How Pre-Fire Planning Can Help Improve ISO Ratings for Fire Departments

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If your fire department's pre-fire plans are not all updated, you're not alone. Pre-planning all structures inside a jurisdiction within a short timeframe is undoubtedly the monkey on every fire department's back. Nevertheless, pre-fire planning still should be a top priority because it will only ensure improvement in the department's ability to make the firefighters' workplace safer. Another big benefit of pre-planning, however, is that it can lead to an improved ISO rating for a fire department, which translates into lower insurance coverage rates charged to owners and tenants of both residential and commercial buildings.

While lower insurance rates can be a big benefit of aggressive pre-fire planning, this is not the driving impetus for fire departments to pre-plan. "Firefighters are much more motivated by improving the overall fire protection within their community than in saving some insurance money," said Chief Stan Pratt of the Honesdale, PA, Volunteer Fire Department. "If we get both, so much the better."

The ISO views itself serving a dual role - to provide both the insurance industry and communities across the country a reliable gauge of the fire protection capabilities for handling structural fires. To help make this role a reality, the ISO must work closely with fire departments to show them how they can be the best in their communities for fire suppression and fire safety. But, of course, it's not an easy task. This is partly because not all fire departments were created equal since the resources available to them can be vastly different depending on the department and its municipal or county infrastructure. A big-city fire department, for example, frequently has more funding, resources, personnel and equipment available to it than a small-city department. The extent to which a fire department can achieve a better ISO rating is tied to how well it is prepared to suppress fires and prevent major property loss.

The ISO evaluates three aspects of a fire-suppression delivery system:

  • The fire department itself
    • (50% of the total score).
  • The available water supply
    • (40% of score).
  • The communications center
    • (10% of score).

The actual rating is calculated using a point scale of 1-100. A fire department earning a score of 90 or greater receives a Class 1 ISO rating - the highest achievable; a score of 80-89 gives a Class 2 rating. The very lowest ISO rating - 10 - represents a fire department that does not meet the minimum criteria found in ISO's Fire Suppression Rating Schedule (FSRS). A fire department can be assigned a Class 10 rating if it does not train at least 12 hours per year or responds to structure fires with fewer than four firefighting personnel. These are just two items identified in the minimum FSRS criteria that a fire department must meet to earn an ISO classification better than a Class 10.

More Training Needed

"One of the biggest challenges is water supply," said Dave Dasgupta, an ISO spokesman. "Another important area is training of personnel and maintenance of records. The more complete and better kept the records, the more helpful it is for us to gauge a fire department on this aspect." Generally, most fire departments score well on communications since they either have their own communications center or have easy access to one with whom to contract for service.

According to Dennis Gage, manager of Natural Hazards Mitigation for ISO, "The real weakness seems to be in both personnel and training." Gage noted if a fire department has ample firefighting personnel that this contributes significantly to reducing losses. "To see that these departments aren't scoring extremely well on structure firefighting training, it makes sense," Gage explained. "These departments are focusing on hazmat, homeland security, and EMS training, which are predominant issues," he said, acknowledging that it is expensive to have paid personnel. "Obviously, these departments have to balance this expense with their needs," Gage said.

Water Supply Plays Major Role

This is all familiar territory to Chief Louis LaVecchia of the Milford, CT, Fire Department, which has attained an ISO Class 1 rating. Capturing the ISO Class 1 ranking took Milford's fire department years, plus it was a joint effort between the fire department and the regional water authority.

"Your water system plays a big role in this," LaVecchia said, noting that his town's water authority made some innovative changes to help move the Milford Fire Department from a Class 3 to a Class 1 ISO rating. The change involved improving the fire flow within the city. Inadequate water supply can drag down or freeze a fire department's ISO rating.

The Honesdale, PA, Fire Department can thank its municipal water system in large part for a Class 5 ISO rating. The water system was strong when the fire department formed and continues to improve. Like the Milford department, Honesdale does not have direct control over its water supply, and its communications center is county operated. Although the fire department is making strides with its improvements, it takes time, money and resources. For example, the department began with a chief and deputy chief, and recently added two assistant chiefs.

Thorough Pre-Planning Stressed

Even without the ISO ratings, Honesdale's Pratt said he would push for improvement in his department's ability to provide top fire protection. But Pratt views ISO as a good way to measure his department's progress with improved fire protection. To bolster fire protection, Pratt believes strongly in the pre-planning process, and considers accurate and current pre-plans to be the only way that the Honesdale Fire Department will be truly ready to assure the community of having the best possible fire suppression for his jurisdiction's structures. When he became chief, he admits, not having enough buildings pre-planned was a stumbling block. Today, he said, "We're pre-planning more segments of our community, and we're starting with the commercial areas. From there, we're going into churches, buildings of public assembly, and manufacturing firms." The chief even plans to pre-plan whole neighborhoods whereby square footage for each house is roughly the same, along with two-story, wood-frame construction. "Essentially, a pre-plan for one of these works for all of them," Pratt said.

