Washington D.C. Fire Department Mandates Sweeping Employee Background Checks

By Michael Klazema on 1/30/2014

The Washington D.C. fire department is one of those organizations that runs background checks on its applicants at hiring time, but then moves to an honor system regarding its current employees. In other words, the department doesn’t typically require its employees to complete repeat background checks, asking instead that firemen and other department workers report any new instances of arrest or criminal conviction to human resources. Unfortunately though, fire department officials have indicated that this self-reporting honor system has not been working as intended. Numerous members of the department have been arrested in recent months, and only a small percentage of those run-ins with the law have been reported in accordance with department policy.

Now, Kenneth Ellerbe – the city fire chief – is taking drastic measures to address the issues of dishonesty and crime that are currently running rampant in the department. Ellerbe has issued a special mandate that will require the department’s 1,800 “operational” employees to submit to comprehensive criminal background checks. The chief has also given department members an ultimatum of sorts: report any recent arrests, driver’s license suspensions, or criminal convictions within the next 10 days, or face termination if and when those offenses turn up on a background check.

Ellerbe’s statement to employees said that the fire department would use “all legally authorized methods of review” to uncover any undisclosed instances of criminal history within the agency. The checks will apply mostly to field workers – including employees who man fire trucks or ambulances – and will exempt most department desk workers. The statement also warns that any unreported crimes or arrests could be grounds for termination or other disciplinary action, but specifically names vehicle-related offenses – particularly DUI or DWI citations – as points of focus.

The background-check mandate and the department’s decidedly stern warning to employees may seem surprising, but given recent events, something like this was inevitable. Reports indicate that at least 11 Washington D.C. firefights have been arrested in the last three or four months, for a range of offenses. The most recent arrest allegedly involved a firefighter who was caught driving under the influence of alcohol. That particular firefighter was also cited for illegally carrying a firearm in his vehicle. A series of similar crimes – especially if left unreported – could serve as a major blow to the D.C. fire department’s overall integrity, hence Ellerbe’s sweeping decision to run repeat background checks on operational employees.

This isn’t the first time that Washington’s fire department has vowed to run background checks on current employees. In 2007, the department’s former chief proposed a policy for periodic repeat background checks, after accusations were raised that certain department employees may have been running an illegal prostitution business out of city firehouses. Rubin succeeded in implementing regular repeat background checks for a time, but it only took a few years for the department to revert to its old ways of running background screenings only on incoming employees. Typically, the only current employees that have received consistent repeat background checks are those who have been posted to oversee the presidential inauguration. Beyond that, most employees haven’t been background checked since they were vetted as part of their initial application process.

At very least, it seems the agency could gain a lot from a fast-acting ongoing criminal monitoring system, such as’s service offered in conjunction with US OneSEARCH product.


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