Are firefighter screenings worth cost to Maine towns?

Posted Dec. 14, 2009, at 9:39 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine – At the center of the issue of what to do about firefighter arsonists is the question of whether anything needs to be done about firefighter arsonists.

With thousands of trustworthy firefighters serving Maine communities and an average of about one a year being accused of arson since 2000, justifying the expense of measures used in other states isn’t always easy.

Some states require in-depth criminal and psychological background checks for all firefighters while others have instituted aggressive department-to-department training programs, according to a 2003 study of firefighter arsonists by the U.S. Fire Administration.

Methods for screening potential firefighters varies town to town in Maine, according to Deputy Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas.

“It really depends on the local community’s hiring practices,” said Thomas. “There’s no state or national standard they have to follow. The vast majority of departments in the state of Maine are volunteer, and they might not even have a human resources department.”

Chief Darrell White of the Presque Isle Fire Department said his department inspects criminal histories of all of its firefighters, but doesn’t do psychological testing of the sort that is required of police officers in Maine. Neither do most Maine towns, according to Thomas.

For White, who saw one of his call firefighters arrested for arson last month, there are two major problems with such a requirement. First, with psychological screening costing hundreds of dollars per person, the cost to municipalities would be considerable. Even more problematic, according to White, is that imposing new requirements, particularly among volunteers, might exacerbate the already daunting challenge of recruiting people into the fire service.

Michael Starn, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, echoed those concerns and questioned whether there is enough cause for such measures.

“Is it something that is extensive enough of a problem to warrant a state mandate?” asked Starn. “The other issue is … the state is very reluctant to impose mandates on communities that have costs associated with them. I’m not convinced that communities are not handling this on their own.”

Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, is Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which oversees the State Fire Marshal’s Office and public safety policy issues. He said his committee has a history of letting municipalities handle this issue on their own.

“If we were to create extensive background checks, you might find it dissuades a lot of people from being volunteer firefighters,” Gerzofsky said.

Rep. Michael Lajoie, D-Lewiston, who was that city’s fire chief for 12 years, also sits on the criminal justice committee. He said he favors full psychological background checks for at least full-time firefighters and maybe part-timers.

“In my opinion, we should require that because of the type of duties we do and the service we provide to the public,” he said. “What would be a determining factor in the smaller towns is the cost of doing something like that.”

A search of the Legislature’s Web site revealed that the most recent bill proposal that addressed arson in any way was an effort to create a central registry for arsonists similar to Maine’s sex offender registry. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Edward Mazurek, D-Rockland, died in committee.

“To me if there are suspicious fires in town and if there’s a known arsonist living in the area, a registry might induce him not to commit a crime,” said Mazurek. “According to the fire marshal, it would’ve cost too much money. It was a $1 million investment, but I still think we should have it. I do think people who set fires obviously have some kind of problem.”

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