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Should Background Checks be Required for Emergency Volunteers?

The Florida Division of Emergency Management's Inspector General is recommending that background checks be a condition of the grants doled out for Community Emergency Response Team programs.

FEMA volunteers sign
(TNS) —When disaster strikes in Palm Beach County, Fla., a team of volunteers trained by county emergency managers can be deployed as the first line of defense, helping their communities with everything from search and rescue to basic first aid to putting out small fires.

They can also be called upon to distribute or install smoke alarms, hand out disaster education materials or replace smoke alarm batteries in the homes of the elderly, according to a brochure about the program.

But there's no requirement that they be subject to any kind of criminal background check.

That could change after a concerned Boynton Beach resident complained to the Florida Division of Emergency Management's Inspector General. In a report released last week, the inspector recommended that background checks be a condition of the grants doled out for the program.

To get an ID badge, helmet, vest and other equipment that designates them as part of the Community Emergency Response Team, residents must fill out paperwork and attend hours of training.

The lack of background checks, though, could "create the opportunity for felons to use these credentials to gain access to some of Florida's most vulnerable population: the disabled, the elderly and disaster survivors," the report concluded.

Jody Gorran, who brought his concerns to the inspector general's office in August after going through the program and discovering background checks weren't mandated, said that's exactly what he was worried about. It is "outrageous" that Community Emergency Response Team volunteers aren't properly vetted, he said.

"You get access to peoples' homes," said Gorran, 64, a retired business owner and volunteer firefighter. "You get access to situations where you have this trust placed upon you that possibly you don't deserve. I'd much rather not have seen anybody trained than see anybody trained who might have a criminal record — who might do something to somebody."

The program got its start in Los Angeles in 1986, born out of the deaths a year earlier of 100 untrained volunteers who sprang into action after an 8.1-magnitude earthquake devastated Mexico City.

From that disaster, Los Angeles fire department personnel saw a need to train volunteers to help themselves and others, and launched a Community Emergency Response Team. In the early 1990s, officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency decided to roll out the program nationwide.

It's now offered by more than 1,000 municipalities in 28 states and Puerto Rico, according to federal emergency officials. There are programs across Florida in municipalities ranging from the town to county level. In South Florida, they include Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach, Margate, Davie, Coconut Creek, Jupiter, Weston, Sunrise and Delray Beach.

Funding is provided through the federal agency, which distributes it to the state level. The Florida Division of Emergency Management makes that money available to communities through grants. In fiscal year 2013-14, $290,000 was designated for Community Emergency Response Team training across the state, according to state-level emergency management officials.

The program is open to all residents – including, in some communities, high school students. Those who sign up learn how to help their community if a natural disaster or act of terrorism happens.

Over more than 20 hours of instruction and exercises, they are trained to perform activities including providing CPR, telling officials what kind of aid is needed, assisting in damage assessment, evacuation and sheltering and recognizing the signs of psychological trauma in the aftermath of a disaster.

The concept is primarily aimed at neighbors helping neighbors. For that reason, Palm Beach County Administrator Robert Weisman said he thinks it's "a big step to start talking about doing background checks on these people in this program."

He said there are some things that occur at the community level that are outside the realm of government regulation.

"It's kind of like if you have that concern, maybe the program shouldn't exist at all," Weisman said.

Running background checks on volunteers would take away from the money available to train them, he said. He said he's also concerned about invading volunteers' privacy, and believes people may not want their neighbors to know about their pasts.

And even if background checks were mandated, Weisman said, they would only catch people who have been convicted of crimes, while other people could slip through.

"I believe there is a risk any time you have people doing anything, including our employees, that someone could violate the law," he said. "People have flaws. Any time someone out there represents you, there's a risk of something going wrong."

In Palm Beach County, where nearly 4,000 people have completed the Community Emergency Response Team training, commissioners might choose to discuss the recommendations in the report, Weisman said. In March, the county received $8,402.50 from the Florida Division of Emergency Management for conducting a year's worth of basic training.

But it might not be left to the county to decide. The inspector general's recommendation was aimed at the Florida Division of Emergency Management. Officials there are reviewing the suggestion and safety is their first priority, said Aaron Gallaher, a spokesman for the division.

Whether or not to do background checks is currently left to the discretion of each community that receives the funding. Some require them; others don't.

Gallaher said the Florida Division of Emergency Management is not aware of any cases in which a felon joined a Community Emergency Response Team or a resident's safety was put at risk by a volunteer.

But Gorran said that's beside the point. He said community members who see the badge, helmet and other gear given to Community Emergency Response Team members see them as "the good guys" and don't realize they haven't been thoroughly screened.

And he's not done yet.

No stranger to tackling what he perceives as threats to public safety, Gorran worked on the federal Volunteers for Children Act signed into law in 1998, which allows nonprofits that serve children the right to get national fingerprint checks on volunteers.

Now that the inspector general has agreed background checks should be done on response team volunteers, Gorran has been busy notifying community associations of the issue and trying to convince the county to review its trained volunteers. He said he plans to press for the change to be made nationwide.

"I got exactly what I wanted," Gorran said, "and now I'm going to take it on the road."

©2015 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Brittany Bennett is the development, policy and impact associate at Self-Help, a Durham, N.C., nonprofit.