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D.C. fire department to check 1,800 employee backgrounds

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The D.C. fire department plans to conduct extensive criminal background checks on 1,800 employees after a series of arrests involving its members in recent months, according to fire officials.

Many of the arrests had not been reported to the agency, as required by department policy, prompting Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe to issue a special order notifying employees they have 10 days to report any arrests or driving revocations from the last three years or face termination.

"Members shall receive this notice as information that the agency shall pursue, at the culmination of this period, an extensive criminal background check of every operational employee utilizing all legally authorized methods of review," states the special order, issued Friday.

Those employees would still be subject to discipline for the offenses.

The order applies to about 1,800 fire department employees, including all those who man fire trucks and ambulances but excluding civilian employees with desk jobs, department spokesman Tim Wilson said.

"Any employee who is found to have failed to report prior infractions, particularly where a citation for DUI, DWI, or an arrest of any type has occurred, shall be subject to termination," the order states.

WTTG-TV (Channel 5) reported Monday that 11 firefighters have been arrested since October, most recently a firefighter arrested for driving drunk and illegally carrying a handgun in his car.

The fire department conducts background checks when vetting potential employees, but once individuals are hired it is their responsibility to report any arrests.

"The only instances where background checks are done on current employees are for those who work in Operations that have been put on a presidential inauguration detail," Mr. Wilson wrote in an email response to questions.

The fire department had previously set a goal of running background checks on its force.

According to agency performance records, the department pledged in fiscal 2009 to conduct background checks on its then 2,100 members. The records indicate only 133 background checks were completed that year. Background checks do not show up again on performance records in subsequent fiscal years.

Former Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin called for periodic background checks on employees in 2007, after the fire department began investigating reports that a prostitution ring was being run out of city firehouses.

In 2008, agency leaders credited the background checks with the department's ability to equip ambulances with narcotics like morphine and Valium by ensuring that the drugs would not be in the hands of anyone with prior documented drug problems.

"It took nearly all four years of my watch to implement the needed steps for consistent background checks and monitoring system," Mr. Rubin wrote in his 2013 book, "D.C. Fire." "From what I understand, those steps have since been reversed."

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells said he plans to publicly inquire into the arrests of city firefighters during an oversight hearing next month.

"Obviously we are all distressed. Anybody driving an emergency vehicle without a license is a terrible breach of public trust," said Mr. Wells, who heads the committee with oversight of the fire department. "I will consult with the chief and deputy mayor of public safety to get their assurance that we have a warning system."

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