The Case for Credentialing – Organizations That Need to Go Away

HHIFRD Truck 6 working a grinder.

HHIFRD Truck 6 working a grinder.

Here’s one for you; a subject near and dear to my heart and the reason why we have standards.  As a matter of clearing up any legal challenges, I have to make an official statement here as a result of some of the positions I hold:

My opinions and views as expressed here and throughout the Firehouse Zen blog site, are not, nor shall ever be, an official statement representing the Town of Hilton Head Island, Hilton Head Island Fire and Rescue, the State Urban Search and Rescue Alliance or its board, the State of South Carolina and the South Carolina Emergency Response Task Force, the National Fire Protection Association, and the committees on which I serve.  If I have missed someone, I’m sure I’ll hear about it. And if I do have something official to say from any of them, it’s not likely going to come out on here, but you’ll be the first to know if I do.

The reason for all the disclaimers?  Because I happen to work with a few bodies who get taken to task when we start talking about making people do things they should be doing anyway.  When we do these things, you know, make standards, the inner libertarian in some people comes out with a vengeance. I mean, really, who do I think I am, telling people that you should have a means to measure what you are and how you do it? 

Well, you can begin by blaming organizations and people who currently hold jurisdictional responsibilities and fail, for whatever reason, to adhere to consensus standards.  Why is the failure to uphold a consensus standard such a big deal?  Well, first off, when we break down what standards really do, they are really more of a definition than anything else.  Yes, a standard can be a way to tell you how to get to that defined place, or standards may be in place to define how something should be developed or occur, but the case of professional qualifications and those operations and training standards, the standards say, “you must achieve THESE things to be THIS”.  It is a label.

It doesn’t hurt that there are people or groups or things that want to wear that label, for whatever reason.  In most communities, people or groups or things require a label.  The label is there to make asking for that thing easier, but it also tells you what it is you are getting, especially if the standard has any acceptance at all.  If you went to the store and bought a box of Cheerios, and you opened it up at home and it was a box of rocks, I’ll bet you wouldn’t be happy.  But at least at the store, when you picked up that box of what should be Cheerios, and it was full of rocks, the weight would probably give it away that you had a problem.  The difference is, when I’m at a command post in the middle of Disasterville, if you tell me you are a box of Cheerios and the box of rocks shows up, how am I supposed to know that until you get there and I can see it for myself?

Then of course there’s that little thing called negligence that can be found at the intersection of: 1) duty; 2) breach; 3) causation; and 4) damages.  Why do we care? Standards are created to define what a competent person would do.  It defines their capability and provides not only the user and the teacher and everyone else an objective benchmark to measure against, but provides the lawyers a ruler to hold up against a case and say, “was what happened here considered to be an industry standard?”

But before we kill all the lawyers (I have friends who are lawyers and they’re actually nice guys, or at least these guys are), let’s pause for a little putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes.  I think I said it before in another blog, but it merits repeating.  A well respected South Carolina jurist once said this to a group I was with about lawyers:

“Lawyers are like vultures – most people look upon the vulture as a vile creature, eating carcasses and garbage, reprehensible to watch.  However, if there were no vultures, think about all of the roadkill that would rot on the highways, in the forests, and elsewhere.  Vultures take care of the messes we find distasteful.  If people would just get along and deal with each other in a civil manner, we wouldn’t need lawyers.” (Judge Thomas Kemmerlin, in a Leadership Hilton Head session)

Standards, too, are just that; if people (and subsequently, organizations) did their job the way it SHOULD be done, we wouldn’t need them (standards, that is).  But there are plenty of people and organizations who don’t.  And like I said, looking at standards as some sort of evil developed to help the legal community is actually a pretty cynical way of thinking.  The best (but certainly not the ONLY reason) for standards are that they give us a benchmark to measure against, they provide guidance for where to shoot for, they allow us to call an apple an apple and an orange an orange.  And this is where the discussion comes in regarding credentialing, and those agencies that should go away.

In all of this, the credentialing reinforces the idea that you put on the label, and you are what you say you are.  I don’t mean to suggest for a minute that a firefighter from Ajax Fire Department in Podunk, Saskatchewan has the same experience as a firefighter working a busy truck in North Philadelphia, but if they both carry credentials saying they met a minimum standard, at least you can trust that if they are both certified and credentialed through the same standard, that they both will be able to tell you which end of the ladder goes to the roof.  Does one have more firepower than the other?  You bet.  But we all at least know they started out on the same footing.

Of course, we have the organizations who are made up of people who are not comfortable with credentialing.  The agencies who insist that their organization is the rightful responder to a given incident, by way of statute or whatever legal standing that empowers them.  They then, for the means of deception, because that’s really what it is – you are deceiving others or deceiving yourself – you make the claim that your group/jurisdiction/etc. is equipped, trained and has a plan. At least that’s what you do when you declare, “I am Task Force so-and-so”, or put a patch on your jacket, or a sticker on your car, or wear the t-shirt, and then open your doors for business.  And you aren’t. 

Case in point:

Years ago, I was given the responsibility to do some research about the claims of an agency who purported to be an “urban search and rescue task force”.  In fact, there were two really interesting statements made to me (and even put in writing):  “FEMA said that when the next teams are brought into the system, we will be the next one”, and “We finished in the top two teams that will be brought into the FEMA US&R system”.  So it was my responsibility, as given to me by an emergency management agency, to find out just what it was and wasn’t that this organization could really do.  To be short and sweet, it only took me a half-day.  Despite the presence of a patch, I was unable to find a plan, funding, or a cohesive legally authorizing document to even declare they were what they were. 

When I was serving in Horry County, SC during Hurricane Floyd, and before my current status as a pointer-of-fingers, I was impressed even then at the variations in type and kind that came waltzing into the staging areas.  Why is that a problem?  Just for example, let’s say that you have declared you and your pound hound a “US&R Canine Task Force”.  You then put it on the side of your car along with red lights and a siren, and you quickly get to be the guest of honor at several 11:00 news shows, saying that this is your label.  Well, if I’ve got ten stories compacted into about three, and I declare an incident, and I’m on the RECIEVING end, I’m gonna be pretty pissed when I call for a “US&R Canine Task Force” (whatever that is, anyway), and a guy, Fido, and a well-lit vehicle show up.  Because right off the bat, and I’m no genius, but a task force is at LEAST a multiple of SOMETHING and if this label is attached to an asset, then I am at least expecting a pick-up truck and maybe another dog (maybe).

So that label, then, well what does it get you?  Well, a label is only as good as the standard that defines it.  I’m not going to beat the old drum on here (it’s been roundly beaten), it would seem to me that if you (a credentialing authority) had some agency that got your highest mark and that agency was indisputably so far off the track of using modern incident management, currently accepted strategies and tactics, personnel accountability, etc., well, you’d probably change things pretty quickly to give your credential some real meaning.  I mean, if you don’t, it pretty much points the measurement out to be unreliable, doesn’t it?  But that measuring stick continues to exist in the same form, and yes, people are trying to change it, but the progress is slow.  You tell me- what kind of damage does that do to the argument in support of credentialing when currently existing measurement and validation processes we commonly use are such a joke?

There are plenty of organizations out there who claim to be doing the job that they were tasked to do, and they are simply squandering the taxpayers’ funds.  There are organizations out there who don’t get a dime of tax money that are taking up space and interfering with trained and equipped response assets.  There are people out there who wear a sleeve of patches saying they are this and that and they’re the last person I’d pick in a kickball game, much less to extricate my family out of a wreck.  So why do I want these groups to just go away?  Because there are those of us who genuinely want to provide the best service to my community (and yours, if I am deployed there) and when these clowns show up, they’re wasting my time and yours.  When I call for a “Type II Collapse Rescue Team” as defined by NIMS, then I’m expecting two six-man squads with a team leader and a logistics officer to show up, with equipment, trained and self-sufficient to a point.  If you show up with three bubbas in a pick-up with a tool box, just save me the energy of telling you to leave.  If we had credentialing, it would be easy to say, “THIS is what I am”, but right now, we have to take your word for it.

