Why fire departments should seek accreditation

There's a reason all of the cool kids are doing it, accreditation ushers fire departments into an age of professionalism

Recently, I was part of a four-member team that our department sent to a three-day class, Quality Improvement Through Accreditation, presented by the Center for Public Safety Excellence, and hosted by the Loveland-Symmes (Ohio) Fire Department located just north of Cincinnati.

In all, there were 28 students and two instructors who came from six states and as far away as Ontario, Canada to learn about the process for a department to seek accreditation from the Commission on Fire Accreditation International.

You've probably heard something about accreditation. Maybe you've even looked at the length of time it takes to complete this journey and wondered why would anyone want to attempt it.

Well, approximately 225 departments are accredited with more to come in the near future. So why have they done it, or better yet, why is my department starting this process?

I'd like to discuss that, but first a bit more about the class and course work we recently completed.

Getting started
A department starting out must apply to be a registered department. That department then begins to gather approximately three years of data, as well as uses the first four elements of the accreditation process to gather further information on the department.

Once those four elements are completed, a department becomes an applicant agency, which gives it 18 months to complete elements five and six of the process — a strategic plan and self-assessment manual. A mentor from CFAI is also assigned during this time to help applicants with frequent questions or suggestions.

After the self-assessment manual is completed and the documents uploaded to CPSE, the department becomes a candidate agency and peer reviewers are assigned.

Following the document review, there is a three-day peer assessment visit with the assessors from departments that mirror the applicant's population size and personnel system. The assessors then make a written recommendation to CFAI for the commission's review and approval.

The six key elements that a department must go through to prepare for the peer assessment are outlined below. The first four are part of the community risk assessment and standard of cover. In essence, each of these sections builds upon one another. Elements five and six are self-contained.

1. Developing the elements of a community risk assessment
Solicit internal and external customer input through community outreach and surveys.

2. Creating department goals and objectives
Based on the community assessment, set fresh goals and objectives for the department.

3. Creating a standard of cover
Develop goals for the number of units and a total response time criteria within the department's response areas. This should include these three items.

  • Distribution: First-due district goal for response time.
  • Concentration: What is the assembly distance and time for your emergency response force — the number of firefighters to be assembled for safe operations at a structure fire?
  • Comparability: How your department fairs with similar sized departments using performance standards such as NFPA 1710 or 1720 as a guide.

4. Evaluating agency performance
Using measurable collected data, see the department's actual times for achieving its standard of cover goals.

5. Reviewing strategic plan
These are goals and objectives set for the next three to five years outlining the department's continual improvements criteria.

6. Creating a self-assessment manual

Use a 1,500-question matrix documenting the current levels of service within the department using strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis.

If your head is swimming, so was mine until I realized this process was a proven step-by-step guide for your department to follow. It certainly requires a true team effort and a commitment within the entire department.

So why should we do it?

Traditional assessment tools such as an Insurance Service Office rating only handle a fraction of the services we perform.

In fact, a recent NFPA comparative report shows that of the average annual emergency calls for a fire department, 67 percent are for EMS, 6 percent are false alarms, 4 percent are mutual or automatic aid, 4 percent are actual fires within the community, 3 percent are hazmat and the remaining 16 percent are calls for other services that we provide.

As the fire service, with all of these service deliveries, moves toward that of a true profession, self improvement is a key element to success. Developing a system of continual improvement requires a department to be compared with its peer departments.

What that reinforces is we are definitely an all-hazard emergency service and therefore we have to look to organizations such as CFAI to validate that we are delivering what services people expect of us.

Why it matters
In addition, more and more mayors, administrators or city managers are data driven: most are also looking to best practices as a guide for the various departments they oversee.

Accreditation using peer assessments and evaluation are benchmarks that most government entities look for to ensure their departments are delivering quality, sound and innovative services.

I asked two well respected fire chiefs, whose departments are currently accredited, to discuss the value of having gone through this accreditation process.

"As CEO of a dual accredited agency with both the Commission on Accreditation of Ambulance Services and the Center for Public Safety Excellence Accreditations, the process has been invaluable to our organization," said Loveland-Symmes (Ohio) Fire Chief Otto Huber. "The value of a true peer assessment of your organization begins with the self assessment process that is a journey that brings real value to the department.

"The saying, 'You don't know what you don't know,' is an understatement. Even if we never finished the process, the journey was well worth all the effort."

Fishers (Ind.) Fire Chief Steve Orusa not only commented on the value of accreditation for his department, but also on the value to his firefighters and staff officers who participated in the process.

"Leadership is about change, improvement, making progress, getting better," Orusa said. "Strengthening our value proposition always demands more leadership. The accreditation process has helped us develop change-agents in our department. These change-agents will become our leaders of tomorrow."

I know these statements echo the feelings of our department as we start the journey toward accreditation.

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