Aug. 06--A new law prohibiting anyone with previous sex offense convictions from becoming a volunteer firefighter is an important advancement, but will not drastically change the firefighter vetting process, several area fire chiefs said Tuesday.
The legislation prevents registered sex offenders from joining or remaining members of volunteer fire and ambulance companies by requiring applicants to submit to background checks for prior sex offense convictions, according to a Monday announcement from State Sen. John Bonacic, R-Mount Hope, who sponsored the bill.
Fire chiefs are required to do the background check and, if any past convictions are found, the applicant will not be allowed to serve.
The law also allows departments to screen current volunteers for sexual offense convictions and authorizes the termination of any with a conviction for sexual offenses, according to the full text of the law.
"Volunteer fire department personnel should have all the means necessary to prevent convicted sex offenders from becoming volunteers, and remove any who presently serve," Bonacic said in a statement Monday. "I thank Gov. Cuomo for signing this common-sense measure into law."
According to a statement from the Firemen's Association of the State of New York, the law will benefit all New Yorkers, who are served by more than 92,000 volunteer first responders.
Local fire chiefs applauded Cuomo and Bonacic for enacting the law, even though it will not significantly change the operations of their organizations, they said.
Jim Tallman, chief of the Cooperstown Volunteer Fire Department, said he emailed his department's volunteers Monday night to pass along the news. He also discussed the law with Otsego County Sheriff Richard Devlin Jr. and began screening his 74 or so volunteers to ensure that none of them have any past sex offense convictions.
"I do not personally feel that someone with a history of sex offense convictions should be on a volunteer fire department or emergency medical services squad," Tallman said. "We go on EMS calls and to the scene of car accidents or homes where little kids are present all the time. Especially in life or death instances, fire officials and other volunteers shouldn't have to worry about someone groping a young child."
Fire departments already screen potential volunteers for arson convictions, Tallman said, so it won't be difficult to add sexual offenses to the screening process. For now, fire departments will check the free state sexual registry on their own, but in the future, the sheriff will be performing the more detailed background checks, Tallman said.
Scott Secor, chief of the Otego Volunteer Fire Department, said the requirement should be fairly simple for departments to meet. It is "one more tool to provide the community with the best service and protection," but it won't change much, he said.
"We'll just add another requirement to our screening and run the reports," he added.
Tom Hallock, chief of Richfield Springs Volunteer Fire Department, said "it's about time" a law like this was enacted. In addition to coming into contact with children and families at fire or medical emergencies, firefighters also put on many educational events in the community, Hallock said. These events would give sex offenders easy access to children.
"We frequently do fire prevention programs in schools," Hallock said. "We certainly don't want a convicted sex offender right in the middle of that."
This year, Hallock has about 40 volunteers with the department, which is fewer than normal, he said. To his knowledge, Hallock said, he has never had a convicted sex offender volunteer. But to know for sure? That's well worth the time it will take to run a background check with additional criteria, he said.
Copyright 2014 - The Daily Star, Oneonta, N.Y.