Albany Fire Department personnel, from left, firefighter Darwin Cole Jr., relief AOE Chris Spargo, Deputy Chief Ron Rowe, Capt. Billy Davis, Chief James Carswell, AOE Davy Knight, AOE L.M. Melton and firefighter Paige Parker show off two new pumper trucks purchased for AFD through special-purpose local-option sales tax funds. The state-of-the-art vehicles, which cost around $260,000 each, will be utilized at the department’s stations 1 and 3.
ALBANY, Ga. -- When the Albany Fire Department scored a "2" on its most recent Insurance Services Office audit, the impact on insurance premiums in Albany and Dougherty County was significant -- millions of dollars significant.
Which, naturally, resulted in a follow-up question: Why don't we go for a "1"?
Fire Chief James Carswell has a ready answer.
"On our last audit, the evaluators told us to get 100 percent in the fire services category of the audit, we'd need to build four new fire stations and hire and train 100 new employees," Carswell said. "You have to remember that in addition to public safety, operating this department is a business. And for the business model we have, those figures just don't make sense."
The ISO ratings, which indicate a fire department's fire suppression capability, are used by insurance companies to determine premium costs. The closer to "1" any community gets on a Public Protection Classification scale that tops out at "10," the lower premiums will be in the community served by that department. Thus, Albany's "2" has had a major positive economic impact on local businesses as well as property owners.
"I'll put it this way," Carswell said. "A lady in Dougherty County had had her insurance written based on the wrong rating. When the error was discovered, the rating for her small home went from a '4' or '5' to a '10.' She told me her insurance premiums under the new rating would increase by $300 a month."
It's significant, then, that ISO recently revised some of the standards on which its ratings system is based. The system was implemented in 1971 and, according to Deputy AFD Chief Ron Rowe, has been changed in its 40-plus years only to take into account the usage of new equipment.
Rowe, AFD Support Coordinator Roxanne Garrett and three other department division heads recently returned from a seminar in Winder at which the revised ISO standards were discussed.
"The changes are not necessarily huge for a department like ours because we already meet the majority of the revised standards," Rowe said. "But for some smaller departments around here, it could have a significant impact. The new standards could mean the difference between some departments maintaining or improving their current ISO ratings or having their ratings fall to another level.
"Essentially, it boils down to maintaining all necessary equipment, testing the equipment, training all your employees and then documenting it all. Is it going to be harder? Well, if you consider doing more work to maintain your standards, then I guess you could say it's going to be a little tougher."
One of the changes that will impact all fire departments across the nation that utilize ISO ratings (including all of Georgia's 600 departments) is that standards of measure will now be based on National Fire Protection Association standards to assure uniformity.
Other changes among those implemented in the ISO ratings are an increase in the minimum number of firefighters that must respond to an initial alarm, the number of training hours required for all firefighting personnel, the standards of the building that houses a department's equipment, requirement of a 100-foot aerial (ladder) truck for a community that has five buildings three stories or greater or 32 feet or greater in height and the number of training hours required at a certified training facility.
The updated Public Protection Classification system also allows for five "bonus" points that can help increase overall scores through improved fire inspection, public safety education and arson investigation standards.
"With manpower requirements as they are, we've always known that we would lose points on an audit," Carswell said of the ISO's PPC system that takes into account communications (10 percent of an overall 100 percent score), water supply system (40 percent) and the fire department itself (50 percent). "So what we've done is try to maximize the scores we get in the water and communications areas.
"According to our last audit, our communications would classify as a '1' PPC. Our water system would be a class '1.' Our fire department, because of our manpower situation, would be classified as a '3.' We did well enough in the communications and water areas to bring our overall score to a '2.'"
Where AFD has as many as 12 to 15 first responders on each call, departments that send fewer than four cannot even qualify as a certified department under the new ISO standards. Four firefighters responding amounts to a "10" or, best-case, "9" PPC rating. A minimum of six first responders will be required under the new standards to get an "8" or better score.
Increased training hours for firefighters, officers, drivers and recruits are part of the new ISO standards, as are additional hours of training in hazardous materials and general suppression. Accessible and updated documentation, compiled by Garrett, is also required.
"I will say that documentation is one of the areas we improved on most in our last audit," Carswell said. "Roxanne and our division heads have done an excellent job of keeping our documentation up to date and easily accessible."
Also required under the revised ISO standards is increased training at a live fire training structure that includes a "smoke room," a drill tower and is located on at least two acres of land. AFD has such a facility at its 115 Honeysuckle Drive training location.
"Some citizens may not be able to immediately correlate how upgrading our facilities and our equipment helps them," Carswell said. "But everything we do to maintain our rating has a direct impact on their insurance premiums.
"If our (PPC) rating remains relatively the same so that there is no drastic change in insurance premiums, people tend to forget how significant (the fire department) is to that process. It's when the ratings decline and the premiums go up that they notice. Our goal is for them not to notice us."
Carswell said AFD brass sought to improve the city/county ISO rating in the past by increasing manpower. That, the chief emphasizes, is not feasible today.
"A lot of people don't really understand how this all ties in," he said. "A relatively small percentage of what our fire department actually does is fight fires. We train in water rescue, dealing with structural collapse, vehicle extrication, hazardous materials, EMS response. And that does not increase our ISO rating one bit. But those things are important to the community.
"Firefighting is probably 10 percent of what we do. The other 90 percent allows us to do that 10 percent well. We couldn't be good at the 10 percent if we didn't work hard at the 90 percent."