Having a good record management system in place is vital to fire departments and the fire service as a whole. Accuracy is obviously always vital, and we also have to be able to understand what records we are looking at and how to use them in order to benefit us.
When selecting a record management system, ask yourself the following question: What can I derive from a useful, fact-based, and orderly information system? Some of these benefits include helping fire service management with strategic planning, creating budgets, documenting mandatory training, and justifying needed equipment and personnel.
Each fire department should research and find what fits their specific needs when it comes to selecting a records management system. When reviewing different systems available to fire departments, a great place to start is with reviewing NFPA 1401 Recommended Practice for Fire Service Training Reports and Records.
NFPA 1401 provides an excellent outline for what elements need to be documented, reviews of different types of training documents, and outlines how to evaluate the effectiveness of training records and the legal aspects of record keeping.
As you begin to research different systems, here are the five questions and areas to consider.
1. How user friendly is the system? Most importantly, the ability of the fire department to input and derive information from the system should be your first consideration. If it is too difficult to input, it will not be used correctly. In addition, if you can not get valuable information out of the system, it’s defeating its purpose. "Garbage in is garbage out." The other aspect to this question is that the IT person should not be the one solely recommending systems — allow a panel of end users to select which is the most user friendly.
2. How will the system be "backed-up?" With the unforeseen circumstance of the computer catching fire or crashing, will the system be backed-up on-site or off-site? There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Review both scenarios with each records management system and your IT personnel. However, having your system backed-up is a must.
3. Is the cost worth the equipment? Look at what you want your end result to be — what is your goal for this system? Do you need a $50,000 system for your training records that integrates into staffing technology? Or will a $200 Microsoft Office Excel Spreadsheet take care of everything that you need? Most record management systems are based on the departments size and sometimes volunteer vs. career contributes to the cost. There are places for both systems if your department fits that category.
4. Review the length of time the records need to be retained. Different records (personnel, training and medical) have to be retained for different amounts of time. Review all applicable standards (local, NFPA, OSHA, etc.) to ensure compliance. Will the system be obsolete at the end of the retention period or can the information be upgraded with little down time or expense?
5. How will the system be secured? The system should be secured with limited access to as few people as possible. There are privacy laws that guard against allowing just anyone to review personnel files, including training records. Generally, one person should be in charge of the system with one additional person to help manage the system. They should be equally trained and have the same rights. The system should also be password protected. In addition, anti-virus software should be used to help protect against outside intruders, a.k.a hackers.
These are just some of the issues that should be addressed when researching for a record management system, regardless whether it's for training, personnel, or medical records. Reviewing NFPA 1401, which is not too thick, should be able to provide a basic guideline (who, what, when, where and why) for what general topics need to be covered and maintained with your records.
Finally, this area also happens to fall into one of the Everyone Goes Home Life Safety Initiatives, "Initiative #7: Create a national research agenda and data collection system that relates to the initiatives." Although it says "national," make it your own local system.
When the numbers are used correctly, they can tell you a lot. In addition, we should be thinking about who is running our cities and counties. Most of them have a business, accounting, finance or public administration background. They understand hard facts, statistics and numbers that the fire department can put in front of them.
Brian Ward is a Training Officer in the Career Development Division for the Gwinnett County Fire Department and the Vice-Chairman of the Metro Atlanta Training Officers. Brian currently serves as a State of Georgia Advocate for Everyone Goes Home and Courage to be Safe Trainer. He holds an Associates Degree of Fire Science and is pursuing his Bachelors with the University of Cincinnati. He is also the Founder of FireServiceSLT.com and organizer of Gwinnett County Leadership and Safety Conference. Brian can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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