Businesses and organizations may overlook volunteers with their background check policies as they focus on vetting full-time or part-time employees. While volunteers may represent an organization in a different way than an employee, a dangerous volunteer is just as much of a liability risk as an employee. Volunteer background checks can help minimize these risks and protect organizations from potentially damning public relations disasters.
One such fiasco is facing a volunteer fire department in Maryland. According to the Washington Post, five former volunteer firefighters with the West Lanham Hills Volunteer Fire Department were recently indicted in Prince George’s County on charges that they conspired to start fires so that they could extinguish them while on duty.
Officials allege that the five men worked together to plan four arsons in vacant houses and buildings throughout the area. They are charged with these crimes along with three other suspects–all civilians–who were charged at an earlier date. While the fires were in vacant buildings and did not result in death or injury, they did cause “hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage,” per the Post. The firefighters range in age from 19 to 26; the fires took place between December 31, 2019 and January 20, 2020.
According to a local ABC News affiliate, the arson indictments are the “latest in a long list of problems” for the volunteer fire department. The organization’s treasurer was recently indicted “for allegedly embezzling more than $100,000 from the department.” In 2020, the fire department failed “to respond at all to a fatal fire”—an incident that led to the removal of volunteer staff from one of its firehouses to be “replaced by paid firefighters.”
Per the Washington Post report, the five ex-firefighters received background checks before joining the department. One of the civilian suspects, Giancarlo Reyes, had wanted to join the department but failed his background check. The Post did not disclose the reason for Reyes’ failed background check or go into detail about the fire department’s volunteer background screening policies.
Volunteer background checks recently made headlines in Pennsylvania as Auditor General Timothy DeFoor completed an audit of a Philadelphia-based university. The audit, which examined Temple University’s operations from July 2016 to June 2019, determined that the university needed to improve its plans and protocols for capital improvements, sexual harassment, and personnel background checks.
Most of the background check lapses concerned Pennsylvania’s Child Protective Services Law (CPSL), which requires criminal background checks, civil background searches, and other clearances for employees, volunteers, and contractors who work around children. Clearances include criminal history checks and child abuse registry checks.
The audit found that Temple “failed to ensure that all internal youth program workers received Pennsylvania’s CPSL background clearances…and clearances were not maintained for all workers participating in its internal youth programs.” In addition, the audit found flaws with how Temple handled background checks for third-party contractors and verified “that workers physically present during the youth programs are the same individuals that were listed on the registration forms.”
DeFoor concluded that Temple’s “deficiencies” in employee, contractor, and volunteer background checks “could potentially jeopardize the safety and welfare” of children involved in its youth programs. He urged Temple to take steps to improve its background screening and clearance protocols.
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