Q&A Feature: Can I Still Be a Firefighter If I Have a Criminal Record?
FireLink.com/Battalion Chief Paul Lepore
Bankruptcy is a big red flag to an agency. Simply because a credit card company considers an individual untouchable and relieved of financial responsibility once he or she declares bankruptcy, fire departments do not view this in the same way. In reality, although an individual has declared financial bankruptcy, he or she is morally obligated to repay the money that was borrowed. In the eyes of the law the obligation has been “forgotten,” but somebody is still out money. Is it an automatic disqualification? No, not if there has been progress made toward repaying the debt after bankruptcy was declared. According to a former background investigator for LAPD, “If an individual is making an honest effort to repay the money, we can look past a bankruptcy. We cannot overlook someone who does not attempt to right known wrongs.”
Candidates often wonder if they should report things that occurred when they were younger. They feel that if a record was sealed, they are not accountable for anything until they reached 18 years of age. Nothing is further from the truth. Remember the forms you signed when you sat down with the background investigator? These give permission to look into every aspect of your life. There is no such thing as a sealed record to a background investigator. Even if there were, whatever a candidate did to get a police record sealed would be cause for alarm and would raise the issue of liability for the agency. For the record, there is no such thing as a sealed file, regardless of what your attorney tells you.
Many people believe that they can give the background investigator only the names of their responsible friends, the ones who will say positive things about them. They will make sure to brief their friends on what to say and what not to say. In effect, they will coach them on how to answer the questions. Certainly, the investigator will interview the people listed by the candidate, but they will also ask the individual for the name of 5 friends. They will interview the five new people, and when completed, will ask for 5 more friends, and so on. It doesn’t take long for a trained investigator to get to someone who has not been coached.
The investigator will knock on the door of your neighbors and show them a Polaroid picture (the same one taken on the day of your initial background interview). If your neighbor tells the investigator that it looks like you, but the nose ring and bandana that you always wear are missing, the cat is out of the bag. In other words, the investigator has learned a lot about you. Will this disqualify you? Probably not, but it now gives the investigator cause to look deeper into your profile.
This scenario is the number one reason that when I speak to a group of fire science students, I encourage them to look the part. You don’t see many firefighters with nose rings and bandanas. The students constantly assure me that when they start testing, they will shave off the goatee and get a haircut. It is important to note that we are not looking to hire the person who can do a complete makeover in 30 days or less. If you changed that quickly to get the job, it stands to reason that you will change back after you get it. We are looking to hire people who authentically live their lives in a positive fashion.
Are there automatic disqualifications for the background process? Yes and no. What does this mean? It depends on the agency and on the feelings of the fire chief. Some fire chiefs don’t care what you have done (within reason), but will automatically disqualify a candidate who is not completely honest during the process, while others have certain actions that are immediate cause for dismissal.
Some common causes for automatic disqualification include the following: any injectible drug use (i.e. any controlled substance or steroid put into the body via a needle); any selling, intent to sell or transporting of narcotics; hallucinogens such as LSD and acid; multiple uses of marijuana that is considered more than experimental; any type of assault or domestic battery; stealing and arson. Of course, these are generic, but most agencies will have a policy dealing with any of the above cases. For some it may be an automatic disqualification, while other agencies may be more lenient and receptive to a reasonable explanation.
If a candidate has a blemish on his or her record that is not considered an automatic disqualification, the investigator will look further into the background. The intent is to determine if the infraction is a one-time incident or a pattern of poor choices. Oftentimes a driving under the influence arrest was the proverbial accident waiting to happen. In other words, a candidate tells the investigator that after the annual company picnic, he or she had too much to drink. The designated driver was nowhere to be found, and the candidate had to get home to feed his or her cats. It was a matter of life and death. The candidate got behind the wheel and drove when he or she shouldn’t have. As luck would have it, the candidate rear ended a police car and was arrested for driving under the influence. It was just an isolated incident that could have happened to anybody, right?
This would naturally trigger the investigator to look further into the candidate’s alcohol consumption. In fact, one of the questions is, “How often do you drink?” Nobody wants to look like an alcoholic, so they grossly underestimate the number of times alcohol is consumed each week. This is easily uncovered by interviewing your friends, who vouch for the fact that you are able to hold your liquor.
When it is revealed that you play softball in a beer league every Tuesday night with the guys from the shop, the investigator will easily identify that you drink every Tuesday night. Of course, the next question will be, “How does the candidate get to and from the game?” Your helpful friend raves about the pickup truck that you completely restored and drive to each and every game. The connection is now made complete that after drinking during the weekly softball game, the candidate hops into his restored pickup and drives home. Now, the driving under the influence conviction is no longer an isolated event, but rather part of a pattern of poor choices that finally caught up with a careless individual.
If, on the other hand, it does appear to be an isolated event the investigator will want to know what have you learned from the event. A candidate who was arrested for driving under the influence four years ago, has since quit drinking and is now a designated driver on the major holidays and a spokesperson for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), will certainly be considered above the previous candidate. In this scenario, it’s not the mistake that draws the attention, it’s the recovery.
A person who has smoked marijuana is usually not eliminated unless it was done in recent history. Some departments will eliminate a candidate if it was done after the candidate decided he or she wanted to become a firefighter. Again, an example of poor decision making. In today’s day and age, it is understood that most people will at least try marijuana. In fact, a recent news study revealed that 66% of high school seniors have at least tried it. Unfortunately, it seems to be on the rise. If smoking marijuana were an automatic disqualification, the fire and police agencies across the country would not be able to hire most new employees. The applicant pool would simply be too small.
The background investigation is the time to be accountable for all of your life’s actions. Most people have some past indiscretions that, if given the choice, they would change. That is what we call life experience. If the individual is honest and forthcoming with information and has not made any life altering decisions, as mentioned above, he or she should have no problem passing a comprehensive background check. It is important to note that if a candidate believes he or she may have difficulty with a background investigation he or she probably will.
My advice is to be honest and forthright with information. Everyone makes mistakes. If a candidate is caught in a lie, he or she is automatically eliminated from the process, even if the issue was not a big infraction. The fact that the candidate lied says a lot about his or her character.
Once a candidate fails a background investigation, the next agency has a right to know about it. In other words, when a candidate goes through a background investigation for a different agency, they have a right to know why you failed. If a candidate failed a background for lying, chances are they will not make it through the next process.
This article has been edited down for brevity. For the full text, please visit Everything You Need to Know About Background Investigations by Paul Lepore.
Paul Lepore is the author of the best-selling series of career how-to books for firefighters. You can buy them directly from the FireLink Bookstore.