THE COMMISSION ON FIRE ACCREDITATION INTERNATIONAL: A LOOK TO THE FUTURE
BY RANDY R. BRUEGMAN AND RONNY J. COLEMAN
Every day, fire chiefs are faced with difficult decisions relating to the provision of services to their community. Today, more than ever, fire service leaders are faced with the constant pressure of doing more with less, and many elected governmental officials are hard-pressed to justify an increase in expenditure for services unless it can be directly attributed to quantifiable improvement in service delivery to the community. In today`s world of reinventing and re-engineering, we are in a continual state of rethinking our systems not only to provide more efficient service but also to determine methods by which to judge their degree of efficiency. For many years, the fire service has had a difficult time in quantifying its level of performance, an effort often hampered by the lack of a nationally accepted set of criteria by which a community can judge the quality and level of fire, EMS, and other services provided to its jurisdiction.
For many years, standards available to the fire service have been the product of collaborative efforts through such organizations as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), which have provided guidance in special operations and safety-related issues. Other measurements created to serve interests relating to, but not of, the fire service, such as the Insurance Service Office (ISO) grading schedule, have been used for almost a century as a means to grade service delivery.
Although the NFPA standards and recommended requirements for fire service delivery and the ISO grading schedule can prove valuable for the purposes for which they were created, the time has come for the fire service to elevate its level of professionalism by creating a process by which citizens, elected and appointed officials, and members within the fire service can assess when they have achieved an appropriate level of performance and efficiency as an organization.
A decade ago, a group of fire service professionals dreamed of a concept that would one day provide a comprehensive method of effectively evaluating the complexities of fire service delivery, today and into the future.
To that end, on October 27, 1988 and December 8, 1988, the International City Management Association (ICMA) and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) executive boards, respectively, signed a memorandum of understanding that provided for the development of a voluntary fire service accreditation system. The fire service self-assessment model, which is the basis for the accreditation model, was developed by a committee that consisted of a group of highly qualified and educated professionals. These chief fire officers, trainers, and academics have been working together to develop a document over the past 10 years.
To date, there have been eight complete revisions of the accreditation self-assessment manual, and the research and consolidation of data alone represent one of the most comprehensive and exhaustive projects ever undertaken by either organization. This effort has resulted in the creation of a self-assessment process that will assist agencies in becoming goal-oriented, forward-looking, well-organized, and properly equipped and trained and will provide a methodology for continually evaluating and improving services.
HOW THE MODEL WAS DEVELOPED
In 1989, a task force was created to begin the exploration and development of this process. It sought answers to three very basic questions:
1. Is the organization effective?
2. Are the goals, objectives, and mission of the organization being achieved?
3. What are the reasons for the success of the organization?
To that end, the Accreditation Task Force set, at the inception of this project, a series of goals and objectives that served as a guide throughout the development process. They included the following:
The system must be applicable across the spectrum of the fire service; with more than 30 thousand fire departments, the concept must be workable for the smallest volunteer agency to the metro-size organization.
It must have a degree of rigor, or it will be meaningless. If it is just a process to “do the process,” it would be of no value.
It must be contemporary, not revolutionary. Understanding the nature of the fire service, it was understood that evolution, not revolution, would be much more acceptable to the majority of fire service agencies.
It must have the ability to change over time. If the process and the documents are not dynamic, they will be short-lived and of little long-term benefit to the fire service.
It must be a rigorous process but achievable.
It must provide for a comprehensive organizational evaluation. Today, the fire service is a complex service delivery system. As such, all components of the organization must be evaluated.
It cannot be totally self-serving to the fire service. If the process were designed just to make the fire service look good, then there would be no enrollment from those who play a critical role in determining our future such as our city/county managers and elected officials.
It must be a practical management tool for the fire service leader/manager.
A critical question in the development of a process such as this is, “Will it work in the field?” In April 1993, after four years of development, an initial alpha test was designated. The Tempe (AZ) Fire Department took the self-assessment process designed as the basis for the accreditation model and applied it to its organization. Chief Cliff Jones, a member of the Accreditation Task Force, states, “One of the many advantages of the self-assessment component of the accreditation process is that it provides fire departments the opportunity to take an in-depth look at their organization and its operations, utilizing a standardized ap-proach. This project holds real promise for enhancing the credibility and professional standing of our fire service.”
