Emergency Managers Debate the Need for Background Checks for Volunteers

Around the nation, volunteers at a range of levels are having their histories poked and prodded before they’re allowed to join the CERT.

by / April 22, 2015

It ought to go without saying that a volunteer firefighter isn’t going to perpetrate a sex crime or rob a house when he’s supposed to be dousing the flames. Apparently it isn’t that obvious.

Last year New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law requiring background checks to ensure volunteer firefighters weren’t carrying sex offense convictions. It’s up to individual fire companies to decide whether a prospective volunteer is fit to serve, in spite of a past sex offense, but everyone gets screened.

In Rush County, Ind., volunteers for Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) must submit to an even broader check, one that encompasses all past criminal history.

At first blush it might seem counterintuitive to run background checks on volunteers. These people have stepped up to help; they certainly appear to be of goodwill.

Yet advocates of background checks cite a number of reasons why a CERT or other response organization should dig into the history of potential volunteers. The emergency management community seems to be heeding these calls: Around the nation, volunteers at a range of levels are having their histories poked and prodded before they’re allowed to join the team.

The phrase heard most often in regard to background checks is “vulnerable populations.” When people are in crisis they may succumb more easily to predators, a premise that applies especially to children, the old and the infirm. When responders and rescuers come into contact with these populations, the argument goes, emergency managers need to be sure that these Samaritans can shoulder the task responsibly.

“The upside to a background check is that you have confidence in the people you are working with, you can feel comfortable sending them out in the community under your own banner,” said Bruce Fitzgerald, director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency. “If a CERT is associated with the emergency management office, you want to have that confidence in the people you are putting out there.”

In Rush County, Emergency Management Agency Director Charles Kemker suggests that background checks may help an agency to fortify its legal defense. If a volunteer’s bad actions should ever land on its doorstep in the form of some legal liability, “who is going to be held accountable for them?” he said. A background check may show the agency had done its due diligence to ensure the public good, perhaps absolving the agency of some culpability.

Background checks could also help to ensure public trust. When people see a first responder with a CERT credential, they likely presume this person is “safe,” someone they can rely on in a crisis. For example, children are taught to look for the person in uniform. An inspection of a volunteer’s past can help ensure that trust is well founded.

These arguments have proven compelling in public life, not just among emergency response organizations. In Howard County, Md., even the Recreation and Parks Department runs investigations on everyone from coaches and instructors to sports advisory board members. Adoption at this level suggests a high degree of confidence in the background check as a meaningful safeguard.

But it won’t be a perfect precaution. For example, many bad actors don’t have criminal records. In fact, some in the emergency community see a range of reasons to oppose the background check.

The process costs money. The funds don’t usually come out of the CERT budget, but someone has to pay for these background checks, whether it be the local police department or some other entity. Checks take time too, potentially slowing the intake process at a moment when volunteers are needed.

In addition, the prospect of a background check could scare away potential volunteers. Some might not want their personal history examined or may fear the details in the report will become public knowledge.

“With several hundred volunteers, to date, we have not performed background checks,” said Demetrius Kastros, a Monterey, Calif., CERT instructor. “Background checks are usually conducted by the law enforcement agency of a jurisdiction, and they usually have enough constraints on their time without doing background checks on the 35 students in a CERT class.”

In any case, he suggests, the very nature of an emergency likely would limit the kind of harm a potential criminal might perpetrate. “CERT members operate in teams and are not working with overly expensive or sensitive equipment, where there are concerns about loss of materials,” Kastros said.

Interestingly the business of vetting volunteers extends beyond the emergency management community. While CERTs tend to rely on state and local law enforcement to fund background checks, a growing niche industry has sprung up to conduct this work for others in the nonprofit community. Organizations such as First Advantage, AccuSource and True Hire’s subsidiary Background Checks for Volunteers all offer to help the nonprofit community conduct investigations for a fee.

Clearly strong cases exist for and against the use of background checks in emergency response. To see how these arguments play out in practice, it helps to look at a few specific situations.

The 400 active volunteers in the Austin, Texas, CERT represent a broad swath of the local population. Their ages, professions and ethnicities all may vary. But these green-vested responders all have one thing in common: clean criminal records.

To become a CERT volunteer, it’s not enough to attend one of the twice-yearly, eight-session classes, or to join the monthly meetings for continuing education and training. To earn the ID emblazoned with city and CERT logos, volunteers must submit to the background check.

