How Accreditation Benefits Your Department and the Fire Service

BY MICHAEL J. BARAKEY

SHOULD YOUR DEPARTMENT SEEK ACCREDITATION? That is the million-dollar question! We choose to send our children to accredited schools and choose to receive medical treatment at accredited hospitals. The police department is accredited, and the private ambulance service taking patients from nursing home to nursing home is accredited as well. Why, then, if accreditation is expected or demanded for other organizations and institutions, is it not demanded in the fire service? This is a complicated subject, and apprehension about accreditation is real. So what does accreditation get us? What does that sticker mean?

First and foremost, accreditation is a process, not a project. Comparing the “process” of accreditation against a mere “project” is the best way to demonstrate its value. Accreditation has defined layers and intricacies, indicative of a process. The value achieved in accreditation is seen at many different phases of the process. If accreditation becomes a project, important areas of reflection and analysis are lost to meeting deadlines. The process is a continuous flow of information, not designed to end up on a desk or in a file cabinet but to become the heart and focal point of departmental planning, evaluation, and decision making. Accreditation is not static. From the moment a department enters the process, all aspects of the organization are analyzed. Improvements in the organization begin immediately, with the influx of information, discussion at committee and senior staff tables, and the analysis of the data and the ensuing discovery.

SELF-ASSESSMENT

Self-assessment is one of four phases in the process. The department completes a comprehensive review and assessment of all phases of the organization. The process divides the department into 10 categories, allowing the process to separate like areas and components to allow a systematic self-assessment. Areas including operations, governance and administration, human resources, and finance are assessed, researched, and evaluated, emphasizing the area’s present performance, its past performance in meeting defined objectives, and the future plans to continue to meet the objectives of that criterion. The agency must provide supporting documents or exhibits to validate the quantitative or qualitative statements made in the criterion.

COMMUNITY RISK ANALYSIS

Community risk analysis evaluates the hazards and buildings in our community. Buildings are classified based on risk—low, moderate, high, or special. Communities are ever changing—continually, businesses enter the community while established businesses close. Risk evaluation ensures that fire protection is current and relevant for the community and the areas protected. The department’s deployment strategies must match community needs. Likewise, firefighters, who will be entering these buildings when they are compromised by fire, deserve a complete hazard analysis of the buildings and are expected to perform routine inspection visits and assessments (prefire planning) as part of this process.

STANDARDS OF COVER

The standards of cover document provides a comprehensive evaluation of the community the department serves. This includes evaluating the community’s demographics, population density, land and infrastructure limitations, seasonal impacts on the department’s resources, and building stock. Furthermore, the department’s resources and performance are evaluated, including staffing and deployment objectives; time of day demands on the department’s resources; and total response times including call processing and dispatch times, turnout times, and travel times. From these data, baseline objectives are then established and benchmark objectives determined as goal statements, to place defined performance objectives that are published and evaluated in the future. This will drive the department’s placement of apparatus and personnel and align strategies with demand while serving as a driver for future fire station placement, personnel and apparatus, and program movement.

STRATEGIC BUSINESS PLAN

The strategic business plan serves as the repository of all identified short-, medium-, and long-term goals and objectives. All findings in the self-assessment, risk analysis, and standards of cover portions are tied together to promote strategic discussion among the senior leadership and to plan for the future. This business plan is fluid and is annually modified and changed to reflect the fluidity of the information received in the other three documents in the process.

The accreditation process is a proven way to evaluate the department‘s past performance while setting a course for the future. Best practices and standards are considered while performing the self-assessment and standards of cover, yet “improvement though analysis” is required over the requirement to “meet” standards. In other words, becoming an accredited agency does not indicate a department meets the Chapter 4, section 4.1.2.1 response standard of National Fire Protection Association 1710, Standard for The Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments. Becoming an accredited agency means that the department has performed an in-depth analysis of all applicable standards and best practices, has defined performance objectives based on three years of data, and has established benchmark objectives with realistic goals that are measurable to reduce times to meet the standard. Make the effort to always be better and provide a better, quicker, and efficient service to the citizens in your community. Everyone wins, from the firefighters responding to the person on the other end of the phone in need of assistance, when response time is reduced. Saving seconds saves lives, and improving response will only serve the community more efficiently.

ACCREDITATION PROCESS COST

The cost of accreditation depends on the population your department serves. Most departments will need to budget between $15,000 and $30,000 every five years from application to award. This includes all fees, department member accreditation process training, travel, site visits, clerical support, and application with the commission.

Now, is it worth the expense? Without a doubt, the tangible and intangible benefits of the accreditation are worth the expense. Identifying areas of improvement alone justifies the expense. For example, after analyzing total response times, identifying procedural changes and modifications, and analyzing gaps, an accredited department reduced alarm handling, dispatching, and turnout times by 29 percent. That reduction was only the start of systemwide reduction in total response times—the process will continue to analyze data, identify gaps, and promote procedural changes to reduce the time it takes to get firefighters on the scene. Every second counts.

Other tangible improvements by the same fire department included expanded map grids, identification of catchment areas for which apparatus can respond in a defined time period, and relationships with other city agencies and the establishment of several co-department committees and work groups. Identified service gaps are being addressed in the strategic plan. Deployment of resources is now better understood, and the relationship between a defined response matrix based on function with data that shows the time it takes to have that full complement of apparatus, or the “effective response force” to arrive on the scene of all emergencies, is documented.

Field experiments were conducted to isolate 14 critical tasks that occur on moderate risk structural fires and determine the “time” it takes to complete those 14 individual tasks, as well as the aggregate, and then comparing the results between three- and four-person engine and ladder companies. These are real data that senior leadership can provide to city government to show the benefit of four-person companies and the time reduction that occurs with that fourth firefighter. Remember, seconds save lives.

Education and access to city government are other benefits of the accreditation process. The strategic business plan and the standards of cover documents are living documents that are distributed to city government and are accessible to decision makers. These documents become “gold standards” to which other competing departments are potentially compared. They are professional, and the fire service is demonstrating the ability to provide the evidence necessary to support our needs.

The benefits of being or becoming an accredited agency are endless. As you strive to provide the best, most efficient services to the citizens in your town, county, or city, this process will provide a better environment to work and grow your members or employees, safely. Accreditation—the process is worth the investment!

MICHAEL J. BARAKEY is a battalion chief with the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department, assigned as the department’s accreditation manager. He is a hazmat specialist, an instructor III, a nationally registered paramedic, and a neonatal/pediatric critical care paramedic for the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk, Virginia. Barakey is a plans team manager for the Viginia Task Force 2 VA-TF2 US&R team. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and has a master’ degree in public administration from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. He is a classroom instructor at FDIC.

Michael J. Barakey will present “Developing the Complete Company Officer” on Monday, April 16, 2012, 1:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m., at the FDIC in Indianapolis.

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