From the lessons learned in Tempe, the document was once again redrafted, and the task force in June 1993 sought departments that would be interested in applying to be considered as additional test sites for this process. The criteria the task force developed to select these secondary test sites included the following:
Geographic location. At least one test site would be selected from each of the current eight IAFC divisions.
Agency composition. Agency selection would be broken into five categories based on the population served by the department:
–250,000 or more;
–between 100,000 and 249,999;
–between 25,000 and 99,999;
–between 24,999 and 10,000; and
–9,999 or less.
Agency criteria. Included were such things as the following:
–membership in the IAFC;
–letters of support to complete the process from the local governing body, city/county manager, and fire chief;
–a financial commitment from the agency to send staff members for training on the accreditation model and to pay for an on-site peer evaluation; and
–other staff commitment to complete the review, estimated at that time to be approximately 1,200 hours.
Thirty-eight departments applied. The Accreditation Task Force selected 12 sites, based on their ability to provide the agency composition, site, and geographic location needed to adequately test the accreditation model.
In preparation for this pilot testing program, the IAFC Accreditation Task Force hosted a three-day training workshop in November 1993 in Chicago. Personnel from the beta test sites attended. The workshop included a review of the background, philosophy, and means of conducting the self-assessment along with instructions for developing the documents, determining appropriate measurements, and preparing for the on-site peer assessment.
WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?
Included in the self-assessment manual are the following 10 categories, which departments can use to evaluate their performance. These categories include
Governance and Administration,
Assessment and Planning,
Goals and Objectives,
Training and Competency,
Essential Resources, and
External Systems Relationships.
Included within each category are criteria that are a measure or an index on which a judgment or a decision can be based. Criteria in the accreditation model define major areas within each category. There are 46 criteria throughout the 10 categories. In addition, there are 235 performance indicators that define the desired level of ability to demonstrate doing a particular task as specified in the accreditation process.
The model also includes a 170-plus- page, illustrated evaluation checklist of topics, exhibits, benchmarks, text, references, and activities broken down by category that includes more than 1,000 items that can be used to assist the fire service professional in beginning the self-assessment process. In addition, several appendices to assist in the assessment process have been developed and include the following:
“Definition of the Elements of Re-sponse Time,”
“Determining Fire Flows,”
“Creating and Evaluating Standards of Response Coverage for the Fire Service,” and
“Glossary of Terminology.”
Also included is an extensive bibliography from which this material has been developed. Currently, several documents are being written as adjacent complementary materials. In addition, the Federal Emer-gency Management Agency has awarded a grant to the IAFC to develop a computerized hazard risk-analysis program, which will be beneficial in the development of standards of response coverage and re-source deployment models.
DOES IT WORK?
A question many fire chiefs and city/county managers will ask is, Is this process another self-serving tool for the department, or is it a tool that can be used to measure the effectiveness and services the fire department is providing? The experience throughout this entire project has proven that departments that have committed the resources to conduct this in-depth self-assessment, whether they ever plan to apply for accreditation in the future, will assuredly be a much improved organization after having done the self-assessment analysis. To gain some perspective, we asked three of our beta test sites to respond with their feedback in relation to having been involved in the testing of the self-assessment process.
Q. Having gone through the self-assessment process, did you find it to be a worthwhile experience for your organization?
A. “The accreditation process was well worth the time and the effort expended. It forced us to kick some sacred cows, turn over rocks that hadn`t been touched before. Some of what we found was a real eye opener.” Dennis Murphy, fire chief, Spring-field, Oregon.
“We have always been proud of our fire department. It is one of only a few fire service organizations in the nation with a Class 1 insurance rating. The self-assessment process has made it an even better organization, and the commitment of resources required was definitely worthwhile in terms of the results.” Ed Kitchen, city manager, Greensboro, North Carolina.
“The self-assessment process resulted in tremendous benefits for the Greensboro Fire Department. First, we were able to evaluate all of our programs against nationally developed criteria during the self-assessment phase. This gave us a basis for understanding and articulating what level of services we provide. It also helped us identify what we are not doing and where we need to improve. The self-assessment document was provided to the city management as the fire department`s primary management tool.” Ray Flowers, fire chief, Greensboro, North Carolina.
