Six months after its accreditation appeared at risk, Columbus Fire & Emergency Medical Services has corrected a list of deficiencies identified by a peer assessment team, a turnaround that the team's leader described Friday as "a big success story."
The development almost assures the department of retaining its accreditation in March when the Commission on Fire Accreditation International convenes, officials said, as the commission relies heavily on the team's recommendation.
"Columbus, in this case, did absolutely everything the right way," the peer assessment leader, Chief Jim White of the Winter Park, Fla., Fire Rescue Department, said in a telephone interview. "They took it on as a challenge."
White returned to Columbus this week to review changes the department made in staffing, scheduling, adjustment of response time goals in rural areas and annual appraisals of technical rescue and hazardous materials response. His team had identified those areas as needing improvement in June.
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Those concerns at the time led the team to recommend the department's accreditation be "deferred" until it could address several "core competencies." The department has been accredited for 10 years, and June marked the first time a deferral was recommended.
Loss of voluntary accreditation would not have impacted citizens' insurance rates, but city leaders feared the department was on the verge of sustaining an embarrassing black eye. Former Fire Chief Roy Waters at the time described the situation as "a significant setback."
"We have a fabulous fire department, and I think that's why it was a little shocking to us that there would be a deferral of our accreditation because we've been known so long as sort of the best of the best," Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said.
The June review also identified a concern regarding a lack of cohesiveness within the department, Tomlinson said, "that perhaps people had gotten a little bit more insular or felt a little less like a team." But Tomlinson said that also has changed since the peer assessment team was last in town.
"What I was most pleased with was the specific finding by Chief White today that he has seen a remarkable turnaround and perhaps renewal of that culture that makes for an exceptional fire unit," the mayor said.
White said fire officials here worked quickly to address his team's concerns, an effort he said could have implications beyond Muscogee County.
"Columbus for many, many years -- because they were one of the original departments in the country that took this on -- was looked at as an example of a department to follow," White said. "When people saw that even a problem could occur in a very reputable department like this, it raised up everybody's attention: If it can happen in Columbus, it can happen to me.
"If they had just stopped and walked away," he added, "there's other departments that easily could have done the same thing."
One area of improvement addressed the annual appraisal of technical rescue and hazardous materials response, which White said was a new "core competency" added since the department's last accreditation five years ago. "While they had been doing a lot of the things that were required," White said, "they really didn't have an appraisal process in place."
But over the past six months, White said the department has taken an "in-depth" look at both programs and appraised personnel. "They look at their individual skills, their team skills, and all of the performances of the teams in place and their equipment," he said.
While the accreditation is voluntary, Fire Chief Jeff Meyer said it validates what the department "says it's doing." There's also a sense of pride attached to it, he said, adding he was "extremely proud" of the department.
"They have really gone above and beyond to address these issues so quickly," Meyer said. "From the personnel that ride the ambulances and the fire trucks to staff, everybody pulled together as one team."