Understanding THE FIRE DEPARTMENT ACCREDITATION PROCESS

BY WILLIAM R. PURCELL

Fire service leaders are responsible for assess- ing the department’s effectiveness. Knowing how well and how efficiently your fire department does its job depends on a proficient evaluation process. Doing the right things may not be enough; doing things the right way can make all the difference.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the International City/County Managers Association (ICCMA) have developed a fire service accreditation process to help departments measure and define their effectiveness. Encouraged by a number of fire chiefs, these two leadership organizations have developed a course of action that encourages self-improvement and is one of the most comprehensive fire service evaluations ever formulated.

The fire service should consider accreditation. Now managed by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI), this process will help your agency identify inefficiencies, build on successes, and improve service delivery. Other organizations such as schools and police departments recognize the benefits of accreditation, which provides specific evidence of their effectiveness and of the contributions they make to their communities. Achieving accreditation is an important milestone in an organization’s development and is particularly well suited for the fire service.

The information gathered during the accreditation process is particularly beneficial in the budget negotiations, providing administrators and directors documentation on what the department is doing and how well it is doing it. This in turn can be used as supporting evidence for fire service managers’ requests for increased funding and support.

The Charlottesville (VA) Fire Department decided to participate in the accreditation program after studying the process manual, holding in-depth discussions, and sending several senior staff members to an accreditation training workshop. At first, some members were not sure whether this program was what the department was looking for and wondered if this particular review actually fit our needs. However, under the leadership of Chief Julian Taliaferro, we realized the value of what has turned out to be one of the best programs in which the department has ever participated.

Accreditation cannot be taken lightly and is not an easy task. This unique program is an all-inclusive evaluation requiring a great deal of time and effort; our department spent more than 600 staff hours in this process.

In our department, participation was the most important aspect of accreditation; regardless of whether we received accreditation status, the journey was worth taking.

Of course, accreditation is not the only form of evaluation available to fire departments. The Insurance Services Office (ISO) has played a tremendous role in the development of the modern fire service. The ISO has a very efficient process that primarily focuses on evaluating risk factors for the insurance industry. The ISO rating system has played a vital role in fire service development and has made our communities safer. The ISO is still a very important part of the fire service and remains a driving force. Charlottesville maintains a Class 2 rating and continues to strive for improvement. City officials continue to support both programs. By using the ISO rating system and accreditation as evaluation and improvement tools, we feel confident in our service delivery and its continued development.

Departments interested in accreditation should take advantage of the information obtained during the last ISO rating process, which can be used during accreditation. Department personnel familiar with the ISO process will be quite comfortable with that of accreditation.

SELF-ASSESSMENT

Self-assessment is at the heart of the accreditation. By evaluating your own department, you can identify problems and make changes that will improve service delivery. The accreditation involves taking a very critical look at the department’s successes and failures. Data thus obtained are then used to develop ideas for improvement, documentation, and later validation.

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The framers of the accreditation system established 10 categories that should be elements of a creditable fire department:

1. Governance and administration,

2. Assessment and planning,

3. Goals and objectives,

4. Financial resources,

5. Programs,

6. Physical resources,

7. Human resources,

8. Training and competency,

9. Essential resources, and

10. External system relations.

These 10 divisions provide an effective overall analysis of the department’s functions, policies, and rules. The process is designed to delve into every part of the department by further dissecting issues into what is referred to as criterion (measurement index) and performance indicators (levels of achievement). The process enabled Charlottesville to conduct an orderly evaluation of its own services and programs. The format was fairly easy to follow and linked efficiently from one criterion to the next.

Risk assessment. Proper solutions can only be developed when the actual problems have been identified. In the fire service, a risk assessment is vital for establishing the level of service needed to handle the local fire problem. By evaluating risk factors in the community, the department can better understand the issues it faces and what its needs are.

Standards of cover. As stated before, fire service leaders are responsible for measuring effectiveness. To meet that need and ensure achievement of departmental goals, there must be an established standard of cover. Establishing goals and benchmarks for a defined level of service is necessary so departments can know if the goals and objectives are actually being attained. Without it, measuring success or failure would be impossible. The accreditation process uses information derived from these assessments and the subsequent local standards of cover for part of their evaluation.

