by Karl Ristow, CFO, CFAI Program Director, kristow@cpse.org

Aircraft Rescue Firefighting (ARFF) like other emergency service programs (Fire Suppression, (EMS), Wildland Firefighting) struggle to meet the needs of their stakeholders while managing the risks they see very clearly. Communicating this information is often seen as self-serving and many airport directors, like their counterparts in municipal management, wonder just what is enough? Can the fire department show outcomes to their performance? Is the information or data valid or is it masked by outliers? Is the department as a whole effective and efficient? How do you know?

Over 30 years ago, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the International City/County Managers Association came together to develop a voluntary self-assessment process for the fire service to measure all aspects of a fire department organization. The outcome of this effort was the creation of the Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI).

The CFAI model takes a holistic approach to and view of the fire department with the 10 categories addressing every component of department management and operations: Governance and Administration, Assessment and Planning, Goals and Objectives, Financial Resources, Programs (e.g. Fire Suppression, EMS, Technical Rescue, Fire Prevention, and ARFF), Physical Resources, Human Resources, Training and Competency, Essential Resources, and External Systems Relationships. Within these ten categories are 252 performance indicators that agencies will assess themselves against.

Category Five is the most critical category as it addresses all the programs a fire department may provide. One of those programs is Criterion 5I Aviation Rescue and Firefighting Services. Here an agency will self-assess themselves to determine if they are operating an adequate, effective, efficient, and safe program.

Self-assessment has agencies asking themselves four important questions about their organization:

  1. What am I doing?
  2. Why am I doing it?
  3. How well am I doing it?
  4. How can I make it better?

The core documents created by an agency are the Community Risk Analysis/Standard of Cover (CRA/SOC), Strategic Plan (SP), and Self-Assessment Manual (SAM). These documents yield copious amounts of data and information for decision-making by not only the fire department but also the agency having jurisdiction (i.e. the airport authority). Once completed and maintained the process will drive a perpetual quality improvement cycle within the fire department.

A key component for agencies seeking accredited status is third-party verification and validation of the work. Once the core documents (CRA/SOC, SP, and SAM) are complete agencies request a site visit and a peer team is assigned. Peer team members are fire service professionals highly trained in the accreditation process and are matched to agencies based on their knowledge, skills, and abilities. The teams are the “eyes and ears” of the commission as they are there to verify and validate the agency is doing what they say they are doing and to make a recommendation to the commission concerning award of accredited status. The peer team will also provide recommendations for improvement which is an added bonus for the agency.

The entire process can take nearly five years to complete. In speaking with agencies that have gone through the process an organization can expect to spend about 2,000 staff hours researching and writing and upwards of 13,000 additional hours addressing all the things they find that are not quite hitting the mark. The benefits clearly outweigh the investment as seen by the following comments from chiefs of currently-accredited departments:

  • “Our department now has a greater sense of professionalism and higher performance.”
  • “It was definitely worth it as it has positively changed the culture of a 100-person fire department with over 100 years of history and tradition.”
  • “The accreditation model provided a road map that allows us to evaluate our processes and strive for improvements.”
  • “It forced our organization to “change” many of the procedures in our service delivery, as well as our culture”

So can an aircraft rescue firefighting organization be accredited? The answer is yes!  Out of the 239 accredited agencies worldwide, only one of them is an airport fire department. However, many municipal accredited-departments protect the airports in their jurisdiction.  The Airport Authority that operates Detroit Metropolitan (DTW) and Willow Run (YIP) Airports has the unique distinction of being the only independent airport authority in the country to be accredited by CFAI. In fact, Detroit Metro Airport Fire Department was awarded accreditation for the second time in 2016.

The fire department is led by Chief Mike Evans. He and his team of professionals respond to more than 3,000 calls for assistance over the course of the year, not just at the airports, but also supporting the surrounding communities, as an instrumental mutual aid partner. Chief Evans recently notes, “Our response and call-to-dispatch times are some of the best in the industry, and our team understands that attention to detail, and a strategic commitment to safety and continuous process improvement saves lives. Accreditation through CFAI is a testament to the professionalism of every one of our team members, and we are extremely honored to be recognized as leaders in our field.”

In June 2016, Chief Evans and his team opened their organization and asked CFAI to conduct a site visit to verify and validate their documents. The team reviewed all 252 performance indicators and ensured the department met all 86 core competencies. The result of their review yielded a 41 page report to the commission with only 3 recommendations for improvement. CFAI, during a public hearing, then asked the agency numerous questions to further gauge the agency’s commitment to quality improvement before awarding them accredited status for another five years.

Accredited status is valid for five years. In between these years agencies are required to submit an Annual Compliance Report that documents they have reviewed their programs, are meeting their baseline performance (current or actual performance) standards, and are addressing recommendations provided in the accreditation report. Every five year cycle, agencies will update their documents and resubmit to CFAI for verification and validation and thus the cycle of quality improvement continues.

If embraced correctly, accreditation can be a tool for agencies to show outcomes to their performance, identify gaps and possible needs quantitatively, and prove to the community they serve they are doing what they say they are doing.

For more information on the CPSE Accreditation program, contact Karl Ristow, CFO, CFAI Program Director, at kristow@cpse.org or follow any of the links above under “Accreditation” to learn more.