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ISO rating a labor of love

ALBANY -- When speaking with Deputy Albany Fire Chief Ron Rowe, people within the department and even those at the highest levels of city government know to use the three letters ISO with a certain delicate reverence.

Those letters -- initials for Insurance Services Organization, a company that once every decade evaluates fire departments and their ability to reduce losses from structure fires -- have been seared into the consciousness of employees throughout the department for the last three years.

It has become synonymous with hard work, efficiency and determination. It has been the department's chief non-public safety related priority since Chief James Carswell stepped into the office in 2005 and it has been the driving force behind a series of local public safety and infrastructure improvements that will ultimately save local homeowners and businesses millions of dollars in reduced insurance premiums each year.

Outside of the local government, few know the work that was put into the effort that ultimately led to the reduction of local residential and commercial insurance premiums.

If the ISO effort was created by Carswell, the implementation of that effort was borne by Rowe, who, along with every employee at the fire department, Deputy EMA Director Jim Vaught and the 911 communications center, and the Albany Water, Gas & Light Commission, worked to bring it to fruition.

THE BEGINNING

When Carswell took office, ISO was more than four years behind auditing the department, which meant that, at any time, they could be evaluated -- a chilling thought for Carswell.

"I knew at that time that we really didn't know where we were in terms of our rating. We knew that under the previous audit we were a 3 in city and 5-9 in the county, meaning that some areas in the county were a level 5 and others were a level 9." The lower the number assigned, the better fire coverage is judged to be for an area.

So to assess where they stood, Carswell asked City Manager Alfred Lott for permission to hire a consultant to grade the department and to offer suggestions on how to reach that level 2 distinction that would place the department in the 99th percentile nationally.

"He came to me and pitched the idea of hiring this consultant to assess the department and see what needed to be done to increase our standing with ISO," Lott said. "So I funded Skip Starling out of my contingency fund because we viewed this as a priority that would ultimately provide relief to homeowners in terms of their insurance."

Starling, of the National Insurance Services consulting firm, evaluated the department and determined, to Carswell's dismay, that unless improvements were immediately undertaken, the department would forego the level 2 rating and was in jeopardy of regressing up the scale.

"One thing people don't realize is that had we done nothing, chances are we would've actually ended up losing a position and business and residential rates would've gone up," Carswell said.

In a speech given at the ISO announcement, Starling summed it up: "You should take pride in this effort because, in a time when departments are falling down the ISO ladder and rates are going up, Dougherty County and the city of Albany have actually improved."

GRADING PERSONNEL

Starling identified several areas where the department would likely lose points in the ISO audit.

One of those was the distribution of personnel within the fire department.

Over the previous 15 years, the department had lost 21 people and positions that Starling believed would significantly impact the ISO audit.

But to get staffing levels to where they needed to be to move forward, Carswell was facing a budget impact of more than $1 million a year to fund the lost positions plus boost the numbers to where ISO said they needed to be.

So, folks at the AFD got creative.

First Carswell grew the management staff by promoting managers throughout the department. This included chiefs over suppression and training, an arson investigator and a head over 911.

Then a volunteer program was launched that help provide people who would augment the firefighting force and receive special training to assist when needed.

Additionally, part-time firefighters were hired to cover shifts left vacant by those taking annual leave -- a measure that significantly reduced the impact on the budget and the taxpayers, while increasing points on the department's overall score.

GRADING EQUIPMENT

To fully support the department countywide, the assessment showed that a new aerial or ladder truck would need to be purchased, along with two fire trucks in order to take advantage of all the possible points in that area from ISO.

In addition to purchasing a truck, ISO requires it to be fully stocked with a variety of equipment that is demanded but rarely needed in this part of the country.

Again, the department was looking at shelling out significant money to purchase the vehicles and fully outfit them to ISO specifications.

For comparison, in 1996, when the department bought an aerial truck, it alone cost more than $1 million in special-purpose sales tax dollars to purchase the unit, fully stock it and man it.

In an effort to be as gentle on the taxpayers as possible, the department went through the city's procurement process and discovered that by piggybacking on the Florida state contract, they could purchase the vehicles at steep discounts because they were simply sitting in reserve. So, rather than buying from a dealer who buys from the manufacturer, the department eliminated the middle man and saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process.

