Firefighters deliver an essential service to the communities they serve, not only putting out structural fires but also responding to a broad range of other emergencies. Because their job requires them to interact directly with the public and often involves entering private homes, thorough vetting is an essential safety measure. However, many firefighting departments are not entirely run or funded by local governments and operate on a volunteer basis. With limited resources, even acts as important as due diligence in hiring can suffer.
A clear example of the problems this can create came to light in South Carolina late in 2021. In 2019, St. Stephen, a small town of fewer than 2,000 people, hired a new member in its volunteer fire department. They conducted the standard required background check in the state, which relies on a state-level law enforcement entity to conduct a search of records held within South Carolina. Seeing no results, the department hired the man.
Unbeknownst to the other firefighters or the citizens of St. Stephen, the man had fled from charges of felony rape in Georgia. Because the department did not order a nationwide felony background check, no one was presented with information that might have prevented the hiring. Not until the accuser in the case arrived in St. Stephen and informed local police of the man’s presence was he finally removed from his position and returned to Georgia to face prosecution.
In interviews with local media, the South Carolina State Firefighters’ Association director explained that volunteer departments with tight budgets and limited working hours often don’t have the means to conduct nationwide background checks. While financial challenges are understandable, it is clear that the current setup is an imperfect solution with a high potential for allowing out-of-state arrivals to escape appropriate scrutiny of their past. However, any changes in South Carolina would need to come from the state legislature.
This incident should serve as an important example for all businesses, non-profits, and volunteer organizations. While local and state-level background checks can be very informative, they can miss critical information without using a nationwide criminal check. While some volunteer departments in South Carolina complain that the logistics of conducting such searches is too onerous, there are tools that can make a difference.
An FBI fingerprint background check is an industry gold standard, but digital products such as the US OneSEARCH from backgroundchecks.com can deliver vital information practically instantly. By incorporating results from as many criminal history databases as possible, organizations can develop more confidence in an applicant’s trustworthiness — or uncover information omitted on applications and interviews. Reading background reports is a simple and easy addition to the hiring process.
Had the St. Stephens department gone one step further in its pre-employment vetting processes, an unnecessary risk to the community could have been avoided. Instead, the omission of a nationwide search serves as an important example to others about using background checks appropriately. You can’t learn what you don’t look for, but accessible options available today make the search simpler.
About Michael Klazema The author
Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based backgroundchecks.com with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments