I was recently speaking with a firefighter candidate and he asked me, can I become a firefighter with DUI? Unfortunately, DUI convictions – driving under the influence – are something that many young drivers have to contend with.
So, can I be a firefighter with a DUI?
Yes, you can still become a firefighter with a DUI. The best way to overcome the DUI (especially during the interview) is to be honest, articulate what you have done to change and have as much time between the DUI offense and your application to the department.
Some may have a drinking problem while others will make an honest mistake with a lapse of judgement about their sobriety. Whatever the reason for the conviction, a DUI can stain a criminal record and limit job prospects in the future.
In this article, I want to answer this important question asked by these hopeful trainees: can I be a firefighter with a DUI?
I will focus on the prospects for applicants looking to train to be a firefighter.
Just how damaging is a DUI conviction and is there any room for leniency or compassion?
I will also talk about some of the other convictions that could hinder your chances.
After that, I want to discuss the issue of firefighters currently in service who receive criminal convictions on the job. Is there any hope to keep your job in this situation?
Why are DUI convictions so important in the application process?
A common question I am askes is why fire departments are so strict when it comes to these prior convictions in the first place?
Some departments have a zero tolerance policy, and won’t meet with anyone with a prior conviction, so it is easy to see why those with misdemeanor charges can get the wrong impression.
The first reason is the reputation of the department. Firefighters are perceived as respectable public servants that society can rely on in times of crisis.
They are meant to be friendly heroes.
Some departments may feel that they may damage their reputation by hiring someone with a criminal record.
Reputation and professionalism in the fire department are such contentious issues that there are still debates over whether or not tattoos and facial hair should be allowed and to what extent.
There are also questions over the reliability and character of the crew member if they have this history with drunk-driving.
What led an applicant to commit the DUI?
Do they have problems with substance abuse that could affect their work at the station?
Do they have other addictive tendencies?
Do they lack impulse control or self-awareness?
Does this mean that they won’t be aware of their impact within a team at the site of an incident?
There are too many unanswered questions for some fire chiefs. It might be easier to stop the application in its tracks and bring in someone else.
If the department does decide to move forward with you as a candidate, I assure you, you will probably be asked about the DUI at some point during your firefighter interview.
Later on in your career you may be eligible to become a firefighter engineer which means your job will be to drive various fire apparatus. If you can’t be trusted to drive your own vehicle sober, the department will have serious hesitations to do so with their vehicles.
Can firefighter applicants get hired with a DUI conviction?
Fire departments will take applicants from all walks of life, as long as the meet the basic minimum requirements to apply to that particular department.
Yet, those with DUI convictions on their record may assume that they have no chance in the firefighting service. This isn’t necessarily true. It all depends on the circumstances and what you have done to change.
Before any candidate is considered, the department will run a background check.
All fire departments will run a background check on new applicants through the Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
This means that if they ask you in for an interview about your application, they probably already know about your criminal record.
Most will ask questions about it and judge your suitability for service on your answers.
Be honest and open. This is your time to clear the air about what the circumstances of the event were. If you act like you have something to hide, then they will think you are untrustworthy.
It’s important to note that this is the time for taking responsibility for your actions. Lots of people can say they learned from an experience, but few can show how they have changed themselves and their behavior after an experience.
You must be able to articulate what actions you have taken to change your behavior. Otherwise, why should the department believe you?
The severity of the outcome can depend on the severity of the crime.
One single misdemeanor conviction could be overlooked in favor of other qualities.
The rules are different, however, for a felony crime. Most DUI cases, particularly first-time offences, class as misdemeanors with smaller fines and minimal jail time.
But, some circumstances elevate the charge to a felony.
This often means that there is a secondary charge involved, such as endangering the lives of others in the car, causing bodily harm to others or other major traffic offences.
The individual’s blood alcohol level also influences the decision.
Officials will either call you in for an interview or reject your application based on the crime.
When did the DUI take place?
The date of the DUI offence is one of the first things that fire officials will consider when looking at an application.
Ideally, the charge needs to have occurred 5 years ago with no subsequent convictions or activity. If this was a one-off offence, and you have all driving privileges reinstated, you stand a good chance.
