For a writer, every person has at least one story to tell. Some stories are based on lessons learned, some stories are courageous or dramatic, and some are just meaningful life experiences. This issue features the stories of three fire chiefs: Michael Varney and Russell Tarver, the 2007 volunteer and career chiefs of the year, and Charleston, S.C., Chief Rusty Thomas.
Varney and Tarver’s stories are about commitment to their chosen profession. Both men share a number of common traits as leaders, though they lead departments that are culturally different.
Thomas’ interview filled me with mixed emotions -- sympathy for the loss of nine firefighters and amazement that a fire department the size of Charleston could be so out of touch with 21st century fire service practices.
The Charleston Fire Department has a Class 1 rating from the Insurance Services Office, the highest class a fire department can achieve. In a recent address from Charleston’s mayor, subsequent news reports and discussions with Thomas, the references to the department’s Class 1 rating were too numerous to count. Its also displayed on Charleston’s fire trucks.
Were the fire department and the city lulled into thinking that a first class department was the epitome of excellence? Charleston attained its Class 1 rating nine years before the fatal Sofa Super Store fire. Unfortunately, there’s no expiration date on a rating.
How many departments worked hard to achieve the Class 1 rating and thought they were done when that goal was met? It’s easy to understand why. A fire department and its community have everything to gain by attaining a better ISO rating.
The ISO says it is the principle provider of insurance underwriting, rating and statistical information to the insurance industry in the United States. While insurance companies may be satisfied with the current ISO rating system, is ISO an acceptable benchmark for today’s fire and emergency services? The answer seems to be no because the ISO rating system is outdated and obsolete. When asked about Charleston and its ISO rating, Vice President Mike Waters said, "One fire is not going to change our process or our evaluation, because one fire can occur any where."
OK. Nine years ago, when Charleston met the Class 1 rating, it had a staff that could meet the water supply, ladder and other requirements. But as I drove along the main street to the Sofa Super Store, hydrants were few and far between. How does ISO take into account the buildings taller than five stories that have been built in the past five years?
Another problem is that personnel retire and new officers are appointed. Can a department still meet the criteria established when a rating was awarded? How effective is a rating system that relies only on input from the end user for updates?
Instead of relying solely on ISO ratings, departments should consider the Center for Public Safety Excellence’s Commission on Fire Accreditation International and the Commission on Professional Credentialing. Both programs strive to help emergency service agencies achieve professional excellence through self-assessment models and an accreditation process. The programs are designed to improve an agency’s quality and enhance it’s service delivery.
The mayor and chief of Charleston both said that they intend the Charleston Fire Department to be better than Class 1 -- if there is such a thing. There is, but is Charleston really ready to be put to the test of the CFAI?
Whether you are a chief or a captain in the fire and emergency services, you have a personal responsibility for the safety and training of the people in your department and the protection of your community.
The ISO may not be ready to make the necessary change to improve fire protection, but progressive fire chiefs are -- they know lives are at stake.