The CBS television network aired a story Nov. 20 on its “60 Minutes II” program entitled “Too Close To The Fire,” which ran nationwide. The subject of the segment was the issue of fire-setters in America’s fire departments and was initiated in part by an article written by IAFC member Tom Aurnhammer, Chief of the Farmingham, N.M. Fire Department.
In the story, Chief Aurnhammer spoke out in favor of stronger background checks as a means of addressing the problem. “(Arson) is what I refer to as our dirty little secret,” says Chief Aurnhammer.
“I think part of the problem lies in some of the smaller rural departments that are starved for help, and maybe if they [have] somebody that steps forward, that wants to volunteer, they’re glad to have the person and may not take a close look at their background,” Chief Aurnhammer stated. A fifth-generation firefighter, he said he is speaking out in the hope of doing something to stop arson within fire department ranks across the country.
IAFC Background Check Survey
Last December, the IAFC conducted an association-wide survey on the issue of “Background Checks” which may be of interest to our membership in the wake of this recent publicity on the issue. Although the study did not specifically zero in on the identification of specific psycho-social behaviors such as fire-setting, the issue of arson was included in the results and was mentioned by many of the respondents.
IAFC Background Check Executive Summary
A survey was conducted in December 2001 of the membership of the International Association of Fire Chiefs to determine the level and type of background checks that each department performed for new applicants.
The purpose of the survey was to assess the current status of personnel evaluation processes in use among fire/rescue departments across the U.S. and Canada. With current new issues of homeland security at the forefront of the world’s consciousness, additional and potentially troubling issues have recently arisen regarding how departments determine exactly who they select to provide first responder services in their local communities.
A total of 7,200 emails were sent to IAFC members who represent all three department formats: Career, Combination and Volunteer. A total of 736 responses were tallied, which represents a 10.2% return rate, nearly 5 times the national average for unsolicited surveys.
The results of the survey, which are included in raw form in the attached documents, have been analyzed and summarized into the following major findings:
- Nearly every responding department used some form of applicant background check:
- 100% of career departments
- 90% of volunteer departments
- 70% of all respondents also had a check system for current personnel as well;
- Most departments conducted the same kinds of background checks, regardless of department type;
- However, in every category of check, career departments performed higher numbers of checks than either combination or volunteer with one exception: medical/physical checks;
- Although no questions were specifically asked about arson background checks, more combination and volunteer departments reported conducting such checks than career departments;
- Less than 50% of all departments have a formal written policy for rejecting an applicant based upon background checks
Among the greatest issues of concern expressed by survey respondents were the following:
- Reliability and access to accurate information.
- Lack of applicants with which to be selective -too many applicants have drug histories to reject all.
- Lack of response in checking references- less than 50%.
- Honesty in reference checks (glad to see “bad apple” go).
- Uncertainly over legal rights and restrictions regarding privacy and confidentiality.
- Importance of being able to identify criminal background or predisposition- especially regarding violent or sexual offenses.
- Concern over the differing needs of certain departments for higher security- ie airports.
- Incumbent reference checks becoming an issue for unions.
- Lack of time and resources to be as thorough as needed.
- Fear of “having missed something.”
The links below will bring you to the IAFC’s Powerpoint presentation of its survey results, or to a downloadable copy of the full survey in Word format: