Battalion Chief Jennifer Smith speaks with Fire Captain Blake Turner at NHCFR Station 17.
Recently, New Hanover County Fire Rescue (NHCFR) became an Accredited Agency with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. Going through this process was voluntary and something our Fire Rescue team was dedicated to – because they are constantly in pursuit of excellence in service delivery and ensuring continuous improvement and innovation in our county’s fire services. I believe they have attained that excellence, and they continue to show their diligence every day in their incredible service to the community.
Twenty-five years ago, Fire Services started in the unincorporated area of the county and then 12 years ago the county consolidated from a volunteer fire department into a full-time, county-run department. I believe that pivotal decision has made the department what it is today. With strong leadership and a dedicated and skilled team, New Hanover County Fire Rescue has become a top rated, fully accredited, and high-achieving fire department that our community should take a lot of pride in.
The accreditation process included a thorough self-assessment and peer review. It took nearly three years to complete and was led by Fire Battalion Chief Jennifer Smith. She worked alongside Chief Donnie Hall, Deputy Chief Matt Davis, Deputy Chief Frank Meyer, and many others in Fire Rescue to ensure the department met the rigorous criteria, assessment data, and overall evaluation.
I am really grateful to Jennifer for her leadership on this, so for this month’s public service profile, I asked Jennifer about her role, the accreditation process, and what this means for our community. That conversation is below…
Why did you decide to have a career in fire services and what is your overall role for the department?
My experience with the fire service began in high school when I volunteered for the local rescue squad. I found volunteering rewarding and wanted to continue it during college. While at UNCW, I volunteered at Winter Park Fire Department where I received my initial firefighting certifications. During this time, I also completed my Paramedic credential.
After graduating college, I needed a job. I enjoyed helping other people and making a positive impact on the community. This led me to a job in the fire service while I figured out my future career, but I never imagined that this would become my career.
I started working with New Hanover County Fire Rescue as a firefighter 23 years ago, and I have worked my way up through the ranks to my current position as a Battalion Chief. I am responsible for the Planning and Administration Division which includes budget, hiring and promotional processes, strategic planning, data analysis, information technology projects and accreditation. In this role, I also serve as the department’s Accreditation Manager.
What went into becoming accredited and what did the process entail?
The accreditation model is a process of continuous improvement. The basis of the process includes developing a strategic plan, identifying and assessing the risks in the community, identify how the department responds to and mitigates those risks, and a comprehensive self-assessment of all the components of the department. The process also includes implementing a continuous improvement framework to evaluate data, develop and implement process and system improvements, and evaluate the impact of those improvements.
After Fire Rescue submitted its documents, a peer team visited the department to verify and validate the self-assessment and information in the documents. The peer team formulated a recommendation for accreditation as well as recommendations for improvement. Lastly, Fire Rescue appeared before the Commission on Fire Accreditation International where the peer team leader presented the recommendations and findings from their visit. Following comments from fire rescue and questions from the 11-member Commission, they rendered a vote on granting accredited status.
What were some of the strengths and areas of improvement identified through the process?
During the process, the peer team and commission highlighted our work with Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity to install residential sprinklers in the homes they build. They also spoke highly of our relationship with Wilmington Fire Department. This collaboration between the two organizations enhances the service delivery to the citizens of both the city and county. They also recognized the value of using data from a pilot project to determine the need for a fire station on Gordon Road. Among many other strengths!
For areas of improvement, the peer team recommended that Fire Rescue incorporate built-in fire protection into the risk assessment and response plans, so our department is working on incorporating this information starting with collecting and verifying building fire protection data. The peer team also recommended that Fire Rescue formalize a wildland fire program, and the department has begun this process by evaluating the wildland fire responses.
By identifying both strengths and areas for improvement, we will enhance our services and it will continue to make us better.
What does being accredited mean for our community and why is it important?
Being accredited demonstrates to our community that New Hanover County Fire Rescue is community-focused, data driven, outcome-focused, strategic minded, well organized, properly equipped and properly staffed and trained. It is an international recognition of achievement, and we are among a small group of agencies to obtain this status, so our community should feel really proud and know that fire protection in our area is among the best in the world.
This achievement also establishes that Fire Rescue continually self-assesses, looks for opportunities for improvement, and is transparent and accountable in all that we do – which will now be verified and validated through a third party to maintain our accreditation. Our work and achieving accreditation directly support the county’s commitment to be the model of good governance and to ensure the community is safe, healthy, and secure.
What are some important takeaways for residents and business to help reduce risks?
Residents and businesses need to complete their own risk assessment to identify the potential risks that they face on a daily basis (such as what and where the main fire hazards are in their building, what items are at most risk of burning, and who are the people most at risk). Once those risks have been identified, they can work to help prevent and reduce those risks (such as removing or reducing the main hazards, ensuring an emergency plan is in place that outlines the potential risks and that the right people are trained). Residents should ensure they have working smoke alarms and have practiced an escape plan for their family, since the majority of fires occur in residential buildings. New Hanover County Fire Rescue is always available to help residents and businesses with this process, and you can learn more about our department at FireRescue.NHCgov.com.
Jennifer’s leadership is moving us forward and I appreciate all she has done, as well as the entire Fire Rescue team, to help NHCFR achieve accreditation. We are now among an elite group of approximately 300 agencies in the world to achieve this status, and I know our community is well protected.
You can read the county’s announcement of this important milestone for Fire Rescue here.
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