“As project leader for the self-assessment process, I was allowed to mobilize a large portion of our organization to complete the task. All of us who participated have learned so much more about our organization. While examining specific criteria, we were also able to examine our organization in a much broader sense. We developed a greater appreciation for how we fit into the community and what the community`s needs actually are. As a manager, this process forced me to improve my skills in defining a program or problem, analysis of information, and developing solutions in terms of action plans.” Paul Brooks, deputy chief, self-assessment team leader, Greens-boro, North Carolina.
“The self-assessment/accreditation process was very beneficial to our organization. It provided a comprehensive guide used to review our organizational structure, functional areas, and the instruments we use to gauge success. Lincoln Fire Department personnel, from all ranks, invested a great deal of time and energy completing the process as a beta test site. Our organization is stronger, smarter, and more professional as a result of our involvement with the International Association of Fire Chiefs accreditation process.” Mike Merwick, fire chief, Lincoln, Nebraska.
Q. What action has your organization undertaken as a result of conducting the self-assessment process and on-site peer evaluation review?
A. “I have seen the department implement structured planning and program monitoring processes. The fire chief now provides me with a document every six months that includes a description, analysis, and plan for every program they are involved in.” Ed Kitchen, city manager, Greensboro, North Carolina.
“The benefits of the self-assessment process were so significant that we have implemented a program to regularly update and maintain the resulting document. It has been renamed the `Specific Plans` document and has become our primary management and planning tool. The maintenance of this program has become part of my annual work plan. Updating the material occurs every six months, and all other planning and reporting programs have been incorporated into this process, including goal and objective setting and benchmarking of program results.” Ray Flowers, fire chief, Greens-boro, North Carolina.
“Prior to the self-assessment process, our planning and analysis was sporadic and fragmented. As a result of our experience gained from conducting the self-assessment, we have now formalized our efforts into what our task force trainers referred to as a `systems approach` or `synergistic approach` to managing our organization.” Paul Brooks, deputy chief, Greensboro, North Carolina.
“Many actions were initiated following the critical self-assessment. Numerous inter- governmental agreements were formalized and authorized by governing bodies. Record collection and retention was modified. Planning districts are in design process, and implementation will allow greater input from company officers and firefighters concerning the fire services provided in their neighborhoods. Surveys and other measurement instruments are under development for evaluating customer/citizen satisfaction with fire department services.” Mike Merwick, fire chief, Lincoln, Nebraska.
Q. What benefits did you gain that you did not anticipate?
A. “Even though the department had been recognized for its accomplishments before the self-assessment process, we did not have a clear picture of the outcomes of our efforts and resources. Based upon the improvements resulting from the regular analysis of programs and the strength of the goal and objective orientation of the department, we know what the outcomes of our investments in resources are and what impact the fire department has on our citizens.” Ed Kitchen, city manager, Greens-boro, North Carolina.
“The checklist information and supporting documentation collected and organized during the self-assessment process has been of tremendous value. This information is kept in a central location, regularly updated, and readily available for other applications. We can now provide city management and budget officials with current statistical information in a very timely manner. The marketing value, both internal and external, is extremely beneficial.
“The greatest benefit has been the evolution of our master plan from the self-assessment document. With very minimal additional effort, we were able to simply extract portions of our new specific plan document and create a master plan that is dynamic, and, as a result of maintenance of the process, current to within the latest six months.” Ray Flowers, fire chief, Greens-boro, North Carolina.
“We did not expect the many uses that could be made of the resulting document. The natural evolution of a dynamic master plan, in my opinion, has been the greatest benefit. Also, we cannot discount the knowledge we have gained about our own organization. If we never become accredited, the benefits we have gained as managers is invaluable. As our trainers told us, we have been able to place a desktop management manual in the hands of every manager in the organization.” Paul Brooks, deputy chief, self-assessment team leader, Greens-boro, North Carolina.
