How To Rate Your Fire Department

John A. Granito presents a comprehensive approach to making an assessment of a department’s strengths and weaknesses.


Twenty-six years ago, the book How to Judge Your Fire Department: 500 Questions With Commentary was written by Warren Y. Kimball, former chief fire service specialist for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The book, based on a 526-item questionnaire "which local fire departments...


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Twenty-six years ago, the book How to Judge Your Fire Department: 500 Questions With Commentary was written by Warren Y. Kimball, former chief fire service specialist for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The book, based on a 526-item questionnaire "which local fire departments could use to check themselves against recommended good practices," was published in 1972 by NFPA and has been long out-of-print.

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Photo by Chris E. Mickal
Volunteer firefighters participate in LPG training exercises at the Jefferson Parish, LA, Training Center. Does your fire department have at least an annual training plan designed to meet its needs? That's one of many criteria members can use in making a formal assessment of a department's personnel, equipment, procedures and policies.

The book was the first publication which presented a comprehensive approach to evaluating departments. Its 500 questions, each with an explanatory paragraph, were divided into seven sections: apparatus, equipment and facilities; fire prevention and investigation; life safety services; management; operations; private fire protection; and command. Of course, some questions reflected practices which today are different. But they still can be a helpful tool in a department's self-improvement program.

Years ago, fire departments typically were rated by only two groups: the members of the department itself and - once every five or 10 years - an official fire rating organization such as the Insurance Service Office (ISO) or a state fire rating board. Today, departments are being rated on a continuous basis by municipal finance directors; city, town and county managers; elected officials; and taxpayers. Money is talking, and in a noticeable number of departments some members have been walking. It may be that at least some of these local evaluations have little to do with fighting conflagrations but much to do with cost control and increased community willingness to assume risk by decreasing department size and strength.

A question of growing importance, then, is what methods are available to fire officers to assess their own departments, both to help educate and negotiate with those who control resource allocations, and - just as important - to form the basis for department planning? There are several ways to conduct a rating project but each calls for work on the part of department personnel. The primary purpose of this article is to present details for a preliminary approach, which I call the "Rate Your Department Overview," and which I've been using as part of department studies.

Let Others Do The Work

The first, and perhaps the easiest, way to obtain a department rating is to let an ISO or state rating board do most of the work. Advantages are that the method of scoring each item is well-tested, the raters generally are experienced and the process is reasonably short. Disadvantages are that the primary purpose is to establish key rates for fire insurance, not to improve the department, some items of importance to the department are not reviewed and a poor showing can cause an increase in fire insurance premiums.

Because ISO evaluations are designed to provide a basis for setting fire insurance rates, the items typically checked are linked directly to the ability of a department to receive and transmit alarms, flow water, and arrive at a fire with sufficient resources and in a timely way.

Some states, using their own rating organizations, follow more closely the older ISO rating schedule - changed in 1980 - which included such additional major topics as fire prevention. Also, approximately 65 cities and counties in the United States - never get an ISO team visit but are "experience/statistically rated."

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