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Accreditation and Quality Assurance

Author: Cory Friend, PowerPhone, Inc.

Date: 2011-05-10
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The first of a two-part series on Accreditation and Quality Assurance, Cory Friend, Accreditation Coordinator at PowerPhone, Inc., discusses the Accreditation process, including the agency self-evaluation. The components of a successful Accreditation process and the benefits to be derived will be explored. The second article will detail the importance of Quality Assurance to the Accreditation process and the steps necessary to implement an effective QA program.

PART 1: Learn How to Take Your Agency from Average to Awesome with Accreditation

Have you ever wondered how to take your communications center from average to great? Do you have ideas about the kind of quality service you should be offering your customers but are not sure how to take your ideas and turn them into an effective plan? Accreditation is a process that encourages an agency to take note of where their standard of care is in relation to where they want it to be. The results of that self-evaluation will be the core for developing and implementing a strategic plan of improvement.

Finding an accreditation program that specifically addresses public safety communications and is flexible in its application to your agency’s needs will be your first objective. Communication centers can vary greatly; therefore, a one-size fits all approach will not be suitable for many agencies. Accreditation is a dynamic process that identifies best practices and promotes high-quality performance measures. The accreditation process will encourage you to define the standard of care based on what your agency can realistically afford, using the resources that are currently available to you. The accreditation process you select should allow you to implement a plan with small, incremental steps of improvement, addressing the most critical needs of your agency first. The accreditation process that you adopt should be based on a continuous cycle of self-evaluation and improvement.

The accreditation process should include an eligibility criteria, or commitment by the agency to a set of basic core processes fundamental to producing a quality call handling system. The initial steps to actual accreditation will take between eight and twelve months, depending on a number of factors unique to each agency. The goal for all agencies is to achieve, and then maintain, accreditation through the ongoing incorporation of the standards into the daily operation of the center.

After you’ve done a thing the same way for two years, look it over carefully.
After five years, look at it with suspicion.
After ten years, throw it away and start over.
-Alfred Edward Perlman

The steps an agency will need to take on their path to accreditation will include:

1. Defining the Standard of Care

Defining and establishing the standard of care will be based on industry best practices and input from the agency’s stakeholders. Who are your stakeholders? They are anyone who is impacted in anyway by the services delivered by your agency. Stakeholders can be internal customers, such as law enforcement officers, firefighters or medics. Stakeholders external to the agency would be the public. Soliciting their ideas will ensure that you have a true understanding of the needs and expectations of your stakeholders when defining the standard of care. It is the stakeholders who will ultimately judge how well an agency has achieved the standard of care.

2. Reviewing Policy and Procedures

Are there policy and procedures in place that clearly explain to the call handler what it is they are expected to do? Policy and procedures will need to be written where existing documentation does not address recommended practices.

3. Reviewing Practices

Even if accurate policy and procedures are in place, do they match what is actually happening in practice? This is an opportune time to train call handlers on established policy and procedure and to communicate the expectations of adherence to those policies and procedures. You cannot hold your call handlers accountable if you have failed to provide training and explain expectations.

4. Establishing a Quality Assurance Program

In order to ascertain whether or not your staff is providing the defined standard of care according to the established policy and procedures, you will need to monitor their performance. A Quality Assurance program is key to providing quantitative and qualitative performance measurements.

5. Conducting an Agency Self-Evaluation

A needs assessment will be performed using the agency self-evaluation process to establish goals for improvement. Upon review of standards, policy and procedure, and current operational practices, the agency will develop a plan for improvement. During the self-evaluation process, the agency will be comparing practices documented in the policy and procedures with any deviation in actual practices.

Planning the Agency Self-Evaluation

In preparing for the self-evaluation, the agency will have to decide who will need to be involved. Employees who have a good understanding of proper practices, rules and regulations, policy and procedure, and goals of the agency would be well-suited to the process. In larger agencies, a committee of individuals should be dedicated to this process. In smaller agencies, the review may need to be conducted by one person with access to other people/resources as needed.

A strong lead will need to be appointed. This person will need to be able to take an objective approach to organizing, analyzing and evaluating the data. Those agencies appointing a committee will need to select someone able to lead the committee in a collaborative effort, while at the same time be able to make difficult decisions, delegate tasks and accept responsibility.

Communication is critical to the success of the self-evaluation. It will be management’s responsibility to communicate the purpose of conducting the self-evaluation, the standards it will be measuring itself against and the benefits of conducting the self-evaluation.

