It is a bold step for any organization to ask its primary stakeholders to rate the service it provides.
When the Bluffton Township Fire Department scheduled a meeting for community stakeholders - the citizens it serves - in early September, residents were asked to prioritize a list of fire department services by comparing how important one service was over another.
"We wanted to know what the community felt was the most important thing to them, and if we can mold our strategic plan around that, then we will do that," said Senior Firefighter Rhett Livingston.
The strategic plan is one of five components required to achieve accreditation through the Commission of Fire Accreditation International (CFAI), a mission the department taking on. Livingston, the department's accreditation manager, said "The goal is to be better for our customers, and how we do that is identifying our weaknesses."
The results were not a surprise, Livingston said, with emergency medical services the top priority for more than 230 residents who participated in this first step. Behind EMS came fire suppression, rescue - basic and technical, emergency management, community risk reduction, hazardous materials mitigation, fire investigation and public fire and life safety education.
Consultants who led the meeting came from the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE), a nonprofit, international technical organization whose mission "is to lead the fire and emergency service to excellence through the continuous quality improvement process of accreditation, credentialing and education," according to its website.
After the meeting with residents, the CPSE consultants then worked with the internal stakeholders - members from all levels of the fire department.
"They led us through three days of developing goals and objectives based upon the input received from the community survey data and the internal stakeholder group," said BTFD Fire Chief John Thompson.
BTFD hopes to gain accreditation at CFAI's final hearing next August. If it succeeds, Bluffton will be one of fewer than 300 fire companies worldwide with the accreditation, but it won't come easily.
Among the first steps the department took was to restructure the district's mission and values statements to be more in line with information gathered from residents and department members.
"We started addressing the external stakeholders' findings and came up with goals and objectives for each one of those," said Livingston. "It can be detailed and lengthy to accomplish those goals."
The department members must create and fulfill five components: the standard of cover (SOC) document, which details how department personnel are to perform; a strategic plan document; fire and emergency services self-assessment manual (FESSAM) - an internal evaluation document; a CFAI site visit; and the CFAI Commission hearing.
Strategic planning with stated goals and objectives are excellent tools, but what does it mean for Bluffton residents?
"In many cases, the changes will be seamless and will result in internal policy and procedure adjustments," Thompson said. "However, as the adjustments take hold and we become more efficient, the public should see a shortening in response times and the provision of constantly improving service levels for all call types and programs."
The process does not allow the department to rest on its laurels but requires a constant monitoring of its capabilities to meet the community's needs.
"Our accreditation is performance-based - when we go on calls, how fast is it between picking up 9-1-1 at the communications center to dispatching, to going on route, to arrival," Livingston said. "The ultimate goal is to help and be better performing for the community."
Completion of the steps will take place during the next 10 months. The district will have the SOC and the strategic plan components by Jan. 1, 2019, according to Thompson. The self-assessment manual component will be completed by March 1. The site visit will take place between April 1 and June 1.
The CFAI Commission hearing will occur at the International Association of Fire Chief's Annual Conference in Atlanta from Aug. 7-10.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.