Peer reviews are typical in accounting firms, health care, and information technology services but this practice does not appear to be a common occurrence among fire safety programs. This article discusses a fire safety peer review project, how the peer review was executed, and advice for those interested in conducting a fire safety peer review at their institution.
Peer Review vs. Audit
It is important to draw a distinction between a peer review and a traditional audit conducted by an organization’s internal auditor or regulatory agency. While audits tend to focus on which performance standards and regulations institutions are required to observe; peer reviews provide opportunities to evaluate how organizations achieve conformance with applicable requirements and organizational goals. Auditors are adept at finding deficiencies; however, they may be less equipped to provide solutions. Peer review teams comprised of individuals from comparable organizations who possess the requisite expertise are more likely to understand the nuances of the work being examined and associated challenges. Although peer reviews share many of the same characteristics of an audit or inspection, there are subtle differences that warrant comparison:
There are many reasons why an organization might elect to conduct a peer review. Changes in leadership or personnel provide opportunities to reevaluate business practices, examine organizational structures, and provide an alternative and a presumably unbiased perspective on organizational performance. A peer review can also be used to assess conformance with regulatory requirements which is instrumental in determining focus areas for strategic planning, justifying additional resources (financial, political, or human), and facilitating organizational change.
At the request of the Vice President of Safety and Risk Management at a large public institution of higher education, representatives from George Mason University (GMU) and another large public institution in the mid-Atlantic region, worked collaboratively with the host institution to design and conduct a peer review of the institution’s fire safety programs that focused on organizational structure, roles and responsibilities, and work routines to identify opportunities to improve efficiencies through modified work practices and adjustments to organizational structure. The peer review team was comprised of fire safety professionals who possessed technical and administrative experience developing and managing fire safety programs in accordance with applicable codes and regulations. Although not included in this project, additional skills may be needed in the areas of finance, law, or engineering. It is recommended that project objectives be negotiated with the host institution before the peer review team is assembled to ensure that team members have the requisite experience and knowledge.
Over the course of two months, a variety of methods were used to collect information about the host institution’s organization and operations.
Document Review: Prior to the first on-site meeting, the peer review team requested copies of the institution’s fire safety protocols, procedures, and employee position descriptions. Organizational charts, websites, mission statements, and strategic plans are also valuable to glean information about an organization, define the departments scope of responsibility, understand existing procedures, and refine the objectives of the peer review project.
On-Site Meetings: Three on-site meetings were scheduled with the institution’s administration and fire safety team. Discussions were supplemented with campus tours and informal lunches. Each meeting required five to eight-hours and was facilitated by a detailed agenda. General discussions provided information about the organization, budget, staffing, structure, new program initiatives, open positions, planned organizational changes, and the administration’s goals. The peer review team also facilitated a rudimentary SWOT analysis with the leadership team to identify additional organizational, external, or procedural issues that influence the department’s performance.
Interviews: The peer review team conducted six one-on-one interviews with staff from the host institution. Each interview was approximately 60-minutes. Interviewees were asked about their role within the organization, exemplary work practices, work schedules, morale, and their professional goals. Interviewees were asked to reflect on processes that they perceive as exemplary or inefficient, opportunities to improve individual or organizational performance, and challenges they encounter during daily work routines.
Employee Residency: A residency program was conducted between GMU and the host institution during which each organization sent one employee to work with their counterparts in the field to obtain first-hand knowledge of how fire alarm and suppression systems inspections and testing were scheduled, executed, and recorded. Each employee spent two full workdays with their peers and provided a debrief to the peer review team on their experience, observations, and recommendations.
A report outlining the project objectives, process, timeline, and recommendations was delivered to the host institution. Results documented best practices performed by the host institution’s fire safety personnel and offered suggestions for improving the work performance, capacity, and efficiency. The codependent relationship between the host institution’s fire safety organizational structure, assigned responsibilities, and procedures (depicted below) helped inform the peer review team’s recommendations.
Examples of the recommendations provided to the host institution included:
- Hire or reassign an individual to oversee administrative functions and coordinate work schedules across the institution;
- Create an electronic hotwork (welding, cutting, brazing) permit applications process to improve customer service and reduce administrative time;
- Use fillable forms to collect inspection and testing data in the field to reduce administrative time in the office;
- Replace annual fire safety service contracts that are laborious to establish with long-term multi-year contracts (this strategy may also reduce costs); and,
- Engage institutional staff with fire safety responsibilities in required fire drills to reduce the demand on fire safety personnel while simultaneously encouraging fire safety awareness among employees.
The report also noted significant organizational strengths such as the strong interpersonal relationships, dedication, and integrity of fire safety employees.
Depending upon the scope of the project, three to four months should be sufficient to complete a similar project. To mitigate the potential for scheduling conflicts, all meetings were coordinated two months in advance. Negotiating the project time line with the host institution is a critical first step. It is recommended that the project objectives and timeline be established before selecting peer review team members to set clear expectations regarding time commitment and project deliverables when members are recruited. In addition to the effort required to plan, organize the peer review team, conduct on-site visits, and write the final report, peer review teams should also consider potential travel expenses and, if appropriate, negotiate expenses with the host institution.
A familiar refrain heard across organizations striving to improve is “what are our peers doing?” The peer review process provides opportunities to discuss best practices, share insights, exchange documented procedures, and receive constructive feedback on proposed modifications to safety programs. In my experience, some employees are reticent to share information with their leadership, but will gladly share it with a third party. Having an objective observer facilitate the process of mapping the organizational topography of a department may be more effective than trying to orchestrate this exercise internally. Peer reviews are essentially free expert consulting services. The host institution receives the additional benefit of being able to reference external agency experience and expertise to justify programmatic changes, budget requests, and potentially additional personnel.
Although this project took place at an institution of higher education it could conceivably take place among any two or more fire safety organizations in any industry. If your organization is entertaining the idea of conducting a peer review or you are asked to be a member of peer review team, consider the following:
1 Identify the project scope and objectives:
- Establish the project objectives, scope, timeline, format, and deliverables
- Create a peer review proposal that outlines the project
- Negotiate project costs/reimbursement (if appropriate)
2 Convene a peer review team with relevant expertise/experience:
- Share the project proposal with the team
- Set expectations regarding participation, time commitment, and expenses
- Establish a process from sharing documents, notes, and draft reports
3 Arrange a conference call or meeting with the host institution and peer review team:
- Confirm project scope, objectives, timeline, and deliverables
- Review logistics (i.e., parking, accommodations, travel, reimbursement, etc.)
- Request relevant fire safety documents for review by the peer review team
Conduct on-site visits:
- Share meeting agendas and establish expectations in advance
- Take notes of conversations, observations, and activities
- Remain flexible as agendas, participation, and project scope may change
Draft a formal peer review report:
- Assign a lead author to assimilate teams notes and observations
- Present recommendations and provide participants with an opportunity to comment
- Deliver a final peer review report to the host institution
As the peer review team lead, I discovered that this opportunity not only served as a valuable professional development opportunity, it challenged me to become a better steward of fire safety programs, and was a valuable service to my colleagues. Although the investment of time and effort can be intimidating, the rewards of a peer review may pay dividends year over year regarding employee morale, efficiency,
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