Most self-evaluations identify inconsistencies between what is written and the actual practice. When these are discovered, design a policy, procedure or practice that makes sense for your organization. Any new or changed policy, procedure or practice must be communicated to those employees who will be affected by it.

There are five key components to a successful self-evaluation (six, if staff belongs to organized labor):

1. Committed leadership is critical to the success of the agency self-evaluation. A commitment to quality must be present at the top levels and permeate through the entire agency. Support from the top down will send a strong message to members of the agency that the self-evaluation process is important to improving the call handling practices of the communications center and the standard of care provided to the community.

2. There must be an effective Quality Assurance process in place. Identifying current performance and service levels will be instrumental in defining goals for improvement.

3. Involving employees in the self-evaluation process and giving them a voice in how their work will be done helps them understand and buy into the process. Employees will know and understand their value to the organization, which will promote pride in their work and enhance teamwork. Having more than one person involved in the process also provides more depth of knowledge and skills, avoiding the successful continuation of the process being contingent on just one person.

4. Documentation will have to be reviewed and tracked. The agency will want to review its policy and procedures to see if they concur with current practices. Documents to be reviewed will need to be compiled and organized. Quality Assurance documentation will be essential to demonstrating compliance with standards and providing a means to measure performance.

5. There must be a commitment to ongoing improvement. The purpose of the self-evaluation is to identify strengths and weaknesses in the call handling process and develop a plan of improvement. This will be a continuous cycle of self-evaluation and improvement.

6. Those agencies that work with organized labor need to take into consideration any contracts or agreements in place that may influence the changes that can be made to practices and procedures. Contacting union leaders early in the process for their input will help gain their cooperation.

Once the self-evaluation process has begun, it will become apparent that this is not a difficult process. All of the pieces will quickly fall into place. The result of this process will help strengthen the agency by bringing about more consistent call handling practices and empowering the management team to be more confident in their handling of day-to-day operations.

An agency self-evaluation report will be completed that outlines its plans for improvement. For every defined standard, the agency will have answered these questions:

  • Does the agency comply with the standard?
  • How can compliance be demonstrated?
  • In instances of non-compliance, what does the agency need to do to comply with the standard?

Normally, six months of documented compliance is required before the agency is reviewed for Accreditation. An Accreditation auditor will conduct a follow-up audit that uses the benchmarks formed from the initial assessment, together with any agreed upon action plans, and reviews how the ongoing quality monitoring has been managed. Agencies meeting the specified requirements will be granted Accreditation for a pre-determined number of years. It will be the responsibility of the agency to continue to follow the quality improvement plan and continue the cycle of self-evaluation and improvement to be eligible for re-Accreditation. 

Benefits of Accreditation

There are substantial benefits that can be garnered by all agencies seeking Accreditation:

  • Evaluate operations against national standards or best practices. Best practices are defined as the most efficient and effective method of accomplishing a task, based on consistent procedures that have proven themselves over time. 
  • Remedy shortcomings. This is a method to identify and build on the agency’s strengths and to correct or eliminate practices that are not working.
  • Enhance the standard of care provided. The accreditation process is about responsibility and accountability. It will ensure that the standard of care and quality service are being provided.
  • Improve center management through defined standards and written procedures. Having written documentation in place provides the means to let employees know what is expected of them and to hold them accountable to adhere to the standards. It also provides the structure and documentation to deal with poor performers. Teams containing just one poor performer can experience overall performance loss of 30 to 40 percent. Employees who do not quickly respond to training and corrective measures need to be removed so as not to negatively affect the rest of the staff.
  • Assist in the defense against lawsuits. There will be written documentation that the agency has implemented a plan with measurable criteria for upgrading call handling standards, personnel practices and procedures on a continual basis. There are standards set, and employees are held accountable to following them.
  • Increase accountability to the public and employees. When an agency does what they say they are going to do in following a written improvement plan, they foster trust with their stakeholders.
  • Recognize achievement and improve morale. An integral part of accreditation is Quality Assurance. The random review of calls gives management the opportunity to meet face-to-face with call handlers to recognize and praise good performance. It also provides a means to correct, develop and improve performance of individuals and teams. 

Accreditation serves as a mark of excellence in emergency call handling and enhances the agency’s image within the community. Public safety agencies that earn Accreditation validate their commitment to quality and accountability. Agencies earning Accreditation will see quality improvements that will transform their communications center, turning mere ideas into plans, and plans into tangible goals for the future.

Cory Friend is Accreditation Coordinator for PowerPhone, Inc. She can be reached at cory@powerphone.com.

Read Part 2 of Cory's article here.

 

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