However, if the incident was more recent, or there are more than one, you are unlikely to proceed in the process.
The more time you have between your offence and your application the better.
How did the conviction affect your behavior and attitudes towards drunk driving?
Candidates can also improve their chances in the process if they show genuine remorse and changes in attitude and beahvior.
This means more than just being able to showcase a clean record for a specific amount of time.
During your interview you may get questions about how often you now drink, what your thoughts are on drunk driving and what have to done to show that you have changed your behavior when it comes to drinking.
What other crimes could keep me from becoming a firefighter?
A DUI conviction is not the only crime that could limit an applicant’s chances of getting hired.
Those background checks will highlight any and all criminal behavior from your past.
There are other driving offences that are red flags to fire departments such as leaving the scene of an accident, reckless driving and any past license suspensions.
Some departments will even consider failure to renew motor insurance as grounds for terminating an application.
The reason these small infractions are such a big deal to departments is because if they see a pattern of irresponsibility and recklessness in a candidate they have no reason to think they will be any different once they have been hired. .
If a fire department denies my application, can I reapply?
Unless there is a specific policy that states otherwise, yes, you can certainly reapply in the future.
Those with suspended licenses must wait until the end of the suspension period. Those with a history of poor driving could reapply if they can show proof of a 2-year clean record.
What happens to firefighters that commit DUIs on the job?
This is where things can get tricky. Depending on several factors including the chief, department policies, city policies and union bylaws you could either be looking at anything from a simple reprimand to losing your job.
Believe it or not, there are many cases of firefighters in active service committing DUIs.
A conviction could result in the loss of a license and other punishments as drunk driving can endanger the lives of the people that they swore to protect.
There are also cases of firefighters being arrested while on duty.
Firefighters that come to work intoxicated or drink at the station may have substance abuse issues. These issues are incompatible with their duties.
If they were to return to work, what are the chances of them relapsing, making mistakes and/or causing a fatality?
Firefighters that lose their drivers license can’t work.
The loss of a driving license is devastating to active personnel because a firefighter must have a valid driver license with all the right endorsements to maintain employment.
Lose that right to drive and they can’t operate the fire engines or other service vehicles.
Therefore, they are no longer fit for service.
Even if the DUI was a mistake and they show remorse, there is nothing the department can do to help them.
This is especially true in states like California where the DMV immediately suspends the license of those determined to have a blood alcohol level above the legal limit.
It is also important to note that stations can dismiss firefighters if they exhibit behaviors and conditions that may impair their suitability for the job.
This means their ability to handle their duties but also the risk of physically violent or morally questionable actions. Traffic violations, criminal activity and drug use all come under this umbrella.
Substance abuse is not tolerated because of impairments in concentration, mood and reliability.
Criminal activity, however minor, challenges the reputation of the department. This is made worse if the illegal activity originates from within the department. Traffic offences also show a lack of professionalism and judgement.
There are more cases of firefighter DUIs than you might suspect.
One of the more blatant instances of DUI while working happened in Sussex, Wisconsin in 2016.
Here a firefighter was served with a DUI conviction which led to his dismissal from the department. It is the chain of related issues that is the surprising part of the story.
The DUI occurred when the serviceman in question was drunk at the wheel of his own fire truck – city property – and he hit another car.
State Patrol administered a breathalyzer test and field sobriety tests after smelling alcohol.
He failed them both.
To top the story off, when they went to revoke his license they found that it was already suspended. Thus, he had been driving for the fire station illegally.
It is hard to imagine another story where one firefighter could be so reckless and irresponsible.
So, can you be a firefighter with a DUI?
The points raised above show that it is possible to apply to be a firefighter with a DUI under certain circumstances.
Many departments are willing to overlook a mistake if you have a single misdemeanor conviction from more than 5 years ago.
My final words of advice here are simple.
Don’t assume that one previous misdemeanor DUI charge crushes your dreams of being a firefighter.
At the same time, don’t play the victim. You, and only you, are responsible for your actions in life and if you try to pass the blame of your mistakes onto others it will not be looked upon favorably.
Look up the station policies, go to the interview and give it a try.