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Background checks for SC firefighters don’t cover out-of-state criminal charges

Published: Nov. 18, 2021 at 7:15 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 18, 2021 at 8:34 PM EST
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ST. STEPHEN, S.C. (WCSC) - When Felix Butler sought to become a firefighter in St. Stephen in 2020, he put in his application that his salary was negotiable and that he could start working “ASAP.”

What Butler’s application did not say is that less than two years earlier, the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia announced that he was wanted for felony rape.

The application was not the only place where the felony rape charge was left out.

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division background check that was conducted on Butler did not mention the accusation either, and it turns out, it was not required to.

“The SLED background check only shows charges and convictions, etc. in South Carolina and would not show a charge, warrant, or conviction from another state,” Lesia Kudelka of the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation said.

After the background check was completed, Butler was allowed to join the St. Stephen Volunteer Fire Department. He served the agency until his former wife, the alleged victim in this case, came to Berkeley County in July and reported that he was hiding in plain sight, according to St. Stephen Police and Fire Chief Lee Wadford.

Butler was subsequently arrested and extradited back to Georgia, where the felony rape charge is still pending. His defense counsel in Augusta could not be reached for comment.

Charlie King, the Executive Director of the South Carolina State Firefighters’ Association, said that since firefighters regularly enter homes and businesses, it is important that community members can have confidence that they have been screened for any potential red flags, adding that firefighting is the “profession that’s typically the most trusted in government service.”

The South Carolina Firefighters Employment and Registration Act requires any prospective paid or volunteer firefighter to undergo a “criminal records check conducted by a law enforcement agency.”

Under state law, the cost of the background check cannot be greater than $8 and no one found guilty of arson, a controlled substance offense, or any felony can become a South Carolina firefighter within a decade of being convicted.

King said that while EMS departments and police departments across South Carolina use nationwide background checks, the process for volunteer firefighters and fire departments with tight budgets would be arduous and costly.

“It really becomes a logistics challenge because there are many, many more firefighters than there are EMS and law enforcement,” King said. “There are more than 18,000 firefighters in South Carolina and many of those are volunteers.”

King explained that South Carolina fire departments typically reach out to the Office of the State Fire Marshal in order to proceed with the in-state criminal background check for recruits. The Office of State Fire Marshal subsequently contacts SLED, which conducts the in-state firefighter background checks for $8 each, according to Kudelka.

“A lot of times, making a job decision or hiring decision is based upon this background check,” King said.

With SLED background checks not covering out-of-state matters, some larger municipalities like Goose Creek have decided on their own to conduct 50-state criminal background checks for firefighters.

“We do receive a lot of out-of-state candidates who are moving to the Lowcountry,” City of Goose Creek Human Resources Director Hilary VanOrsdel said. “They are walking in your homes. They are interacting with you. They are saving lives. We want to make sure that we’re sending the appropriate person to carry out that task.”

However, for smaller fire departments, conducting a criminal background check other than the $8 SLED in-state check that is subsidized by the Office of the State Fire Marshal is often easier said than done.

Deputy Chief Janene Schmidt from the Pine Ridge Fire Department in Berkeley County said that her agency would like to use a nationwide background check, but that they stick with the SLED service due to logistics and cost.

“It is definitely better on the budget by having them do that for us,” Schmidt said.

SLED declined a request for an interview regarding criminal background checks for firefighters.

In a statement in September, Tommy Crosby, SLED’s Public Information Officer at the time, wrote in part, “In the absence of specific legislation authorizing a fingerprint based federal background check SLED cannot perform such.”

King agreed that implementing a more extensive background check for all fire departments in South Carolina would require action from the South Carolina General Assembly.

“We know that the community expects that we should be providing the absolute best individual that they can trust to go in and out of their homes and businesses to render care to their loved ones when needed,” King said. “We feel like a nationwide background check would help us and employers ensure that.”

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