LEESBURG – COVID-19 safety restrictions put a damper on what would have otherwise been a celebration of excellence during the May 12 Lee County Commission meeting. Under other circumstances, the announcement of the Lee County Insurance Services Offices (ISO) insurance rating dropping from a 5 to 2 would have been celebrated with fanfare instead of being a side note.
An ISO fire rating is the measure of how well a community’s fire department can provide service and is used as the basis for commercial and homeowner insurance rates.
“They measure it every five years; our last rating was in 2014,” Lee County Fire Chief David Forrester said. “My goal since Day 1 since I became chief in 2017 was to work on the ISO ratings. I felt we could do much better.”
The ISO agency accumulates the ratings for fire departments in communities throughout the country. Their scores range from 1 to 10, with the lower score being the best service rating. A score of 1 is excellent; a score of 10 indicates a fire department did not meet minimum requirements.
Four main criteria are used to determine the ISO fire rating score:
♦ 50% is based on the quality of the fire departments training, staffing levels and distances to a fire station;
♦ 40% comes from the availability of a water supply, including the prevalence of fire hydrants and the amount of water available;
♦ 10% is based on the quality of the area’s emergency communications systems (911);
♦ An extra 5.5% comes from community outreach, including fire prevention and safety courses.
Any area that is more than 5 driving miles from the nearest hydrant is automatically rated 10.
“There are over 40,000 fire departments that are rated. Of those departments only 1,729 (4%) achieve a rating of 2 and only 388 (.09 %) achieve a rating of 1,” according to Forrester.
The Lee fire chief credits his personnel, their training and the support of the Lee County Commission with the rapid success of his department.
“The Board of Commissioner’s set the goal of having all of our personnel cross-trained,” he said. “We thought that training would take five to seven years to complete, and we were able to achieve it in two years and everything is flowing smoothly.”
Forrester also credits the training facility the department now has for preparing department personnel to face any challenge.
“The commissioners provided us with the SPLOST funds to make that possible,” he said.
During a discussion of the recent achievements, Allen Kidd, who currently serves as the department’s billing and compliance supervisor, responded to the mention that until recently the county had only a volunteer department.
Kidd has served as a chief in the department, and his service goes all the way back to the days of the all-volunteer force.
“Prior to 1986, we had volunteer departments in Lee County, Leesburg and Smithville,” he said. “In 1986, we restructured and started to pursue a professional department. What we have today was built on the foundation of that volunteer department.”
Kidd recalls the days when the Georgia Forestry Commission provided volunteer departments with tanks and pumps if the departments could provide a rolling chassis. For decades, these converted rigs were the only fire protection available in much of rural Georgia.
The Lee County Fire Department’s rise from an all-volunteer department to one that is ranked in the top 4% of all fire departments in the country in just two decades is indeed a miraculous story.