Strategic planning. Once a standard of cover is in place, strategic planning can establish a direction for implementation. The strategic plan is a vital part of the overall operation of any department, providing a specific diagram for the department’s growth. Good planning usually indicates local leaders are interested in the direction the department is taking and that there is a design for growth and improvement. Since every department is different, one size does not fit all. Strategic plans come in all types and sizes; hence the accreditation process looks at each department and its unique structure.

Mission. The importance of the mission and the subsequent mission statement should be self-evident; it is the reason the department exists. Regardless of whether your department is pursuing accreditation, the mission should be on the minds and in the hearts of everyone in the agency.

SELF-ASSESSMENT MANUAL

As with any journey, a good road map is essential; heading in the right direction makes the trip much easier. CFAI’s map is The Fire & Emergency Service Self-Assessment Manual, which explains the accreditation process in great detail.

This book is the core of the accreditation process and provides a play by play. Make sure to read the manual from cover to cover before making any decisions concerning accreditation. It will enhance your understanding and provide the information needed to make an informed decision.

The manual is divided into defined sections that explain the process well. The categories and criteria section is used to conduct the self-assessment. I found the information easy to read and the directions easy to follow while working through the process.

To give an example, Figure 1 is an excerpt from the Self-Assessment Manual regarding assessment and planning. Notice how the statements flow from the Category heading through the Performance Indicators. This design is extremely important to the success of the program.

This format is used throughout and provides the framework of the self-assessment.

Documentation. Good recordkeeping is essential and should be a priority for all departments. Data compiled from departmental reports and records are necessary to complete this process. An efficient record system will make achieving accreditation much easier. Without up-to-date records and documentation, it is impossible to evaluate successes or failures. Poor recordkeeping most surely indicates a systemic problem and must be resolved regardless.

Be sure all records and reports are up to date. Reviewing standard operating procedures (SOPs) or standard operating guidelines (SOGs) is a must. Making sure everything is current will have a very positive effect on the department as well as help to show that the organization is credible.

Program management. Accreditation, like any process, requires a manager to see the project through, who will be responsible for overseeing everything. Be sure the individual selected to champion the program knows the agency very well and will commit the time and effort needed to get the job done. The accreditation manager (AM) will spend many hours on the project making sure the process in on track and goals are being met. This person should acquire as much knowledge as possible about accreditation. The AM should become the local expert with the ability to find answers and resolve issues regarding the project.

Setting goals turned out to be critical to our success. We created a timeline, establishing an 18-month window for evaluation completion. Creating a visual timeline chart helped us to see where we were in the process at a glance. We updated the timeline each time we met, and it provided a constant reminder of where we were and where we should be. When we fell behind, this graphic motivated the team to catch up. We posted it where everyone could see it; we even got questions from nonteam members interested in our progress.

Accreditation workshops. To succeed in evaluation, you must understand the process. Educational opportunities (workshops) are available from the CFAI to assist those pursuing accreditation. Because of the complexity, applicant agencies must send a representative to a training workshop, which provides excellent instruction and the information necessary to conduct a successful evaluation.

CFAI instructors are well versed in the process and are very effective in their delivery. Class attendees receive the value of their experience and expertise as well as the formal classroom information. Participants receive the quality information needed to develop a working understanding of the accreditation process.

A number of additional classes are available to expand the knowledge base of those pursuing accreditation and can be found on the CFAI Web site, www.cfai.org.

Fortunately, Charlottesville was able to send each member of our team to a workshop. Attendees acquired considerable knowledge that was very valuable during our project. In a number of cases, the information committee members acquired during classes enabled them to see much better ways of handling issues and preparing documentation. This had a profound impact on the overall success of our project.

Classes are held in selected locations around the country so interested agencies can find one close enough to attend. Consider sponsoring a class locally to allow for more participation.

Networking is an effective educational tool. Sharing experiences is always helpful. In Virginia, we established the Virginia Working Group, made up of individuals from fire departments interested in accreditation who met to help each other set their course of action. The think tank met once a month and successfully solved many issues. The Henrico County Bureau of Fire, the first accredited fire department in the state, facilitated our statewide group.

Accreditation team. In Charlottesville, we found building a good team vital. A team of interested, knowledgeable personnel successfully researched information and wrote the explanations required during the process. Committee members can expect to commit a lot of time and effort to the process. It is imperative to set aside enough time for this difficult and sometimes challenging work. Participants will take on rather large assignments, so they will need everyone’s support. Avoid procrastination; keeping up with assignments is imperative. Avoid falling behind. Charlottesville’s team members participated while on regular duty and were compensated for doing so when off duty.

