The San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District takes that idea very seriously, as it has embarked on a multi-year effort to achieve national accreditation.
"We have five goals of the organization over the next five years," said Fire Chief Richard Price. "Goal No. 5 is to achieve accreditation."
Accreditation is a process whereby the fire district is measured against a variety of standards. If the district meets or exceeds the benchmarks set out by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International, then it receives accreditation.
Currently there are only five accredited fire departments in California, with three more pending at the end of August and 13 agencies currently in the process of seeking accreditation. CFAI Program Manager Rick Black said that overall there are 128 departments accredited in the U.S. and two in Canada.
In order to give accreditation the CFAI comes onsite and reviews the district's practices in a wide variety of areas. Each part has a set number of mandatory items that are checked against nationally set expectations.
"There are 77 mandatory competencies," Price explained. "There are 244 performance indicators altogether, but those 77 have to be met when the commission comes to your site."
Areas where the department will be inspected include an auditing of financial statements, condition of equipment, inspection of area buildings and the disposition of firefighters and material across the district.
"Right now we're working on our standards of cover," Price stated. He added that the fire district is currently working on a study showing how quickly firefighters are able to respond to calls throughout the district and determining how best to allocate resources to maximize their efficiency in getting to those calls.
"We look at where our concentration of incidents are and we look at it by station. We look at what percentage of the time we are arriving within our goal," Price said.
In areas where the population center is the greatest, the district gets the most calls. Thus they want to allocate resources in such a way as to be able to respond rapidly. Price said that in their areas of greatest concentration they may see 10 calls a day, while in the outlying areas where population density is down there may only be 10 calls per year.
Currently, the goal in those high density areas is to arrive at an emergency call within six minutes 90 percent of the time.
In the outlying areas, that time will be longer. Price said their goal for those areas is to be on site within 20 minutes 90 percent of the time. He said that while he doesn't like seeing that disparity in time, the geography of the fire district works against a completely centralized fire district.
"If our district was a square, it would make it easier to set fire stations and determine coverage areas," he said. "Ours is more like the trunk of a tree with branches out. It's a challenge to cover the entire district very efficiently."
The district is currently involved in a study to determine if it has its equipment in the right place or if it needs to shift trucks and manpower around between stations to increase efficiency. Results of that study are expected to be presented to the Fire District Board at its September meeting.
Price said once they feel they have covered their bases and have covered the core competencies required by the CFAI, they will call in the inspectors who will go over the district and determine whether or not they will be accredited.
"We've been working on it now for two years and we feel we have about another year of work to get accreditation," Price said.
For all the work district officials are doing in preparation for their accreditation exam, the benefits of working toward the goal are seen in myriad ways.
"I'm a new chief and having a top to bottom review of the organization to make sure that we're doing everything that a fire department is supposed to be doing and doing it well," Price stated. "Even if we never pursued accreditation, going through this self assessment before the evaluators are brought in is just a prudent practice."
A more intangible benefit of seeking accreditation is the confidence such an achievement can have for the public.
"How do you really know that your emergency service provider or any public service agency is really doing a good job?" Price asked. "Having an outside, independent third party saying that you're doing a good job just gives reassurance to the community that their fire department is a good one."