ISO lowers city’s fire rating by 1

Improved rank could lower insurance premiums for local homeowners

By BRUCE ALSOBROOK | News-Telegram Managing Editor

Jan 4, 2008 - Sulphur Springs has entered rarefied air in terms of its ability to keep the citizenry safe from the ravages of fire.

Earlier this week, the city received a letter from Insurance Service Office Inc. informing them Sulphur Springs’ Public Protection Classification rating has improved from a 5 to a 4, something local officials have been working to achieve for years.

�That means your community�s fire suppression services are improving in the face of the demands of a changing environment," read the letter from ISO's Austin office. "Congratulations on this recognition of your commitment to serve the needs of your community�s property owners and residents."

Only 10.3 percent of communities nationwide receiving PPC ratings below a 5. Those receiving a 4 rating account for just 6.9 percent of all communities.

So what does it mean for the average property owner?

"There should be a decrease in insurance rates," Sulphur Springs Fire Chief Gerry Cleaver said Thursday. "All those within the corporate limits of Sulphur Springs should be affected. The lower the number, the better the rating."

ISO’s Public Protection Classification is considered the gold standard in the insurance industry for evaluating a community's  fire prevention capabilities (or as ISO describes it, “the structure fire suppression delivery system provided in your community”).

�Hopefully that will help some of the rates here, or at least drop them down some,� said Randal Voss with Voss Allstate Insurance in Sulphur Springs.

Voss also noted, however, that the PPC is only one of a number of variables involved in setting homeowners insurance rates, which are impacted by everything from how much a house is worth to where it's located.

"Building materials, the age of the structure, what type of alarms, what type of security, what type of fire prevention measures are in your house, how close you are to a fire hydrant — there are several different aspects that affect your [insurance score," Voss explained. "It’s so complex."

Still, the improved rating should translate into savings for most homeowners — generally between 4 and 5 percent, according to the Texas Department of Insurance.

According to TDI data, homes of brick construction should see premiums drop 4 percent when a city's PPC falls from 5 to 4. Brick or stone veneer houses average a 4.8 percent decline, as do wood frame homes. Asbestos clad and stucco exteriors could see a 4.7 percent reduction.

Not all insurers treat the rating the same. Companies that are not rate-regulated by the state insurance agency make up around 80 percent of the homeowners insurance market in Texas. While these insurers use PPC ratings, they may apply them differently from rate-regulated companies, according to information from TDI.

ISO collects information on a community's public fire protection ability, and analyzes the data the public protection rating. A PPC of Class 1 represents the best fire protection, while Class 10 indicates no recognized protection. Sulphur Springs has been rated as a 5 since 1998.

�There are quite a number of things factored into this formula which determine the actual classification," said Cleaver, the fire chief.

That rangers from the way fire alarms are handled to equipment and manpower and the water supply, all the way down to telephone directory listings

The city scored highest on its water supply, scoring 35.32 out of a possible 40 points (88.3 percent), followed by the way fire alarms and received and handled (7.01 out of 10). The fire department itself was assigned 24.83 out of 50 maximum credits.

On a separate part of the summary specific to Texas, the city scored very high on fire investigations, receiving a 9.2 out of a maximum 10 for personnel, organizations, qualifications, certification, training and other variables.

"Over the years, we’ve made enough improvements to the water system and equipment, and added some part-time labor," Sulphur Springs City Manager Marc Maxwell said. "It’s all just added up to enough to get us to the next level."

Improvements to the 911 dispatch center, the addition of new equipment including a ladder truck, an aggressive water hydrant maintenance program, plus infrastructure improvements to the water distribution system played a role in the improved rating.

�I think Mr. Maxwell and [Director of Community Development Johnny] Vance have played a very important role in the replacement of all the water mains and water lines that run through town, upgrading and doing infrastructure improvements that probably should have been addressed 30 years ago but had been neglected," Cleaver said. "Now, they�ve taken an aggressive approach to redoing and re-laying the water lines."

New businesses and developers that bear the cost of running new water lines and installing new hydrants at their locations are also a great help, the fire chief added.

One area of significant improvement involved the city's water hydrants. Just a few years ago, Maxwell informed City Council members more than 100 of the town's fire hydrants didn’t work at all. Since then, Maxwell implemented an aggressive maintenance plan, and every hydrant has been fixed or repaired since, and two are inspected each day. The ISO report gave Sulphur Springs for the types of hydrants and method of installation, and the frequency hydrants are inspected and their condition.

Some areas the city was penalized for might be thought nit-picky. For example, even though Sulphur Springs has a ladder truck, it was docked points because there wasn’t a ladder company within 2 1/2 miles of all sections of the city with hydrants. Move the Central Fire Station a few hundred yards to the south, and the city probably receives a higher score. The credit for ladder and service companies was also automatically penalized 50 percent due to “dual operations.”

The city also lost points for the way the fire department’s telephone numbers are listed in the “white pages” directory.

On the surface, the simplest way to improve the city's PPC classification would be to hire more firefighters in addition to the current force of 21, but logistic realities mean increasing manpower costs for the department by at least one-third, Maxwell said.

"If we hire personnel, we need to hire them in increments of seven, or it doesn’t mean anything," he explained. "You need one at each station each shift, which is six, plus one to cover time off, illness, vacation, holidays and so forth. You just don’t go by little increments."

But Maxwell is happy for Sulphur Springs to be in the top 90th percentile of all communities rated by ISO, and like Cleaver, he's proud that it was a collective effort that brought about success.

"It’s basically a combination of all the city’s entities together," Cleaver said. "They just all pull together, and it makes for a better classification. It’s not just one department — it’s the entire city workforce. Everyone plays a key role.”

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