In choosing our team, we carefully selected a cross-section of the department. Our committee consisted of volunteer and paid firefighters, division heads, supervisors, and a union representative. With ownership in the process, our committee members worked very hard and were active in making sure the process was completed on time.

Remember, accreditation is bestowed on the entire department. This is not something the committee alone can make happen. It is a report on the activities and the successes of the entire agency. Be sure all personnel in the department are kept informed and feel part of this process. The key to the success in everything we do is our people. It is not necessary to remind you that firefighters are interested and very dedicated. They are naturally curious how accreditation works. They want to know what it means to the department and its members. Be sure to keep everyone informed and up to date. After the preliminary meeting, have follow-up meetings to keep people up to speed on the process.

SELF-ASSESSMENT DOCUMENT

Every department striving to receive accreditation must submit a written document to CFAI that chronicles its programs, plans, and goals based on its self-assessment. The format is that of a notebook with enough pages to complete your department’s requirement. The written explanations will include a description of how the department intends to meet particular criterion and the subsequent performance indicators, an appraisal of how the department handles that particular issue, and a plan for future consideration. Charlottesville’s Self-Assessment Manual consisted of more than 400 pages. CFAI offers a shell document that makes creating your document much easier. A number of formats are available depending on your word-processing software.

Validating information is crucial to the process. CFAI’s control method depends on exhibits (evidence) to support the facts presented in the self-assessment document. The exhibits are the proof that gives the system creditability. Diligence in this part of the process is key.

This phase can be daunting if you don’t stay on track and remain organized. Considering the amount of data this project requires, it is important to collect and log the evidence supporting your findings while building the self-assessment document. Collecting exhibits as you proceed will save time in the long run.

PEER ASSESSOR TEAM

Any creditable process must be reviewed. CFAI assigns peer assessors to conduct a site visit to validate the documentation presented in the department’s self-assessment document. Peer assessors examine fire department activities and processes and compare them to the self-assessment document. They understand the accreditation system and how fire departments work. The team of assessors that evaluated Char-lottesville was very interested in our department and the job at hand; the members’ professionalism was admirable.

CFAI matches assessors with the departments they will be reviewing. The assigned peer assessor team leader contacts the local AM and arranges for the peer visit. Depending on the size of the department, visits may take three or more days.

The department under evaluation is responsible for the assessors’ transportation and other expenses incurred during their visit. The number of assessors depends on the size of the department; CFAI determines the assessor team size.

Agency accreditation is a four-phase process. Each step in the program is carefully designed to guide the interested agency through the four phases: (1) registered agency, (2) applicant agency, (3) accreditation candidate, and (4) accredited agency.

Accreditation fees include a registration fee, a levy based on population served, and peer assessor team visit expenses. Other costs associated with the process include personnel overtime and office expenses. Accredited agencies also are required to pay an annual fee.

Once all the accreditation requirements are fulfilled, CFAI reviews the peer assessors’ findings and acts on their recommendation. The formal presentation takes place at the next IAFC Fire Rescue International Conference.

CFAI’s staff could not have been more helpful, providing answers any time our team had questions during the process. These are the “go-to” individuals when you have exhausted other means. Since we have been part of this remarkable process, we have worked closely with the CFAI with positive results.

• • •

Once in awhile something happens that changes things forever. Accreditation, in my opinion, is one of the best things to happen to the fire service. The creators of this appraisal system should be commended and honored for their dedication to the fire service and the people it serves. They have produced a process that is truly win-win.

Participating in the accreditation process demonstrates leadership traits that only a few exhibit. The willingness to open your department up to outside scrutiny indicates a genuine commitment to excellence and a yearning for continued improvement. Furthermore, your department will be listed with a special group of departments that has seen the importance of self-assessment and the subsequent external review. This journey will make all of our departments better and the communities they serve safer.

WILLIAM R. PURCELL is a 36-year veteran of the fire service and battalion chief of special operations with the Charlottesville (VA) Fire Department, as well as its ISO facilitator and accreditation manager. A peer assessor for the Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI), Purcell has a degree in fire science from J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College and a certificate in business from Piedmont Virginia Community College. He is an adjunct fire instructor for the Commonwealth of Virginia.

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