from the program.

Under the program, each of the county’s three stations would have two inmates who’d respond to all emergencies with the career firefighters. A “surveillance system” and the career firefighters would monitor the inmates. The firefighters would get training about guarding the inmates.

Some estimates say the program would save the county about $500,000 a year. Though the inmates would not be paid, there is an incentive for them—besides the fresh air and exercise. When they’re released from prison, they could apply to work as a paid firefighter five years after their conviction date, instead of the ten years other felons have to wait.

As you may guess, the idea is controversial. One career firefighter is quoted as saying, “If you vote to bring these inmates into our working environment, you jeopardize not only the employees’ well-being, but the safety of our citizens,” at a commission meeting. There are concerns about inmates going into citizens’ homes.

Sumter County has been using inmate firefighters for two years with no major problems. Commissioner Jimmy Starline is quoted as saying that only three of Sumter County’s inmate-
firefighters have been returned to prison: two for violated the no-cell phone rule and another “who didn’t fit in.”

The program is still in the preliminary stage. Camden County must see if the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation decides the county qualifies for the program.

Starline says, “If we get the state’s approval, then it will become a proposal and we will have public discussion on it.”

More on the story at

Michael Hosto