The department also saved money on the equipment by doing line-item bulk purchases rather than allowing a dealer to outfit the trucks as they had in the past.

Since ISO grades the entire department, Rowe and the procurement staff sent out bids for the various equipment items not just for the two new trucks, but for each of the trucks at the department's 11 stations, earning a significant discount.

At the end of the day, the department ended up purchasing the three vehicles and fully stocking their entire fleet of trucks for just a little more than it cost to buy and man a single aerial truck in 1996.

GRADING TRAINING

Carswell knew that the department would take a significant hit by ISO for not having a multi-jurisdictional training facility.

First dreamed up by former Chief James Arrowood, a full burn training facility was initially planned to be built and developed at an old rocket engine testing site at Turner Field. After city officials examined the site, it was determined that it would be too expensive to prepare the land for the facility.

Instead, the city partnered with the Dougherty County School System in what was essentially a land swap for property near Holly Drive. In the end, the use of WG&L and public works saved taxpayers as the $2.4 million multi-use training facility was built for only $1.7 million while adding another notch in the department's ISO belt.

LEVEL 1 IMPROVEMENTS

While the city ended up being an ISO level 2 following the audit, some city departments earned the organization's top honor -- the prestigious level 1.

With 40 percent of the overall ISO score based on the availability of water, WG&L, with its sophisticated well and water system, earned top ratings and helped lift the department to its overall level 2 rating.

"Water is such a significant part of it. Obviously you can't fight fires very well without plenty of water, and we are fortunate that we sit in a location where it is plentiful," Carswell said.

In addition, the department checked water records, painted dry hydrants to more easily spot them vs. wet hydrants, and checked the pressure on all the water mains to ensure adequate water pressure.

The other department involved required a little more work.

Early in 2006, city leaders decided to place Carswell and his department over all 911 communications operations. Following the changeover, the center was assessed and graded and it was determined, Carswell says, that more staff was needed to handle the call volume.

An upgrade recently completed by the communications system and newly signed legislation allowed local governments to charge a 50-cent fee on all cell phone users within the county. Using that money, eight new dispatchers were hired and trained, bolstering the numbers into the level ISO recommended.

"That really helped us," Carswell said. "As you can imagine, the philosophy is simple: If you don't have enough dispatchers to match the call volume coming into the center, then some things may get missed. So we helped alleviate that problem and our 911 system graded out as a one."

INDIVIDUAL TRAINING

In addition to personnel and equipment, a big emphasis was placed on individual training. The fire department currently has 45 officers who are required annually to undergo 40 hours of continuing education training, 45 drivers who must have 48 hours of training, and each of the departments 154 employees has some type of required training he or she must complete each year.

Additionally, the department must have periodic single- and multi-company drills.

To meet ISO requirements, all of that training had to be kept updated with accurate records that were to be inspected during the audit. To accomplish this goal, the department hired a support coordinator whose job was to use software programs to track employee training and to keep detailed records.

Additionally, the department had to compile and store planned fire records of each of the 4,800 commercial business properties in Dougherty County, including drawings and measurements for each.

"That was a daunting task that required a lot of work from our guys to get it done," Carswell said. "But because it's done, if a business catches on fire, we know the best way to attack it and all of that information is at our fingertips."

The department also partnered with Albany Tech to provide higher education and training for firefighters wishing to earn a degree and better their educational footing with the department, Carswell said.

LOOSE ENDS

When ISO auditors finally did show, nearly 10 years past their due date, the department scrambled to shore up a few loose ends.

To bolster the fleet, the decision was made to keep some of the older trucks that were up for retirement as back-ups in case the main trucks went down, which helped prevent point loss.

But regardless of the efforts, the department still lost points.

On its training, the department lost points for boat and rescue drills, which ISO said weren't directly related to structure fires. They also lost points for drills at the Civic Center for the same reason.

But despite those areas, Carswell and Lott both say they're proud of the department for the hard work it put in to obtain that level.

"We looked at what it would take to be a level 1 department, because we always strive to be the best, but it would require 100 more firefighters and additional stations, so we'll stick with a 2 for right now," Carswell said.

"They definitely deserve commending," Lott said. "The work Carswell and Rowe and Vaught did for the accomplishment is significant. They are one of our top city departments and I'd put them against any in the state."

The new ISO ratings take effect in February. Property owners should check with their insurance agents to determine whether they are for decreased insurance rates.