(Editor’s note: The Future Fire Academy program helps justice-involved people find a positive career path. See the video story below.)
In 2019, we met Anthony Pedro, a devoted young father who had recently paroled after serving time as an incarcerated firefighter, climbing his way back into the fire service, this time as a civilian.
“I’ve now promoted to engineer. So I’m the one that drives the engine and makes all that loud noise with the horn honking, that’s me,” Pedro said.
It was mostly an uphill battle. Between lacking certifications and a stable income to sustain his family during training, the future looked bleak, but he wouldn’t give up. Three years later, Pedro now has a home, a family, and a career with the Pioneer Fire Protection District.
Future Fire Academy partners with County Office of Education
Realizing he could help others with his experience, Pedro started a non-profit organization, The Future Fire Academy. Through a partnership with the El Dorado County Office of Education (EDCOE), he teaches a small class the skills and techniques they would learn in a National Guard Wildland Firefighter Academy. FFA is open to anyone over 18 years old and operates year-round, providing another pipeline of employable, certified firefighters.
“We operate the academy like a fire department. There’s firefighters, there’s fire captains, I’m their chief, so that way we get them used to the chain of command.”
During the course, FFA cadets learn First Aid, the proper use and identification of hand tools, communication in the field, fire prevention and suppression, and fuel reduction. Hand crew members also receive monthly stipends for their participation to help with everyday expenses. Cadets receive a combination of classroom and field experience for a well-rounded education in fire management.
“Locals hire us to work their lands that we use as training grounds.”
Property owners assist cadets
Homeowner Tim Kelly’s entire neighborhood was evacuated during a recent wildfire. Helping programs like FFA, he now hires the crew to clear brush and debris from his property.
“Everybody needs a break. We all need a break. He’s already paid his debt to society. I don’t know what that debt was. I don’t care,” Kelly beamed.
While the academy teaches skills and techniques, work ethic is a requirement.
“I always tell the cadets I can’t teach you heart, and I can’t teach you effort you’ve got to have that on your own,” said Pedro.
CAL FIRE does not require EMT certification, however many local and municipal fire departments do. Pushing past learning disabilities, working multiple jobs, often sleeping in his car, and eventually needing back surgery, Pedro took the EMT certification exam three times before finally making the grade.
He earned his position with Pioneer Fire, a municipal department, a year before AB2147, commonly known as the Expungement Law, was signed by Governor Newsom in 2020. The law offers record expungement of non-violent offenses to incarcerated firefighters, easing their transition to full-time employment.
Training the next generation of firefighters
“There’s a shortage of manpower in the wildfire service – there’s a need. And there’s also a breed of firefighters – that’s the formerly incarcerated. When we come home, we’re hungry. We want to eat, right?” Pedro said. “You’re already doing it, and so here, you can keep doing it.”
CAL FIRE has hired hundreds of formerly incarcerated people, and many have promoted to chief officer positions. All five of the academy’s graduates were offered positions with municipal fire departments. Programs like this would not be possible if it weren’t for the encouragement of Pedro’s family, friends, and community.
“He’s trying to make a better life for himself and for other people,” said Tim Kelly. “That’s a win-win situation, and he’s helping me at the same time. What can I do to encourage him?”
Overcoming poor choices
EDCOE Principal Carrie Buchanan added, “Too often people who have made mistakes in their past feel they have no way out. They feel stuck, and it leads to just a cycle of recidivism, that we’re trying to break.”
Pedro’s former parole agent, Tyler Padovan, offered words of encouragement.
“We are actively trying to make your transition as successful as possible,” Padovan said. “If you have any history in firefighting, maybe you don’t have any history in firefighting, we can make that an option for you.”
“I understand that some people upon release don’t have a lot of support and family and so the fire service, we are the biggest family in the nation, and so when you join us, we take care of you,” Pedro said. “We have counselors. We show that support as a team and say you know what we got you. Give us that heart and effort and we’ll take care of the rest.”
To learn more about the Future Fire Academy, visit the website.
Story by Tessa Othyse, Public Information Officer
Video by Rob Stewart, TV Specialist
Office of Public and Employee Communications