Who is against credentialing so far?  Well, the “Good Samaritan” has been, or at least many have made that satement clear to me.  I’m of the opinion they shouldn’t be worried about it because we really SHOULD incorporate them in somehow, but they’ve got to understand that if we can’t be sure of who they are or what they can do, we can only trust them to do things like direct traffic or man a chow line, and not run a track-hoe. 

Secondly, we have the people and agencies who are against credentialing because it’s going to point out to everyone that they aren’t exactly what they purport themselves to be, or are measuring themselves with an inappropriate, or ancient, or idiotic standard.  Like I said with them, they need to get with the program, do the right thing, and either step up to the 21st Century, or get out.  If you are advertising yourself to be a box of Cheerios, be the tastiest and crispest Cheerios anyone ever poured into a bowl, and not a box of rocks.

In the next installment, let’s talk about the thrill seekers and glory hounds.  If you thought I was hard on this last group, guess again.


  • Mick,
    I agree 100%. I wish somebody else would read this. Good reading and I can’t wait for the next one. Thanks. Rick.

  • Ted Bownas says:

    The series keeps getting better and better, Mick. Am I to assume that some of these rock-boxes have pissed in your Cheerios one time too many? LOL…

  • Ben Morse says:

    Right on Mick. My experience at the Imperial sugar explosion was that as the Fire Ops guy, I needed a RIT. I went to the crowd outside the scene tape to a group of ff’s standing there and asked them if they had been trained as RIT. I didn’t know them. I had ff’s there from many, many dept’s. The look on their face said they either didn’t have the training, or they didn’t think that was a job worthy of them, so I went to another group.(RIT is important to me) Credentialing would have certainly helped. I’ve pushed it with my local EMA and with my contact at GEMA, but no joy. Gotta have it!

  • Mick Mayers says:

    Thanks to each of you for your comments. As far as “the people who should be reading this”, feel free to pass it on. Right now it sounds like I’m preaching to the choir.

  • Steve says:

    Yes, credentials would help but WHO is the final authority on issuing them? WHO sets the standards? How are you going to avoid the age old paid vs volunteer bias in any credentialing agency? Any major incident that happens outside the major cities will almost certainly require volunteer response. We have to work that out before you start eliminating qualified volunteer responders. Case in point…I have a degree in Fire Admin…Ive spent 30 years as a volunteer, hold many many certs as FF, Fire Officer etc..but most career firefighters wouldnt give me the time of day…because Im a volunteer.

  • Kevin says:

    I live in a state where there is no agency tasked with certifying or credentialing Search and Rescue dogs. I have seen (many times) where someone will buy lights for their POV and load their pet dog into the truck and call themselves a SAR team!

    If I didn’t know better, I might think all volunteer SAR teams were like this.

    However, there are a number of excellent non-governmental SAR teams in my state as well. I myself and a member of a volunteer K9 team.

    Our ground searchers train to nationally recognized standards, (NASAR SARTECH, ASTM F.32, NFPA 1670, etc). Our dogs certify to national standards, and if state standards are ever implemented we will certify to them as well.

    We have state-certified medical personnel (EMTs, first-responders, nurse). We have people trained in search management. We bring our own logistics (comm, food, shelter for extended ops, etc) and are designed to be self-sufficient.

    We are NIMS and ICS trained and will integrate into the existing command structure.

    Some may wonder why there is need for a volunteer K9 SAR team in the first place. It’s actually quite simple: the AHJ (law enforcement, in our case) has asked for it, because there are no governmental wilderness
    SAR response agencies in our area.

    I am 100% for credentialing for both governmental and non-governmental SAR teams, but then the question becomes who is going to credential them?

    My state will not recognize half of the certifications we currently hold, such as the SARTECH certs by the National Association for Search and Rescue, because they are not issued by the state emergency management office. Yet the state emergency management office does not issue *any* search and rescue certifications. Anyone see a problem here?

    I suspect many of your readers have had bad experiences with some SAR teams, and this could be partially resolved by credentialing, but there will always be “rogue” (my terminology) SAR teams out there. Credentialing is a start to fixing this, but I believe that joint training with your local SAR team to know their capabilities and limitations *before* there is a need to utilize them in a search and rescue incident is the only way to really address this problem.

2 Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *