By Shelli DeRobertis Inland Valley Daily Bulletin (Ontario, CA)
Copyright 2007 MediaNews Group, Inc.
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CHINO Being a firefighter is hazardous enough, but members of the Chino Valley department take greater risks when they get called to the California Institution for Men, the fire chief says. In addition to serving the area’s almost 162,000 residents, Chino Valley Independent Fire District crews are called to emergencies at all three Chino prisons, but it is CIM that offers the greatest challenge.
“It’s dangerous,” said Fire Chief Paul Benson, noting his firefighters are not prepared to be around the male inmates. “We have folks with no training or expertise going in there.”
Any time a 911 call is made from CIM, Chino Valley firefighters respond with one of their seven units, which include an ambulance and at least two firefighter-paramedics. And while firefighters don’t want to be behind the walls at CIM, Benson knows that the prison has no paramedic units and its firefighting equipment is in poor condition.
Earlier this year, CIM officials had the first of several meetings with local public safety agencies in which mutual aid and concerns about serving the prison were discussed. One of the issues is whether firefighters have been called to the prison on emergencies that could have been handled by the facility’s crew.
Lt. Mark Hargrove, the prison’s spokesman, said he plans to examine the fire district’s log books to determine if there are times they are unnecessarily called by prison staff. “I think it’s necessary for us to continue to meet on a regular basis and evaluate responses to the institution and see if they could have been handled at the institution level as opposed to a community level,” Hargrove said.
Regardless of the reason why Chino Valley firefighters are called to CIM, each time they work behind its walls is a nerve-wracking experience. “It’s not one of our favorite responses and not one we remotely enjoy,” said Capt. Chris Cragg. “We were treating a stabbing victim once, and other inmates were yelling to let him die.”
Engineer Mike O’Toole said the fire crews have to operate differently when dealing with the circumstances at CIM. “We all carry knives” as part of our regular equipment, he said. “One day a cardiac patient was trying to reach for my knife, and a guard saw him and `corrected’ the situation.” O’Toole decided to give his knife to the guard to hold while he assisted the patient.
The firefighters are the target of whistles or profanity, Cragg said. Inmates also have been known to throw foul things at them. “We’re not equipped in training or safety gear to protect ourselves against a hostile environment,” he said. On occasion he said there aren’t enough correctional officers, and a firefighter is left alone to guard the truck.
Getting out of the prison also is a challenge because of the security procedures that trucks and firefighters must go through. The process can take up to 20 minutes if the engine is deep inside the prison grounds, Cragg said.
That time could create response problems in Chino and Chino Hills because if a truck is tied up at CIM, it can’t go to calls in the rest of Chino and Chino Hills, Benson said.
When the department responds to CIM, it is usually to help correctional officers or the prison’s visitors. Last year, they went to the prison 37 times for a variety of emergency medical services – including helping corrections officers who were punched in the face or exposed to pepper spray, Cragg said.
Not every call involved inmates or staff, though. One call was to help a child locked in a vehicle. Another was for a car crash on prison grounds. Hargrove said the prison has a medical facility for treating the inmates and contracts with American Medical Response for ambulance services when emergencies require outside care. Corrections officers, staff and visitors are not treated on site, he said.
Hargrove also said the prison has two firetrucks and a crew of volunteer inmate firefighters, but they only handle fires. Even then, their equipment is antiquated. In September, it was reported that neither of the trucks could pump water. CIM has been borrowing equipment from the Chino Valley fire district and other prisons in order to make up for their own faulty equipment.
The Chino Valley firefighters’ help is still needed with CIM’s 2,116 employees and 4,800 visitors a month. However, Benson said he feels prison officials ask for the district’s aid in cases they are capable of handling themselves. “We want to take care of law enforcement there – they are family,” Cragg said. “But we would prefer not to go there because we feel we are in danger.
I don’t think there is a solution. The only option is for them to have their own staff. We would like them to be the lead agency responsible for what goes on in the prison.”