Under current legislation in the state of Pennsylvania, emergency response workers, including firefighters and emergency medical technicians, are required to pay $47.50 apiece for criminal background checks. The checks, which are required once every three years, were implemented last year, as part of Pennsylvania's amended Child Protective Services Law. The new amendment calls for every person who regularly comes in contact with children during the course of their work to go through state and FBI criminal checks and child abuse clearances. Now, though, a State Representative in Pennsylvania wants to tweak the law so that emergency responders don't have to pay for their own checks.
Right now, the checks are required not just for full-time workers, but for part-timers, contractors, and volunteers as well, and for some of those groups, the $47.50 price tag and the inconvenience of the background check process is enough to be a turn-off. This is particularly true for volunteer firefighters, and many fire departments that depend on volunteers, not just in Pennsylvania, but in other parts of the country where laws like this have been put in place, have struggled to maintain a full team of personnel as a result. State Rep Tina Davis thinks that exempting emergency response workers from the background check fee would help to curb the problem. Davis' legislation, House Bill 1081, would call for taxpayer dollars to cover those background check expenses as well.
The bulk of the cost is the fingerprinting and criminal history check through the FBI database, a background check that costs $27.50 per person. State Police criminal history checks add another $10 to the bill, as do state child abuse history clearances. No county-level checks are required for these positions. Reports from around the state say that volunteering numbers for emergency services, particularly for fire departments, are already declining. That's bad news, since Pennsylvania firefighters won't even be required to start paying for the checks until July. However, the fees are expected to exacerbate an existing problem with low volunteer interest for firefighters.
Already, volunteer firefighters have to face 100 hours of training before they can even get out in the field. Add a fee and the step of going somewhere to get fingerprinted, and it's not difficult to see why some might say "thanks, but no thanks." Low volunteer numbers in turn mean reduced fire coverage, leaving fewer and fewer firefighters to cover larger and larger territories. The question is, can the state get away with covering background check expenses for one group, but not covering them for another? Or will House Bill 1081 lead to movements to cover background check expenses for teachers, coaches, referees, school volunteers, and others?
Another question is whether or not these checks are even doing all they could to protect children. State and federal criminal checks are a start, but many forget that most criminal convictions are logged at the county level. With inconsistent and unreliable reporting to state repositories, county courts still stand as the most dependable source for up-to-date criminal information. They are often dismissed because of their small scope, but the result is that Pennsylvania's big background check laws might not be providing the most comprehensive screening of the histories of people who work with kids.