Monday, November 2, 2009

Outside advice: Don't burn bridges

intact insurance

EVANSVILLE — Fire officials in three cities contacted by the Courier & Press question Evansville's plan to close two hose houses and reallocate assets to keep an Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating intact.

"It is a very contentious decision, especially when that is driven by a third party. It's not a government regulatory agency. It's an insurance industry-based organization," said Holger Durre, assistant fire marshal in Fort Collins, Colo.

"I would never choose to make an impactful thing like that to my fire stations in Aurora merely to gain an ISO rating for one point," said John Lehman, deputy chief of the Aurora, Ill., Fire Department. "It doesn't track that way. There are other things at play."

It starts getting dicey. What do those people in those areas think about that? Would they rather pay a little more on their property insurance and have a three-minute quicker response time?"

Holger Durre, assistant fire marshal in Fort Collins, Colo.

The Fort Collins and Aurora departments were among those Evansville Fire Chief Keith Jarboe compared Evansville's to last week when he announced plans to close Hose Houses 10 and 14 and move personnel and resources to other existing stations.

Jarboe said the move was being made because an ISO review found problems, including some deficiencies in coverage on the city's East Side.

The station reallocations are the most contentious part of a broader plan to keep the ISO rating, which is used to determine certain insurance premiums, from worsening.

Jarboe contends stations surrounding No. 10 and No. 14 will be able to shoulder a heavier load once those hose houses are shut down.

In defending that plan, he has noted Evansville has only one engine that makes more than 1,000 runs a year, while agencies in Indianapolis, Rochester, N.Y., Madison, Wis., Fort Collins, Colo., Shreveport, La., Aurora, Ill., Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Independence, Mo., all have at least several.

The Courier & Press on Thursday attempted to contact all of those fire departments to learn about their experiences with ISO reviews and to their general reactions to Evansville's plan.

Durre at Fort Collins said any decision about closing stations or moving resources for an ISO rating shouldn't be made lightly. He said it should be a process that involves the community and the firefighters and includes a detailed analysis of the costs involved.

"There is a value to ISO," said Durre, whose city roughly equates to Evansville's size and population. "Third party oversight is always good. But it's got to be taken in stride and with a certain measure of reason. Don't let ISO make more significant, impactful decisions than the citizens or the council."

In terms of the cost, local officials have said the ISO rating falling from a level 3 to a level 4 likely would impact commercial premiums more than residential ones, but that the specifics are unknown.

Durre said that's basic information that's absolutely necessary to make an informed decision one way or the other.

"If you're saying we're going to make a decision based on ISO, I think you've got to say we're doing it because it's having 'X' financial impact on our community — not just because three sounds better than four," he said.

There may well be changes that can be made on less significant issues that "in the end don't cause Draconian measures like relocating a fire station or closing it altogether," Durre said.

Deciding to move a fire station based on the insurance rating is a difficult position to be in, Durre said.

"It starts getting dicey," he said. "What do those people in those areas think about that? Would they rather pay a little more on their property insurance and have a three-minute quicker response time?"

The Aurora Fire Department has six engines that make more than 1,000 runs a year, compared to Evansville's one. It has had an ISO rating of 2 since 2006.

Lehman stressed that he is not familiar with the specifics of Evansville's fire protection system or its ISO review and said he was not by any means criticizing the agency.

But speaking generally, he said the difference in premiums between one ISO classification and the next up or down could be "minuscule" to an average resident.

He said many departments are moving away from ISO toward an international accreditation process because it provides a more in-depth, complete analysis.

Mark Puknaitis, the fire chief in Naperville, Ill., is a major proponent of accreditation in addition to ISO reviews. He said ISO focuses only on personnel, equipment, water supply and communications while disregarding important elements of fire service such as EMS, vehicle or machinery extrication, hazardous materials, technical rescue, fire prevention and education and other miscellaneous calls.

There is a danger, then, in making a sweeping change such as a station consolidation based solely on ISO because it isn't all-encompassing, he said.

"It shouldn't be done based just on ISO," Puknaitis said. "There's other impacts on the other risks in Evansville."