Piney Grove Volunteer firefighter suspended pending investigation

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KERNERSVILLE, N.C. --The recent arrest of a paid firefighter from the Piney Grove Volunteer Fire Department in Forsyth County is bringing up questions about the hiring practices of all volunteer firefighters.

Captain John Fields from Piney Grove Volunteer Fire Department was charged with DWI and illegally having a firearm because he is a convicted felon.

According to the State Fire Marshall's Office, there are no state regulations for hiring a volunteer firefighter. All of the hiring criteria is left up to each individual fire department and its board of directors.

Chief Joe Martin of Piney Grove says his department does background checks, but would not comment on how or if, Fields' prior convictions for breaking into cars in 1996 played a role in his hiring more than five years ago.

"This is a personnel issue, I'd rather not talk about any of those matters at this time," says Martin.

According to Forsyth County Fire Marshall Tim Whicker, each volunteer department in the county acts as an independent contractor. Fire tax money from each district pays for the department's services, but the county does not regulate how or who the department's hire. That is left up to each department and it's board of directors.

Whicker says the charges and finding out about Fields' prior convictions were surprising.

"We got to maintain a positive public image.  We're out here serving the public, we are the people called when things go wrong," he said.

Whicker confirms all contracted volunteer departments, including Piney Grove, do background checks but who they ultimately deem suitable for their own department, despite those checks, is up to them.

"I know having a person with the proper character and proper background is important to maintain that trust," Whicker said.

Fields serves as one of three full time, paid employees at Piney Grove Volunteer Fire Department.

Chief Martin says Fields has been suspended without pay pending the outcome of his charges.

"It's not a bad situation yet, he's only been charged with stuff. He has not been convicted," Martin said.

County leaders say they believe Piney Grove is doing the right thing in suspending Fields pending the outcome of the latest charges against him.

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