Brandon Smith never thought that he would become a firefighter — growing up, he had a healthy fear of fire, and when he was incarcerated and asked to join a fire camp to help California battle growing wildfires, he initially declined. But the higher pay and ability to be closer to his family in Los Angeles drew him to the role, which he grew to love.
When Smith returned home from prison, he sought a job as a firefighter, but it took him more than two years to get hired, despite the dire need for firefighters as climate change accelerates and exacerbates the risk of wildfire. In response, he started the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program, which formally recruits and trains formerly incarcerated firefighters.
Intersectional and innovative solutions such as Smith’s are much needed to reduce climate change’s impact on at-risk communities. One study found that every $1 invested in disaster mitigation saves society $6 in the long term. But climate resilience and adaptation programs are notoriously underfunded in the climate change world — only one-fifth of global climate finance goes to adaptation, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
In order to recognize and propel such impactful and scalable solutions, communications giant Verizon introduced its inaugural Verizon Climate Resilience Prize at GreenBiz’s annual climate tech conference VERGE 21 in Oakland, California. The prize allocated $500,000 to innovators across three main categories: frontline community-led solutions; nature-based solutions; and next-gen tech solutions.
Climate resilience and adaptation programs are notoriously underfunded in the climate change world — only one-fifth of global climate finance goes to adaptation.
Onstage this week at GreenBiz 22, GreenBiz’s annual sustainability event in Scottsdale, Arizona, GreenBiz and Verizon announced the three winners: Smith’s team at Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program; Hyfi, a water-level sensor technology startup; and Coral Vita, a coral reef restoration business.
"Our focus on climate resilience is part of Citizen Verizon, our responsible business plan that is rooted in innovation and focuses on leveraging the power of technology for economic, environmental and social advancement," said Carrie Hughes, director of social innovation at Verizon. "The Verizon Climate Resilience Prize, in partnership with GreenBiz, is one of many initiatives that demonstrate our commitment to supporting organizations that are innovating against climate change in at-risk communities."
Read more about these innovators who are (literally) on the front lines of the fight to build resilience to climate change below.
Nature-based solution winner: Coral Vita
Coral Vita is a Bahamas-based company dedicated to preserving coral reefs. Threatened by ocean pollution, warming and acidification, about 50 percent of global reefs have died, and 90 percent of coral reefs could be gone by 2050. However, reefs provide crucial ecosystem services to countries, supporting jobs, tourism and fisheries. One estimate places the economic value of reefs at about $2.7 trillion each year.
Environmental entrepreneur and Coral Vita co-founder Sam Teicher is determined to reverse that trend, leveraging advanced technology and community engagement in order to restore reefs at scale. How? The team has built land-based commercial coral farms, growing corals about 50 times faster than natural growth through a cutting-edge scientific process called "micro-fragmentation," according to the company's marketing materials. The process propagates small amounts of wild collected corals in an aquaculture-like system under controlled conditions: Fragmented pieces of coral stock are allowed to grow, while people control conditions such as temperature and acidity so that the coral can build tolerance to stress. The coral can be supplanted onto existing coastal coral reefs or re-fragmented again to continue growing.
The company sells these "coral reefs in a box" to governments and other stakeholders, who can either order off the shelf or put in an annual contract for a certain number of reefs, just like a grocery store’s bulk food order. Restoring coral reefs along coastlines is key to protecting people and property from waves, storms and floods (coral reefs provide a buffer and can reduce wave energy by 97 percent).
Another important customer segment is tourism — resorts, especially those that offer diving, have an incentive to have healthy reefs. Already, Four Seasons Seychelles and Buddy Dive Resort Bonaire partner with Coral Vita to not only buy the reefs but also to offer a unique experience for tourists to come to learn about coral farming and threatened reefs. Interestingly, the company is also expanding digital offerings, so any reef-concerned person can "adopt a coral reef" to help fund coral restoration projects.
One key component for the company is its community-based approach to operations. Its coral farms serve as education centers for local students, fishermen, government officials and tourists. More than half of the team’s staff is Bahamian, so a share of the profits from the mission-based company go back to the local economy.
And as the company scales and expands to other locations, from Florida to the United Arab Emirates, Teicher said that it will take the same approach of hiring residents and building local capacity, so that projects have the best chance of success. In particular, the team said that it will use the Verizon prize funding to continue to scale its on-land and offshore offerings.
Essentially, Coral Vita provides "restoration-as-a-service," according to Teicher. He described the company as "creating living infrastructure to terraform the planet, based on the idea that ecosystems conserved and restored at scale can allow the planet to heal itself. Coral Vita has an opportunity to demonstrate what it would be like to build technology for nature, as opposed to technology that controls nature, and to do so in a way that generates value for many different stakeholders — economic stakeholders, political stakeholders, everyday people and the environment."
Leading edge technology winner: Hyfi
Midwestern startup Hyfi is building "flood-tech" for communities experiencing one of the worst impacts of climate change: an increase in the severity and frequency of storms. The team of professor of civil and environmental engineering, Branko Kerkez and his former student and now co-founder, Brandon Wong, developed unique water-level measuring sensors. The wireless unit is IoT and 5G-enabled, manufactured at American factories and can be attached to any piece of infrastructure. The sensors measure the depth of water nearby with imaging technology, and when connected, an overarching machine-learning algorithm is programmed to notify stakeholders when the water hits a critical point.
