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Lee Fire Department preps for ISO audit

Lee County fire fighter John Thompson refills a SCBA bottle at Fire Station/EMS Station 1 in Leesburg Saturday.

Lee County fire fighter John Thompson refills a SCBA bottle at Fire Station/EMS Station 1 in Leesburg Saturday.

LEESBURG -- There is no set-in-stone formula to determine the dollar value in insurance savings that can be attributed to Albany/Dougherty County's "2" Insurance Services Office Public Protection Classification. But Albany Fire Chief James Carswell offers a staggering estimate.

"Insurance is a private business based on individual policies," Carswell said. "So you can't know exactly the costs you're dealing with. But we looked at the property in the city and county and based our figures on $1 million in coverage on the taxable property value.

"Using a formula based on that, we've determined that the value of the Class 2 rating in comparison to non-existence of the fire department (and thus a 10 PPC, the worst ISO designation) is $18 million a year."

Not bad for an organization with an annual $12 million budget.

While 90 percent of Dougherty County's citizens fall under the 2 rating -- which puts the community among the top 1 percent in the nation -- and thus enjoy significantly lower insurance rates, Lee County's top PPC designation is a 6, achieved 12 years ago when the county went through its last ISO audit. Lee Fire Chief James Howell has been informed that the ratings agency will return to the county sometime at the end of April/first of May for an audit typically conducted every 10 years.

"We've committed a fair amount of time the last four or five weeks to making sure our 'I's' are dotted and our 'T's' are crossed," Howell said of his staff's preparation for the ISO audit. "I feel somewhat comfortable that we'll be able to at least maintain our current ISO rating in the county.

"Regardless of how the inspection comes out, though, I can say unequivacably that fire protection in this county is significantly better than it was when ISO did its last inspection. What people have to be aware of is that sometimes what ISO wants is not realistic and not best for fire protection in a specific place. That's what I have to weigh as chief."

The Insurance Services Office came about in the 1950s as a watchdog agency for insurance companies wary of spiraling payouts due to fire damage. Over the years the organization has developed a complex formula that measures a specific area's ability to deliver fire protection. ISO's formula focuses on three general areas: communications, the fire department itself -- including manpower and equipment -- and available water supply.

Fifty percent of an area's rating is based in the fire department, 40 percent on water supply and 10 percent on communications.

When Carswell became chief of the Albany department, he sought from then-City Manager Al Lott permission to bring in a consultant to evaluate the city's preparedness for an ISO audit, which was well past due at the time.

"It had been more than 13 years since our last audit, so we knew it was coming," Carswell said. "The consultant looked over our situation and told us if ISO came in that day, our rating would have dropped from a 3 to a 5. It made sense to try and make improvements."

The AFD spent the next 18 months getting ready for the ISO visit, an effort that paid off with the 2 rating and a significant decrease in insurance premiums for citizens in the city and county.

"You have to look at what's realistic," Carswell said. "We'd initially planned to shoot for a 1 rating, but it came down to what we could actually afford to do. We could spend a lot of money (on additional personnel, etc.) and perhaps 'buy' a 1, but this made the most sense for our situation.

"To show you how tough it is to get the 2 rating, we managed to get it by a few hundredths of a point."

Still, the savings realized by homeowners and businesses in the community have been significant. Deputy AFD Chief Ronald Rowe offers a random listing of six businesses/manufacturers whose premiums dropped significantly when the rating improved from 9 to 2. Names of the businesses were blacked out to protect their identity, but their yearly premium savings dropped by $680, $2,400, $8,000, $11,000 and $300,000.

Howell has no such delusions. He has to cover five fire/EMS stations in the county with a staff that allows him, at best, only two firefighters on duty per station on any given day. ISO standards call for an optimal number of five per truck. The much larger Albany department has four.

"We know some of the areas where we're going to suffer," Howell said. "Manpower and training are two of our main areas of concern. We're fortunate that a lot of our firefighters work with the Albany Fire Department as well, so they get significant training there. But it's difficult to train your staff when the option is to leave their districts unprotected (during training).

"That's another area where we have to weigh what's best for the people of the county. Albany spent millions of dollars to get their 2 rating, but we can't do that here. The department has a $2 million budget, and 86 to 88 percent of that goes to personnel. And while we ask the County Commission for things we think we really need, we know they're limited in what they can do as well."

Lee County Commission Vice Chairman Rick Muggridge, who owns the DWB Insurance Agency, said he's well aware of the restrictions Howell and his crews are working under. And he lauds them for the job they do.

"We have a great fire department; James (Howell), (Assistant Chief) Paul Branch and those guys have been terrific in what they do for the people of the county," Muggridge said. "I'm so impressed with all our county employees, but the dedication of our fire, EMS and law enforcement personnel is so far above the call of duty.

"We are fortunate that James knows what (ISO engineers and auditors) are looking for, and he knows the areas where we're strong and where we're deficient. He's going to do what's best for the county."

Lee Commission Chairman Ed Duffy echoes those sentiments.

"It's been 12 years since our last ISO study, and our fire personnel are currently in the process of preparing for a new study," Duffy said. "Everything the fire department and the county have done since the last ISO evaluation has been accomplished with an emphasis on complying with ISO requirements."

There was talk in 2006 of the Albany Fire Department signing on to provide automatic aid in south Lee County, where most of its population and retail reside. That went nowhere, despite Carswell's insistence that the savings in insurance costs would more than offset any service costs to Lee County.

"We discussed the idea with (then-Lee Administrator) Alan Ours, but about the only response we got back from him was, 'What will it cost us'?" Craswell said. "Our selling point was that the reduced ISO rating in south Lee County would more than make up for any cost to the county.

"The issue never even made it to our commission. Frankly, after our initial meeting, we never heard back from Mr. Ours. We felt this kind of arrangement would have brought more money into Albany and would have provided significant savings and improved the safety of the people in south Lee County. I think there were some political issues there, though."

Howell said he was aware of the discussions.

"Let's just say nothing came of it and leave it at that," he said.

Muggridge, a strong proponent of regional cooperation, said he'd love to sit down with Howell, Carswell and other officials and have a "what-if" conversation about fire coverage possibilities.

"I firmly believe we should do everything we can to help our neighbors, and we certainly should be open to help they can provide us," Muggridge said. "We share so much as it is -- we even share employees -- and it would behoove us to work closer together with the Albany folks.

"Their 2 rating is phenomenal, awe-inspiring. I think it would benefit both our communities to find ways to work together."