By Author(s): Jeff Eastman  and Eric Jones 
Published Thursday, July 1, 2010
| From the July 2010  Issue of FireRescue 
Editor’s Note: “Trust but verify” was President Ronald Reagan’s signature phrase many years ago; today, it has become the catch phrase of budget negotiations throughout the country. Gone are the days of blanket approvals in the spirit of public safety.
Fortunately, fire chiefs and fire departments around the world have an option that can speak volumes at the budgeting table: becoming internationally accredited through the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE). This step-by-step process not only helps justify your annual expenditures using statistical data, but also helps you implement long-term strategic planning, apply new technologies to reduce response times and fully align all aspects of the organization with national standards and best practices. Accreditation is not a passing fad; it’s a much-needed tool to achieve fire service excellence.
In the following article, we take a look at the accreditation process from the chief, company officer and labor leader perspectives.
—Timothy E. Sendelbach, FireRescue Editor-in-Chief
1 The Fire Chief’s Perspective
By Chief (Ret.) Jeffrey Eastman, Culver City Fire Department
The concept of accreditation in emergency services is a relatively new idea to many fire departments. However, it has been a common practice for many years in a variety of professions, including hospitals and schools. Accreditation can immediately improve your department, give you a plan for the future, show your administrators and elected officials that what you’re doing is credible, and make the department a safer place to work.
Achieving accreditation by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI; the commission within CPSE that accredits fire departments) isn’t an easy process. To be successful, your department must have a true commitment to continuous improvement and transparency, the willingness to receive constructive criticism and the will to make the changes needed to improve. The process will require a significant amount of staff time. For many departments, staff time is a precious commodity, so the investment of time needed to complete the accreditation process is an important consideration.
Accreditation begins with educating your department, city or county administrators, and elected officials about the benefits and challenges of the process. Some fire department administrators and many of the rank-and-file may struggle with the concept. Some are skeptical of anything new; others will question the costs vs. the benefits. You may even face resistance by members who will see accreditation as a way to take away resources or change policies in ways they don’t like.
Our first step was to become a registered agency with the CFAI, which allowed us to send several members to accreditation classes to learn about the process. When our members returned from the classes, we began the process by creating an accreditation team and assigning a member to be the accreditation manager.
Next, we applied as an applicant agency and began work on our self-assessment manual. This is considered the backbone of the accreditation process and involves examining and documenting in detail all of your department’s operations, including community risk. The process of self-assessment includes the development of a strategic plan and a standard of response coverage document.
The ability to collect and manage your department’s data is a key component to this part of the process. It’s important to have good factual data; no longer can the fire service rely solely on personal opinions, traditions or past practice to show and prove performance levels.
Once the self-assessment process is complete, the CFAI assigns a peer review team to your department that performs an on-site inspection and then makes a final report, which includes specific recommendations for improvement. The CFAI then grants, denies or defers your accreditation status.
I’ve been through three accreditation cycles—as a fire captain, a battalion chief and a fire chief. As a fire captain working on accreditation, I never fully understood the benefits and felt I was wasting time that could be used in other areas. I didn’t like the idea that we would be “judged” by other fire departments, and didn’t see what we could learn from departments outside our area. Once I met with the on-site peer team and actually read our entire self-assessment manual, however, I started to see how important this process could be for our department. When we became the first department in California to be accredited, there was a true sense of pride among the members.
As a battalion chief working closely with our elected officials and city administrators, I saw firsthand how proud they were of our department and how they appreciated our commitment to improvement and our willingness to share every aspect of the department with them. They felt more a part of our department and more secure in the knowledge that we were doing everything possible to make it run safely and efficiently.
As a fire chief, the true benefits of accreditation became crystal clear to me. The self-assessment manual clearly defined the department’s strengths and weaknesses—which gave me evidence that the department was operating efficiently and meeting the needs of the community, while also allowing me to prioritize areas that needed improvement. The process also opened lines of communications between the department and elected officials and administrators, who in turn became champions for needed improvements. Following our accreditation, our elected officials approved funding for three new fire engines, decreased the amortization timelines for our apparatus, and approved the building of a new fire station.
The process also opens lines of communication between the department and elected officials and administrators, who in turn became champions for needed improvements. In part, this is because the accreditation process supports the use of factual data vs. personal opinions. The accreditation peer review team verifies your data; this process causes your department to look fairly at all your issues and allows for better decision-making processes. Using factual data will elicit greater trust and understanding from your elected officials and administrators.
The bottom line: Accreditation demonstrates that your department is committed to continuous improvement, serving the community efficiently, and providing a fair and safe work environment for all personnel.
2 The Company Officer's Perspective
By Capt. Eric Jones, Lincoln (Neb.) Fire and Rescue
Like any major change initiative, seeking accreditation requires the buy-in of members at all levels—something that’s particularly evident to company officers. My department, Lincoln (Neb.) Fire and Rescue, engaged all ranks within the department in the self-assessment process, creation of the strategic plan, and analysis and creation of the standard of cover document.
Engaging a large cross-section of the organization promoted an “accreditation philosophy” within the rank and file. This helped sustain us through the labor-intensive process, but it also promoted positive morale. Members who participate in the process are taking part in creating progressive change, and they are more vested as a result.
Participation should come from external stakeholders (citizens) and internal stakeholders (firefighters). Obtaining input from both of these groups creates a well-rounded strategic plan and ensures that members and citizens have ownership in the department’s goals.
Personnel intimately involved in accreditation are often the most knowledgeable in terms of overall department processes, strengths and weaknesses—which in turn supports succession planning by ensuring that members of all ranks understand administrative processes and organizational improvement methods.
The pros to gaining accreditation definitely outweigh the cons; knowing them can help you build support for the process.