"Flooding costs billions of dollars in damages annually," said Kerkez. "It's the most fatal of natural weather hazards, and the amazing thing is that there's hardly any record of it, measurement-wise. A lot of [what we know] comes down to people taking these captivating photos, just happening to be in the right place at the right time. But when it comes to the technical side of things, the amount of data that's collected is pretty minimal and [collecting it] is very expensive. So that's the big motivation to fill that gap and get data into the hands of folks like water managers, flood responders, first responders and wildlife managers who would really benefit from having that kind of information on the ground."
Often, the problem is that groups or individuals that manage water are dealing with hundreds of square miles of infrastructure and watersheds across large regions. They have small staffs and only a certain amount of resources to make that happen, so it's imperative that they know exactly what’s happening across the region to respond in real-time. Hyfi’s sensors enable this: Each unit collects water level data that holds value for many stakeholders.
Some use it for flood warnings (managing road closures, supporting emergency responders and alerting the public); others for asset management (monitoring infrastructure or detecting algal blooms, clogs and ice jams); still others for recreation (engaging the public on safe waterway use, from water quality to paddling conditions); and even more for planning (using high-resolution data for stormwater modeling and future infrastructure planning). Hyfi is also focusing on distributing the cost of one unit because it has great value to multiple entities, and Kerkez and Wong want it to be affordable to all.
A main focus was making the sensor itself accessible — the small sensor can be delivered "right through the mail, like an old-school Netflix DVD," Wong said, and attached "with just a screwdriver." The accompanying app is also designed with user experience in mind. Whoever is using the technology — asset manager, city planner, park employee, first responder — can input what type of data they care about. If it’s a first responder, which specific streets have a high real-time water level that will require evacuation in the next hour, or if it’s a city planner, which neighborhoods experience excess stormwater surges over time necessitating infrastructure upgrades, etc.
Hyfi has 150 operational sites across the Great Lakes Basin, such as in North and Southeast Ohio (Cleveland, Metro Cleveland and Toledo), as well as upstate New York (the Finger Lakes region). The funding from the Verizon Climate Resilience Prize will specifically support new deployment in Detroit.
"A lot of the pain [of water management] is disproportionately felt by like marginalized communities already," Kerkez said. "If you look in our own backyard here, like in Detroit right now, people are still recovering from floods that happened the last few years."
Frontline community solutions winner: The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP)
The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program focuses on job training, mentoring and career planning support for wildland firefighters and forestry services professionals. The organization specifically helps incarcerated and formerly incarcerated Californians find good firefighting and forestry jobs upon release — sitting at the intersection of criminal justice reform, workforce development and environmental justice.
The state relies on prison labor to fight its ever-increasing wildfires, setting up 35 "fire camps" every year in which more than 1,500 inmates perform a wide range of duties, such as fire-fighting, brush-clearing, forest-thinning, park maintenance, sandbagging, and flood protection and conservation projects. They either volunteer or get paid about $2 to $5 a day in camp and an additional $1 to $2 an hour when they’re on a fire line. Once these firefighters are released from prison, they still face challenges in finding actual fire department jobs, even with their experience. (A state law barred those with felony convictions from earning the EMT certification many municipal fire departments require, although Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed legislation to ease that restriction.)
Executive Director Brandon Smith had "this lived experience," he said. A formerly incarcerated fire camp veteran himself, upon reentry, he found that "there were limited pathways for formerly incarcerated people to do this work. It was pretty much like a one-off experience that I would have while incarcerated, but I loved it, and so when I came home, I spent two years trying to do the work professionally. I finally got a job with the United States Forest Service. I saw the barriers in place in just getting this job, and I also saw that there was an immense need for workers within the forestry and fire sectors."
The idea was born: to make it easier for those experienced and looking for these good-paying jobs to get them. The first step: recruitment.
"The first thing that we do is we go to fire camps and urban communities," Smith said. "We go to different camps and prisons in California, and we share our stories. ‘Hey, I'm from L.A. County. You can do it.’ ‘Hey, you don't have to have a bachelor's degree.’ ‘If you thought you would be a pro basketball athlete, and you're not, you know, this is an option for you.’ We recruit those communities that would have never thought about this space, then once we recruit them, we provide training and certification opportunities for them."
After sharing information about its opportunities, the team finds out interested incarcerated firefighters’ release dates. While they’re still in prison, the team helps them to develop a resume of their experiences in the camps, and then once they come home, they contact FFRP. The organization either directly provides the resources themselves or depending on where the former inmate is located, provides references to other local services.
The organization’s in-person programming connects recruits with credentialed FEMA classes and CalFire classes, provides them with access to social workers, helps them with job applications, and all the while pays them over the five-month transitional training period.
Last year, FFRP got approved to operate its own 20-person park and fire crew, called the Buffaloes in honor of the Buffalo soldiers.
Last year, FFRP got approved to operate its own 20-person park and fire crew, called the Buffaloes in honor of the Buffalo soldiers. So participants, even while in training, are able to be dispatched throughout the state to respond to fire incidents. Already, the organization is contracting out with different homeowners associations, where they call fire safe councils, to provide fire prevention and firefighting services. Many homes at great wildfire risk belong to low-income and elderly people who might not be able to afford to replace their belongings, so ensuring equitable firefighting access is a priority.
One of the most interesting things to come out of FFRP, Smith said, was that the work increased the representation of underrepresented communities within the fire and forestry sectors. Most people in the sector, especially within California, are white men from rural areas. But FFRP boosts workforce development among people from urban communities, women and people of color — making the forestry and fire sectors more representative of the diversity within California.
FFRP has a well-established Southern California program, and it’s expanding to Northern California. The prize funding will help continue to fund the program and make it more accessible to current and formerly incarcerated people across the state. It might even expand to other states that rely on incarcerated firefighters, such as Oregon, Washington, Arizona and Colorado, in the future, but it’s focusing on California for now.