A volunteer firefighter in Lake Park, Minnesota is being accused of arson, after evidence built up that he was responsible for a number of grass fires in the area last spring. The man in question, a 35-year-old local, has a colorful criminal history that includes burglary and theft, careless driving, driving after having his license revoked, and more. The fire department knew about the charges, but allowed him to serve as a volunteer firefighter anyway. The man joined the fire department in early 2014, shortly before suspicious grass fires began springing up in the area.
Whether or not the Lake Park fire department was right to take on a person with a flurry of criminal activity depends on perspective. On one hand, the man's charges could have suggested that he did not possess the upstanding and trustworthy moral character required of a public safety employee. On the other hand, his most recent charges were from 2008, six years old by the time he came to Lake Park's fire department. He could have turned over a new leaf and tried to build a better life. In the end, department officials gave him the benefit of the doubt.
That decision, it turned out, was the wrong one. Shortly after the man joined Lake Park's volunteer firefighter squad, there was a substantial increase in grass fires in the area. By itself, the sharp uptick in frequency of these types of fires would have been suspicious. The spring of 2014 was also a wet period in Lake Parkâ€”not exactly the conditions that cause grass fires. As a result, the fire department knew fairly early on that someone had to be starting the fires on purpose. They just weren't sure who the culprit was.
Then, things started to come into focus. There was one volunteer firefighter who would arrive on the scene of every incident, and given the fact that he had just recently joined the department, he became a suspect. Shortly thereafter, he was linked to the 911 calls for the fires through voice recognition and phone records. Investigators even put a tracking device on his car to put him at the scene of a later crime. The man is now facing five years in prison and a $10,000 fine for arson.
Obviously, situations like this one aren't terribly common, and aren't something that most human resources directors will have to worry about when reviewing background check reports. Still, the story is proof that, sometimes, even the slightest patterns of dishonesty or questionable morals in an applicant can indicate trouble ahead.