Fire agency accreditation is a hot topic within the fire service industry today due to its growing implications for community growth and improvement. Agencies that go through the accreditation process and maintain accreditation are seen as upholding standards of excellence. Many fire departments now see accreditation as a step toward continuous, comprehensive improvement, rather than solely a certification or accolade.
We met with Leonard Chan, Accreditation Manager of the Houston Fire Department to gather his expertise on the matter and discuss how this trend signifies a shift from reactive to proactive development throughout the fire service community. This blog will discuss our findings of what accreditation is, why it’s important, how to get and maintain it, and the impacts it has on an agency and its community.
What is Accreditation and Why is it Relevant?
Accreditation is a process that fire service agencies can go through to receive formal acknowledgement of competency in their line of work. This usually involves verification and validation by peers and other certifying third parties. Accreditation is not only an indication, but proof by data to the general public that fire departments are doing what they claim to do. This cultivates trust and rallies support from the community in service. In addition, the criteria required for accreditation helps agencies to distinguish a high standardized baseline for their operational code.
The Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE) drives the fire agency accreditation process through self-evaluation, a primary and significant component to accreditation. Accreditation standards are community-specific, so agencies with a comprehensive understanding of community needs will be the most successful with their certification. In addition, the process incorporates a peer assessment report to ensure validation of agency competency and report accuracy.
How to Get Accredited
Because firefighting operations have such a significant impact on people’s lives and properties, the accreditation process is thorough and lengthy. It takes approximately 18 to 24 months or 2,000 hours of preparation. In addition, for some departments, addressing items disclosed throughout the preparation or assessment can take up to 13,000 hours. For agencies that are preparing for accreditation, here are the general steps:
- Training & Data Accumulation. Documentation, reporting and analytics regarding performance, incident response, and community risk must be compiled for review. CPSE also provides workshops and instruction regarding the accreditation process.
- Registration. Once forms are completed and the fee is paid, an agency is considered at Registered Agency for 3 years. They must then assign an accreditation manager to the stage and finish gathering documentation for submission.
- Apply for Accreditation. Agencies at the applicant level are assigned mentors for guidance and must complete a Community Risk Assessment, Community-driven Strategic Plan, and a Self-Assessment Manual.
- Declare Candidacy. Accreditation candidates will have their documents reviewed by a peer team, receive an on-site assessment, and must complete an accreditation report. This report will then be presented at a CFAI public hearing, rending a vote granting accreditation.
- Accreditation Maintenance. Once accredited, agencies are required to submit an yearly compliance report and fee. Full re-accreditation is required after 5 years.
The Positive Impacts of Accreditation
Accreditation that has been done properly provides fire departments with an approach toward growth. The accreditation model forces departments to engage in an honest soul-searching exercise to recognize its own strengths and weaknesses. Peer reviewers then validate those findings and provide valuable feedback to elevate department operations. Agencies that complete the accreditation process gain access to valuable peer feedback. This new information, in combination with a renewed insight of where the department stands operationally, enables improvement for the entire agency moving forward. Here are some things that accreditation helps with:
- Standardization of Operations. Verification and validation of department processes streamlines agencies toward outcome-focused actions.
- Strategy Realignment. Review and revision of fire agency as a whole, provide direction for improvement and execution.
- Agency-wide Synergy. The documentation and assessment process for accreditation places everyone within the agency on the same page.
- Focus on Community. The overall accreditation process focuses on community-specific needs and expectations and encourages collaboration between agencies.
- Proper Staffing and Training. A course on Quality Improvement Through Accreditation is required for certification. In addition to training provided by CPSE, compliance of accreditation standards promotes more structured training for agency personnel.
- Data-driven Decision-making. Analysis of documentation for accreditation properly equips agencies to provide data to elected officials and to drive overall decision-making. The collection of data allows fire departments to explain the data to the people who need it the most.
The process itself provides value to what’s important: service to the community, protecting lives, protecting associated properties, and making the best use of taxpayers' funds. It helps to have a second set of eyes on your department, while looking at best practices that have been established in the book and developed within the community. With accurate information available, we can take action to make tangible improvements in our service levels.”
- Leonard Chan, Accreditation Manager, Houston Fire Department
Fire Agency Accreditation: A Data Driven Culture
As the fire service industry continues to search for advancement in operations, it is becoming increasingly apparent how important data is. Hard statistics are necessary now, not only for agencies to compile documentation to become accredited, but also to continue growing after accreditation. Accreditation is an ongoing process. As technology advances, the community will continue to have higher and higher expectations for the analysis and use of data. This growing trend in fire analytics, along with the fire service industry’s hunger for improvement, will provide a new level of awareness for fire departments worldwide.