“The process provided substantial professional development opportunities for fire department personnel. Many staff members were assigned categories outside of their normal roles. This allowed them to acquire an understanding and appreciation for other areas of the fire department organization. The accreditation responsibilities became like an internal internship program–helping us develop future leaders with a strong understanding of where the organization is going and how we plan to get there. This benefit was unexpected but greatly appreciated.” Mike Johanns, mayor, Lincoln, Nebraska.
Q. Was the improvement seen within your organization worth the effort?
“The effort has certainly been worthwhile. As a result of participating in the beta test site process and conducting the self-assessment, we have a better-managed fire department. They have a planning process in place that can be envied by other departments. The programs they have put in place to maintain the self-assessment process lace them firmly in line with my goals for the entire organization as being progressive, receptive to change, and responsive to the needs of the community.” Ed Kitchen, city manager, Greensboro, North Carolina.
“It is true that the effort required to conduct the self-assessment is very significant, but the improvements in our planning, knowledge of our organization, and benchmarking of program results have all been worth the resources invested. If this were not true, we would not expend the effort twice a year to maintain the program. We are continuing to learn how to use the information and documents in new ways. We are now developing management practices that will allow the specific and master plans to drive our budget development, and other uses will evolve as we become more experienced at planning on this level.” Ray Flowers, fire chief, Greensboro, North Carolina.
“Absolutely! We are better managers. We have a structured planning process now in place. We have a plan that can carry us into the year 2001! By keeping our document and supporting data current, we will be ready to apply immediately upon announcement that the accrediting body is in place.” Paul Brooks, deputy chief, self-assessment team leader, Greensboro, North Carolina.
“Each day in the fire service, we en-counter and deal with change. Wind shifts on the fireground force us to reevaluate the danger to different exposures. Budget constraints require us to provide effective fire services while modifying or eliminating ineffective programs. Technological advancements in apparatus and equipment allow us to reduce the risks to firefighters en route to and while performing at emergency incidents. We have seen many worthwhile improvements that have resulted from the accreditation process; however, the greatest benefit we derived is a systemic, professional approach to planning and delivering fire services to our customers. The accreditation instrument enables us to anticipate the changing needs of our community and address them in a cost-effective, efficient manner.” Mike Merwick, fire chief, Lincoln, Nebraska.
“As fire service managers, we strive to demonstrate high levels of professionalism in everything we do. Knowing what the citizens want and how to best provide effective fire services is an essential element of professionalism. The accreditation process helped us examine and improve our customer service.” Dean Staberg, deputy chief, self-assessment team leader, Lincoln, Nebraska.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
The Fire Service Self-Assessment Manual has proven to provide the methodology to city and county managers and fire service leaders for measuring the efficiency and effectiveness of their organizations. It has also provided a valuable tool to prepare organizations for the future. Conducting alpha and beta tests has proven that the model that has been developed is not only workable but provides a process by which organizations, through an internal self-audit, can identify strengths and weaknesses, develop a game plan to enhance their existing level of service, and identify long-term needs for their communities in relation to emergency service delivery.
With the first edition of this manual, which became available in September 1995, manuals have been sold worldwide, networks have formed throughout the country, and classes are continually being given to provide an opportunity to learn more about the self-assessment process and the Commission on Fire Accreditation Inter-national.
In conjunction with the ICMA, a Trust Document has been developed, which was taken to the respective boards for approval in 1996. This document creates an independent third-party commission to conduct, evaluate, and accredit fire departments on an independent basis, using the methodology that has been developed through the self- assessment process.
n RANDY R. BRUEGMAN is the chief of Clackamas County (OR) Fire District No. 1. He is a noted author and lecturer on such topics as leadership and managing change in the fire service. He has served on the Accreditation Task Force for the International Association of Fire Chiefs for the past eight years, six as vice chairman. Bruegman has recently been appointed to the Commission on Fire Accreditation Inter-national. He has an associate`s degree in fire science, a bachelor`s degree in business, and a master`s degree in management.
n RONNY J. COLEMAN is the California state fire marshal. A lecturer and author for 30 years, he is a master instructor in the California Fire Service Training and Education System. Coleman served most recently as chief of the Fullerton (CA) Fire Department and previously as chief of the San Clemente (CA) Fire Department. He has an associate`s degree in fire science, a bachelor`s degree in political science, and a master`s degree in vocational education.