9 answers: How to handle fire department theft

With the seeming rash of theft from volunteer fire departments, one expert shares insight on preventing and reacting to thefts

By Rick Markley

It seems every day brings another story of someone arrested for or convicted of stealing from a volunteer fire department. We're not talking about the punks who break in and swipe some tools. We're talking about the inside jobs, when one of our own brothers or sisters makes off with a sizable chunk of change. It is often perpetrated over years with the tally in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Not many volunteer departments can sustain that kind of financial hit in the best of time, let alone in a recession.

Chief Phil Stittleburg, NVFC chairman
Chief Phil Stittleburg, NVFC chairman

To help fire departments get a handle on this, I talked with Phil Stittleburg who heads up the National Volunteer Fire Council. In addition, Stittleburg is a long-standing volunteer fire chief and a practicing attorney, making him uniquely qualified to look at this problem from several points of view.

What can departments do in the hiring process to reduce the likelihood of bringing on someone who will eventually steal?
First, we need a good, solid policy of how we're going to bring people in and what the qualifications are. Verify what's on the application. If the person says he's an EMT, you want to see the license. You want to look at the driving records. I like to see references and talk to those folks and see what other departments or employers have come up with.

We can get into things that go deeper like finger printing, drug testing and checking for criminal convictions. That can be a touchy area because a lot of states have laws against criminal-record discrimination; you can't decline to hire somebody just because they have criminal convictions.

You may have to demonstrate that the conviction was an offense that may be relevant. For instance if the EMT candidate has a history of sexual assault, that's probably a good basis not to hire him. On the other hand, a disorderly conduct because he got unruly at a football game may not be.

There's nothing illegal about requesting that information, but what you do with it can be tricky. I think it is a good idea to request that information if for no other reason than to verify what's on the application. If the person indicates no criminal convictions, then you do the background check and find there's been three criminal convictions, that is a basis not to take the person on. Even though their criminal actions may not be related to the job, just the act of lying on the application is a valid reason for denial of employment.

What about practices you see in the private sector like checking credit reports and social media?
Credit reports tend to be tricky because it sets you up for discrimination suits. Certain racial profiles will have demonstratively poor credit reports. I don't see any problem at all with social media searches; that's all out there for the public to see.

What can departments do when evaluating someone for promotion to officer or a higher rank of officer?
The answer is very similar to when you bring someone on. There needs to be a written policy of how we conduct a promotional process, what we expect to see in our officers and what the job description really is. In too many small departments, promotions and popularity can get confused. That's one of the places we just ask for trouble. If the policy lays out the qualifications, it won't solve the whole problem. But at a minimum, we've made it a lot more of a professional activity that will weed out some of the less-desirable candidates.

The popularity vote is a poor process on any number of levels. That's not to say the department members should not have input on what they want to see. But just to get together one night and elect a new lieutenant, we're really doing a disservice not just from the standpoint of honesty, but from the standpoint of qualifications.

Are there ongoing tactics a department should engage in to reduce the risk of theft?
A lot of departments don't use the basic safeguards. One that goes a long way is get two signatures on checks. Make sure that the person who authorizes the invoice for payment is not the person who pays for it, so you have a check and balance.

An outside audit is a nice thing if you can afford it. If you can't, maybe an internal audit if you have an accountant on the department or in town who can take a look at the books. A lot of the cases I see have things as elementary as that overlooked.

What about things like surveillance cameras?
I suppose that's doable, but it brings us to the question of morale. At some point you have to trust people and the vast majority of people are going to be honest. If you've got a problem, security cameras may be a way to deal with it. In my view, it would be one of the last places I'd want to go because it would have a chilling impact on morale.

Can you be vigilant in theft prevention to the point of hurting the department's ability to recruit and retain firefighters?
Sometimes you get theft of tools and things, but the place I see it more than anywhere is money. It seems like it disappears from two places: from the treasury, which leads back to having a different person authorizing the expenditure; and when you have cash around, like at fundraisers.

Having a good system in place for how you're handling cash, from ticket sales or whatever, is important. It may be something as simple as having two people, rather than one, deliver the cash to the bank or wherever it is going to be secured. Or, two people are counting it on the spot. That's very easily done. That wad of cash can be quite a temptation to folks, particularly if times are tough for them. If you just remove that temptation, it helps a lot.

In terms of morale, make it a straight-across policy and not put in effect because you think one person might be stealing a little money. Make it plain that it is not directed at anyone in particular. It can help avoid mistakes too. Someone may think there's a lot of money in the cash box when there wasn't and someone is suspected of skimming and didn't. These can be avoided by applying some common-sense solutions.

From a human resources standpoint, how can you reduce the temptation to steal?
Have an ethics standard or code for the department. It can be about as simple as "we won't lie, cheat or steal." And have the people actually sign it. From time to time, remind folks that the department does have an ethics code.

Also, lead by example. The chief has to show that if she is working the last shift at the food stand she will have somebody with her to lock up the cash box.

Sometimes you end up with things that aren't thefts, but just stupid misunderstandings. You may have the treasurer who thinks he does a lot of work for the department and it is reasonable to get paid $100 here or there, and not fully understanding that that is theft. Part of it is educating people on what constitutes theft, what they can and cannot do.

The best is to create a culture of honesty, where you can say the way we do business is we don't lie, cheat, steal. The rumor you don't have to investigate is the best kind.

Once a theft is suspected, what are the best steps to take?
Absolute step one is be sure you really have a theft. If it is a mismanagement of funds or embezzlement, you may want to bring in an accountant to make sure something really happened. If you have a large amount of money or complicated books, it may appear that something is missing when it isn't.

Once you establish there is a theft, call in law enforcement. At that point, the whole picture is going to change significantly. A lot will depend on what happens in the course of the law-enforcement investigation.

When a theft has occurred, how much information do you communicate to the members about the incident?
Once you call the sheriff's department and say, "I think I have a theft," the second call you make is to your attorney. How you handle things from there on is going to get really touchy. What's likely to happen is that you're going to place the suspect on some sort of suspension. You probably are not going to be able to tell the department much, if anything, about what is happening other than an investigation is ongoing. What you can tell people and when, isn't going to be controlled by you. It will be controlled by either law enforcement or the prosecutor.

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