The police department runs the check and picks up the tab for any associated costs. Individuals are matched against the Texas penal code for past violations, and their fingerprints are run against an FBI database. It’s the same level of scrutiny as is applied to any city employee, said Jacob Dirr, a spokesman for the Austin Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

“There is the potential for our volunteers to come into contact with children or vulnerable populations, and we want to ensure that in those instances we are doing our due diligence,” he said.

While some may be concerned that such checks will scare off potential volunteers, Dirr said he has never known that to be the case. Nor has the check impeded what some say is a vital aspect of emergency response: That is, the spontaneous volunteer. Such individuals have been a crucial component in many emergency operations, such as the 2014 Oso mudslide in Washington state, where hundreds of volunteers helped mitigate a landslide that killed more than 40 people.

Austin makes sure CERT’s background checks do not slow any emergency response. To do this it relies on a memorandum of understanding with the American Red Cross, which typically will lead the intake of volunteers during a major disaster. The CERT will put these people to work, even without the usual investigation. “If we are in an instance where we have spontaneous volunteers, nine times out of 10 we are going to be doing that with the American Red Cross, and they have their own very efficient ways of checking people before they are accepted as Red Cross volunteers,” Dirr said.

Not everyone agrees with this way of thinking. Sometimes the organization of a community’s emergency response mechanisms will actually mitigate against the need for a background check.

Among the 3,000 CERT volunteers in Palm Beach County, Fla., not one has even been subjected to investigation. Primarily the job of the public safety department is to collect a $50,000 state grant and then to pass it through to fund training at the local state college, said Vince Bonvento, an assistant county administrator and also director of the Public Safety Department.

Volunteers get trained and certified, but they also get badges stating they are not county employees or even sanctioned volunteers. “If they were volunteers for the county we would be responsible for their actions,” Bonvento explained. That’s not a weight the county wants to bear — not when most volunteers spend their time patrolling retirement communities.

To take responsibility for these helpers, the county would probably want to run background checks, and that raises a range of tough questions. “What are going to be the criteria you are going to use to deny someone a CERT certification? There are various levels of misdemeanor; there are these different levels of checks. All of that would have to be defined,” Bonvento said. “If there is cost involved, do you pass that on to the volunteers? Will it be allowable to take it out of the grant?”

Answers to these and other questions may be forthcoming, as Florida’s inspector general recommended recently that background checks be made mandatory for emergency volunteers. That would suit Bonvento just fine, as long as the state is willing to take on responsibility for the effort. “If it is going to be done it needs to be done by the state of Florida,” he said. “They need to come to the counties, and they need to give us direction.”

Even when checks are run, a dubious score doesn’t mean automatic rejection, at least not in Rush County. Most investigations, for example, will delve into credit history: A person with financial troubles may be more apt to abuse trust. But Kemker doesn’t look at those scores.

“There are a lot of people having financial hard times right now,” he said. “We are not going to exclude someone based on that.”

Even criminal blips may be overlooked. “We have had some that have been questionable, where maybe the people they run with have an extensive history with law enforcement and they are just ‘known associates,’” Kemker said. “We sit with them, we discuss it and we give them a chance.”

The returns on that effort can be mixed. “We have had a couple of them that have been straight with us, who have been willing to make a change and have become better citizens. Then we’ve had others who we find out they are still associating with those people, or they are making racial slurs or sexual innuendos on Facebook.”

So Kemker runs the check, but he relies most heavily on interviews between candidates and present volunteers. “They sometimes tend to get a better description of what the people will be like, bringing out things that would not normally show up on a background check as far as their attitude and their actions.”

In some states, investigations into the criminal histories of emergency volunteers remain something of a mixed bag.

In Maine, where there is no statewide oversight of volunteer programs, counties manage their own CERTs, Fitzgerald said, and it is hit and miss as to which choose to run background checks.

Fitzgerald knows of cases in which a volunteer’s checkered past has caused planners to shift direction or even decline assistance. “I have heard of instances where a background check turned up something that might be concerning, and we have either had to change the role of that volunteer and think about where we might use their skills, or else say thanks but no thanks.”

While counties are free to choose the level of scrutiny they wish to apply, Fitzgerald’s bottom line is pragmatic: Unless there is some compelling reason not to, let’s get those people into the pipeline. “If there is a need in a community and you have a group of people who want to get training, you want to take advantage of that,” he said. “It’s hard enough to find people who are willing to volunteer and do this kind of work.”


Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.