- Identifies high-risk areas. The accreditation process requires the department to analyze risk within each response area. This gives the company officer valuable information for determining where to direct preplanning and public outreach. Rather than proceeding blindly, you can begin with structures, facilities or neighborhoods that have been targeted as high risk. In an era where the company officer has a growing workload and departments have tighter budgets, knowing where to focus our efforts makes us more efficient.
- Improves safety and wellness. Accreditation also benefits the company officer and their respective crews directly. The process ensures that safety and wellness programs are in place and comparable to identified standards. It ensures that we have facilities that are safe to work in and are designed with the organizational goals in mind. Accreditation also ensures that competent training programs are in place.
- Provides a rationale for funding. In the past, fire departments used the “babies will choke to death” and “old ladies will die in fires” philosophies to argue for new stations, increased budgets and new apparatus. That era is gone; communities are wary about where their dollars go. Accreditation provides the analysis of risks within the community and how well the department addresses these risks, which can be used to educate elected officials and citizens and build support for funding. Our organization is finding this method of capital improvement much more successful.
There are some cons of participating in accreditation as well; knowing them in advance can help you mitigate their effects.
- Time- and labor-intensive. As mentioned, accreditation isn’t an easy process; it takes lots of time and involvement from many members. But I believe that’s how it should be. As our jurisdictions are increasingly aware of where their dollars go, we should be increasingly critical of the services we provide and how well we are providing them.
- Can result in recommendations members don’t like. The organization must be willing to accept the accreditation analysis for what it is. As members of this industry, we are passionate about what we do, and it’s often difficult for us to hear that we may not be doing it as well as we think we are. However, to improve our services we must be able to identify areas needing improvement.
- Comes with a price. The costs of annual fees, training and overtime for accreditation teams, textbooks and external analysis can add up. However, organizations will often see fiscal benefits that outweigh initial and ongoing costs. Our department was able to place an additional front-line ambulance in service immediately after analysis through accreditation was provided to elected officials. We would likely be an ambulance short today without accreditation.
The greatest challenge of accreditation for my organization has been to get labor and management to realize that accreditation benefits the department as a whole—from management down to the safety of the individual firefighter.
Accreditation also brings changes in technology and processes that can be difficult to adjust to. Departments must learn to use tools such as GIS to analyze performance and assess risk. All members must be comfortable with reporting software, including word-processing programs and spreadsheets.
Through accreditation, many departments recognize a need to increase the capability of their records-management systems. Although we felt our system was robust, we discovered the need to revamp reports to express data in fractal terms as opposed to averages. CPSE requires fractal analysis as it represents a more accurate picture of performance.
A Final Word
As a company officer, participating in the accreditation process has been invaluable. Not only do I have more confidence that my crew’s efforts are well targeted, but I know the department as a whole has built a strong foundation for the future.
3 The Labor Perspective
By David Stephenson, 13th District Field Service Representative, IAFF
“The delivery of our fire service is simply 200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress.”
For many years, this sentiment was not only whispered by firefighters across the country; it reaffirmed a safety net for both management and the union. Cities, districts and corporations concentrated on the bottom line of the annual budget process, ignoring progress in the delivery of their service, while the unions worked to obtain increased salaries and better health benefits. Ultimately, the members of the fire service, both administratively and operationally, had a strong inclination to resist change.
However, in the last couple of decades, there has been a movement afoot by the international, state and provincial associations representing the fire service. This movement supports two principles: 1) promoting firefighter health and safety and 2) ensuring better working conditions through better hiring practices, improved labor legislation and better labor/management relations.
One result of the second principle: The IAFF, working in concert with the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), has become involved in supporting the process of accreditation. Accreditation through the CFAI is a way for forward-thinking fire agencies to ensure the commitments of both the union and management are met through a process of self-assessment, strategic planning and continued improvement toward better business and operational practices.
The accreditation process is a journey of continued progress in which the corporation, including its elected officials, must be supportive from the very beginning. If the agency’s commitment is expressed and demonstrated in good faith, the union leaders’ commitment to the accreditation process should immediately follow. The rationale for the union’s support comes from the methodology of the accreditation process: transparency of operations, involvement and participation of their membership from the bottom up, and the evidence of continued improvement toward the health and safety of their membership.
The accreditation process provides an initial template involving the attainment of specific core competencies and performance indicators. What’s important to the union membership is that all core competencies must be met to attain accreditation. Through the self-assessment, the organization’s strengths and weaknesses are revealed. It is through this discovery of weaknesses that trust begins to build between management and the union, because accreditation requires the agency to address its shortfalls through short-, mid- or long-term strategic planning. For this reason, labor relations between the parties should improve due to the similarity of their respective goals.
Moreover, the accreditation process has built-in accountability. Every 5 years, the agency must be re-accredited. These subsequent on-site inspections will demonstrate whether the agency was sincere in its commitment to change. The union is quite aware that the accreditation system is indeed a process, not a project or simply a badge of honor.
Over time, the union leadership should see positive changes for the betterment of their membership in respect to health and safety, working conditions and the relationship between labor and management. It would be difficult for any union leader to argue why their local wouldn’t want to be involved in the accreditation process when it brings such progressive and positive changes.
Steps to the Accreditation Process
1. Register as an applicant agency
2. Assign an accreditation team and accreditation manager
3. Attend CFAI classes to learn the process
4. Conduct a thorough self-assessment
5. Create a strategic plan and a standard of cover document
6. Submit to an on-site inspection and report
7. Receive CFAI’s acceptance, deferral or rejection
CFAI is a part of the Center for Public Safety Excellent (CPSE). For more information, visit CPSE’s website: www.publicsafetyexcellence.org .
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