Town Requires Background Checks for Volunteer Rescue Personnel

By Michael Klazema on 7/8/2013

On July 2, a new, stricter background check policy was approved by the town council in Phillipsburg. The policy targets volunteers working for town-sponsored programs or organizations, such as youth sports, programs for the elderly, and fire and rescue operations.

Chris Lee, the president of the Phillipsburg Emergency Squad, is a solid supporter of the new policy. He believes that all volunteers serving the public should have a clean background. Because local firefighters and other emergency personnel employed by the town already undergo fingerprint-based background checks, Lee feels that it makes sense to hold volunteers to this same standard. After all, the volunteers have the same responsibilities and potentially the same temptations as paid personnel.

Lee said that knowing that volunteers with his department have passed background checks will give members of the community peace of mind regarding the safety and security of their possessions during a visit from emergency service volunteers. This is particularly important for seniors, as the elderly are often considered a population vulnerable to abuse. For example, thefts against the elderly are sometimes committed by caretakers or other individuals that are supposedly present to help them.

Phillipsburg’s new background check policy sounds good on paper, but will it be effective in practice? Detractors aren’t so sure. The first flaw in the policy is that active fire and emergency volunteers will not be required to undergo background checks, because the policy only applies to new volunteers. This may leave the town open to the possibility of unwittingly allowing a current volunteer with a criminal record for theft to enter residents’ homes and potentially become tempted to commit another crime. In this case, the town could be blamed for negligence in failing to protect the public.

For maximum peace of mind regarding the integrity of volunteers and employees alike, the town would do well to invest in Ongoing Criminal Monitoring, a service which is available from This service provides employers with an automatic email notification any time an employee’s name and date of birth comes up in relation to criminal activity in’s multi-jurisdictional database.

A second flaw in the town’s background check policy may stem from the type of background check that is used. Many volunteer organizations use free background checks that are available to them through the state police. However, these background checks are often limited to records in that state only. Naturally, to get a full picture of an individual’s criminal record and avoid overlooking convictions in other states, a national background check tool must be used.

Such a tool is available from US OneSEARCH is a national background check product that compares a name and date of birth against a collection of over 450 million records culled from state and local databases across the country.

For many communities, budget is often a factor in determining the thoroughness and frequency of background checks. Towns often struggle to find a policy that balances their need to protect the community from unnecessary exposure to criminals and their need to avoid spending too much on background checks. This desire to control costs may be part of the reason that Phillipsburg’s background check policy seems incomplete. Only time will tell whether they’ve struck a good balance in their policy and whether it will be sufficient to protect local residents.


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