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Q&A Feature: Can I Still Be a Firefighter If I Have a Criminal Record?

Q&A Feature: Can I Still Be a Firefighter If I Have a Criminal Record?

FireLink.com/Battalion Chief Paul Lepore

Background investigations are an important component of the hiring process. They are completed by most fire departments across the country. Historically, fire departments have not placed as much emphasis on a thorough background check as their counterparts on the police department. A criminal check with the local police agency and a DMV check was the extent of what we used to look at.

The local police departments often complete today’s background checks. Many fire departments hold their firefighter candidates to the same high standards expected of a police officer. These standards include criminal history, drug usage, credit history, employment record, encounters with the law and a candidate’s overall persona.

The reasoning is that if a person has demonstrated an inability to manage his or her personal finances, is unable to get along with co-workers, or has simply made poor life decisions, these will be magnified as their responsibilities increase. If, on the other hand, a candidate has demonstrated a strong history of being able to manage his or her personal and professional life, there is no reason to expect that he or she would not continue to do so after being hired by the agency.

A thorough background investigation is important because of the role of the fire department in the community. The firefighter candidate will eventually hold a position of authority and responsibility. Firefighters are welcomed into people’s homes and businesses without fear for their personal safety or their prized possessions. If the candidate is of questionable ethical or moral character, he or she may ultimately become a liability for the hiring agency. This could erode public trust and compromise the department.

Once a candidate has been selected to move on in the hiring process, he or she is assigned a background investigator. Before meeting the background investigator, the candidate is given a background packet. These vary slightly from agency to agency, and are often 25 – 30 pages long. A candidate is usually given 14 – 21 days to complete the packet prior to the first meeting with the investigator. Candidates are advised to photocopy the packet and fill out the copy in pencil. Once the rough draft is complete, the original is completed in pen or, even better, typed.

The background packet will seek information relating to all jobs held (including names of supervisors and dates employed), military record including DD214, sealed high school and college transcripts, and a thorough questionnaire regarding drug and criminal history. Applicants will be expected to complete a section that outlines any and all encounters with illegal drugs, including persons involved, dates and times, as well as the number of times he or she has experimented with each substance.

Any omission of information is considered to be covering up and will be viewed as deceitful, which is grounds for automatic disqualification. If a candidate legitimately forgets information, it can certainly cost him or her a job. To avoid making these costly mistakes, a candidate should keep a log of information that would be helpful to a background investigator, including names and addresses of landlords, employers, friends and co-workers. Any blanks left in the packet raises the question of whether the applicant is attempting to cover something up.

Once the applicant has completed the background packet, he or she will be scheduled to meet with the assigned investigator. The investigator may be a firefighter on the department, a police officer for the city or county, or a private contractor. Whoever it is, the applicant’s future employment relies on successfully completing the process.


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