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Ga. county looks to inmates to fight fires

ST MARYS, Ga. - Officials in southeast Georgia are considering a money-saving program that would put inmates in fire stations.

The Florida Times-Union reports that the program would put two inmates in each of three existing firehouses in Camden County.

The program is one of several options (including volunteer firefighters) being considered by the Board of County Commissioners to lower the fire insurance costs of residents.

The inmate-firefighter program would supposedly save the county more than $500,000 a year.

Commissioner Jimmy Starline told the Times-Union that inmates are "very enthusiastic" about becoming firefighters. "It's an opportunity to break that cycle," he said. "This is not like a chain gang. Life at a fire station could be a whole lot more pleasant than life in jail."

But firefighters who would have to work alongside and supervise the prisoners - while putting out fires - are pushing back.

At a recent meeting of the county commissioners, firefighter Stuart Sullivan asked that they not "tarnish" the fire department by employing convicts.

Officials say the inmates would respond to all emergencies — including residential fires — alongside traditional firefighters.

Inmate firefighters are not new - they are often employed to help battle wildfire blazes, as in California - but the Georgia plan would mix them with staff firefighters at fire stations to a greater degree.

The inmates would have no guard, but would be monitored by a surveillance system and by the traditional firefighters, who would undergo training to guard the inmates. Authorities say one traditional firefighter with correctional training can supervise up to three inmates.

Inmates charged with crimes such as drug offenses and thefts would be eligible.

The state has an inmate-firefighters program using state prisoners, but because Camden County does not have a state prison, the Times-Union notes, the county would use prisoners from Sumter County, which has used prisoner firefighters for the past two years.

Sumter County Administrator Lynn Taylor said that despite initial outcry against their program, it has been a success, and has saved the county because each inmate is available around the clock.

"It's worked out quite well," Taylor told the paper. "This is a measure that governments are looking into to provide the same high level of service in the most economic way possible."