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ARRL President Airs Concerns about Required Red Cross Background Checks

NEWINGTON, CT, Oct 25, 2006 -- ARRL President Joel Harrison, W5ZN, is urging Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) and other ham radio volunteers to tread cautiously when submitting information for background checks the American Red Cross (ARC) now requires. The ARC, with which the ARRL has a Statement of Understanding (SoU), this summer notified local chapters that volunteers and staff members must submit to criminal background checks by October 31. Harrison says the requirement extends to ARES volunteers who support Red Cross disaster relief efforts. In a statement October 24, Harrison said the League recommends that anyone submitting personal information for a background check very carefully read what they are giving the ARC permission to collect.

ARRL President Joel Harrison, W5ZN

"The Red Cross is requiring volunteers to grant permission for more than just a criminal background check," Harrison asserted. "They are also requiring permission to draw a consumer and/or investigative consumer report on the volunteer." Harrison said that could also include a credit check and a mode-of-living check.

"The Red Cross has stated that they will not use credit reports," he noted. "Requiring that volunteers authorize the procurement of a credit report is inconsistent with this assurance." The on-line application allows applicants to request a copy of any consumer report resulting from its background investigation.

The ARC has contracted with LLC (MBC) in Anderson, California, to handle the on-line background checks. Prospective volunteers visit a secure Web site, click on the ARC logo and submit name, address, Social Security number (or other acceptable government ID), telephone number, and date of birth. Driver's license information, e-mail address and mother's maiden name are optional.

In the course of the application process, prospective volunteers must agree to let MBC obtain a wide range of personal information bearing not just on criminal background and creditworthiness but, MBC says, "character, general reputation [and] personal characteristics." MBC advises, "The nature and scope of this disclosure and authorization is all-encompassing . . ."

ARES Volunteers Concerned

ARES volunteers often support American Red Cross disaster relief efforts.

ARES volunteer and Tulsa Repeater Organization volunteer Ben Joplin, WB5VST, is interviewed by local news media after getting word through to Louisiana officials that 15 people were stranded on a roof following Hurricane Katrina. Red Cross public relations personnel reportedly requested that he wear an ARC vest and draped the Red Cross banner for the interview. Joplin passed his traffic via the Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network (SATERN), however. [Mark Conklin, N7XYO, Photo]

Past ARRL President Jim Haynie, W5JBP (left), and American Red Cross Disaster Services Executive Vice President John McDivitt shake hands in 2002 after signing the updated SoU between the ARRL and the ARC.

An Amateur Radio team in Montgomery, Alabama, headed by ARRL Alabama Section Manager Greg Sarratt, W4OZK (second from left), processed volunteers to aid Red Cross relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina.

Some ARES leaders already have expressed concern to the ARRL about the Red Cross policy. One District Emergency Coordinator called the requirement "particularly abhorrent" and "a horrendous invasion of privacy." The Red Cross says the new policy is aimed at safeguarding clients, volunteers and employees alike.

"Unfortunately, in this day and age it is critical that the American Red Cross and other agencies, employers and organizations perform due diligence in researching the people who will represent them," the Red Cross said in a statement supplied to ARRL. "We hope volunteers, who have provided blood, sweat and tears in helping fulfill the mission of the American Red Cross, will understand the importance of performing this due diligence."

ARRL Field and Educational Services Manager Dave Patton, NN1N -- whose department supports and oversees the ARRL Field Organization -- is among those who believes the Red Cross stands to lose a fair number of volunteers because of the requirement -- and not necessarily just ARES volunteers.

"ARES members who are providing communications for ARC are working for ARC," Patton maintained, "and, as such, will follow their guidelines." He added that whatever position the ARRL might adopt, the decision to go along with the new Red Cross policy is up to individual volunteers.

The ARC apparently has not disseminated policy specifics at the national level. The only reliable information on what the background checks will entail is that on the MBC site. The sometimes-conflicting information ARRL obtained was distributed at the ARC chapter level. One such memorandum -- supplied to ARRL by a third party --indicates that a check will focus on an individual's criminal history over the previous seven years (in most states), although MBC's disclaimer doesn't indicate any limit. Some prospective volunteers have worried that "youthful indiscretions" may rule out their suitability as Red Cross volunteers. The check also will verify that an individual's name matches his or her Social Security number. The same memo assures that access to the information gathered "is limited to only those with a need to know and is kept in a secure location."

Despite the information MBC provides on the application site, another chapter-level memorandum assures that the Red Cross "is not interested in checking your personal credit/financial records nor will it review any personal/professional reference checks."

Who Represents Whom?

Several ARES leaders have expressed the belief that they and their volunteers represent ARES when supporting communication for ARC as a served agency. "Our issue is not the background checking, but the fact ARC considers ARES members ARC volunteers," one ARRL Section Emergency Coordinator said.

The SoU between the League and the ARC is ambiguous on the subject, however. While the document says "each organization retains its own identity in providing service," it further stipulates that ARES volunteers "in such cases when the operators are required to carry American Red Cross identification" must register as American Red Cross volunteers.

Radio amateurs who volunteered in the wake of Hurricane Katrina last year were badged in via the Montgomery, Alabama, staging area as ARC volunteers. The same applied to those who turned out to assist following the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, and that practice upset some ARES volunteers.

The ARRL-ARC SoU subsequently states, however, that volunteers assisting the ARC with disaster relief communication support "shall be at all times considered ARRL volunteers," but then goes on to say that ARRL and ARES volunteers "may, under conditions and terms established by American Red Cross from time to time, also serve as American Red Cross volunteers for a mutually agreed upon task or function." The SoU does not address the issue of background checks, however. The SoU comes up for review in 2007.


ARRL Public Service Team Leader Steve Ewald, WV1X, says ARES leaders can assign volunteers who don't want to submit to the ARC criminal background check to ARES duties "away from the action" that don't involve direct interaction with the ARC. "We certainly understand the risks that are involved in having background checks done -- such as potential identity theft," Ewald told one worried SEC. "Those volunteers who do go through the background check will, indeed, enter at their own risk in this regard."

One ARES DEC suggested the ARC policy "is just way too arbitrary." As he put it, "The unfortunate thing is that if a member decides not to submit to this check, then that will hamper our ability to serve the Red Cross in an emergency."

Info is Secure, ARC Says

The Red Cross says it's gone to great lengths to ensure prospective volunteers are not giving out their Social Security numbers to anyone other than the contractor, and then only through a secure, encrypted Web site. "No additional information is needed," the Red Cross said, nor are the overall results of the background check shared with the ARC.

"The only information provided is that a person has successfully completed the background check with no adverse information, or that a person has potentially adverse information and that additional research is required," the ARC told ARRL. "When additional research is required the contracted company will notify the prospective volunteer and will address the issue with no Red Cross intervention."

Contact the Red Cross (toll-free 800-507-3960) with any questions regarding the background check program.


Page last modified: 12:51 PM, 26 Oct 2006 ET
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