Don't Fully Pre-Plan All Structures

The ISO definitely has delivered fire departments a nearly improbable challenge: if they wish to score full credit for pre-planning they must pre-plan each commercial, industrial, institutional and other similar type buildings twice a year. Most fire departments would consider it an amazing feat to pre-plan all of their buildings once a year. In reality, updated pre-plans for all structures in most fire departments' communities occur more typically once every three to five years. But given the option of delaying pre-planning for a building along with the threat of massive property loss or damage should a fire break out in the meantime, what can a fire department do? Milford's LaVecchia advised that as firefighters inspect structures, they should gather a little information on each structure every year versus surveying a few of the buildings and getting great detailed information. LaVecchia says it could take up to five years to completely pre-plan one building with this method. However, he feels it beats the alternative.

"If you inspect buildings only once every few years, you won't be able to pick up on the change of buildings and change of ownerships," LaVecchia said. "And, if the business has changed completely, you wouldn't know it." The chief feels that fire departments must know about building layout changes, and that they must realize the most important part of a pre-plan inspection is the walk-through.

Pratt added that every fire department should fortify its pre-planning and overall ISO rating boost by obtaining a copy of its last ISO rating report to see where it performed well and poorly. "Fire departments then need to focus on the areas for improvement that they can directly control," he said.

The flip side to all of this discussion so far is the reality that many fire departments face of increasingly having less time to take on more work when personnel and resources already are stretched to their limits. The ISO has even explored the problem, citing in one of its studies how fire chiefs nationwide believe that residential and commercial growth is threatening the ability of fire departments to protect the communities they serve. The problem is particularly acute in fast-growing areas, the study says, but then it also contends the threat is just as real in communities where fire protection is adequate today. The study's findings only reinforce the need for fire departments to take the ISO inspection process, and particularly pre-fire planning, more seriously than ever before.

If fire departments feel too pressed for time to prepare for an ISO visit, one company, called ISO Slayer (www.ISOSlayer.com), can help them. Operated by David Doudy and David Bug, with more than 50 years of firefighting experience between them, ISO Slayer helps fire departments prepare for an ISO inspection. Fire departments typically complete an ISO questionnaire to initiate an inspection. When they do so, the completed questionnaire generally means that a department is seeking an improved ISO classification. However, the ISO also sends out a questionnaire to all fire departments every 24 to 36 months. If, once the questionnaires are returned, the ISO sees major changes to a fire department, it will contact that department to launch an inspection. "We help determine the aspects of fire protection that will and won't count for ISO," explained Doudy. "This leaves a fire department lacking in experience with an ISO audit," Doudy said. "We offer the benefit of dealing with ISO multiple times every year and offering an extensive knowledge base to all of our clients."

The biggest problem Doudy finds with fire departments seeking an improved ISO rating is simply lack of information they must provide to the ISO. "For instance, a fire department that is extremely well trained, has the proper equipment, but keeps horrible records will score worse with an ISO rating than a fire department that is not well trained, has some losses, but keeps extremely good records," Doudy said.

How successful is ISO Slayer? "We usually see a two- to an eight-point classification drop in ISO ranking for a fire department that uses our service," Doudy said.

Both chiefs LaVecchia and Pratt are staunch proponents of using the latest pre-planning software to help speed up the completion and/or updating of pre-fire plans for their structures. Each department uses The Fire Zone and First Look Pro Version 3 software programs from The CAD Zone Inc. (www.cadzone.com). Fire Zone is designed for creating accurate and clear pre-fire, post-incident and fire-investigation drawings. First Look Pro lets fire personnel organize and locate pre-incident plan diagrams, maps and information, and provides instant access to critical pre-planning information such as building structure and access information, hazardous materials information, occupant contacts, and more.

LaVecchia noted that a benefit of using this software is that firefighters who refer to the electronic pre-plans at a fire scene can later share them with other firefighters who are not there. Pratt is moving forward with plans to put a laptop computer, with GPS, on every fire truck in his community. On the laptops will be The CAD Zone software programs.

Before he learned of the software, Pratt's battle with using paper pre-plans was typical. "The incentive to do pre-plans was wearing out because they were ending up in books and firefighters weren't able to use them effectively when a call came in," he said. "The pre-plans were more of a training tool. Now, having the ability to access these pre-plans instantly by just typing in an address has got everybody very enthusiastic. Firefighters know they're going to be able to access and use these more right off the bat."

The ISO process can be rigorous, and while there is no assurance of an improved ranking for a fire department that submits to an inspection, most classifications improve as a result of a reclassification. In fact, ISO statistics show that the majority of communities improve in classification. For fire departments that had ISO inspections during 2005, 55.4% of these earned improved classifications, 42.4% retained their ISO classification and 2.2% received a lower classification. But an ISO inspection should be viewed primarily as a planning tool to make fire protection as good as it can be. Pre-planning, especially electronic pre-planning, is just a part of the ISO inspection and ultimate ranking a fire department receives, although it is pivotal to ensuring that firefighters have the most current pre-plan information available in a way that is quickly and easily accessible. Meanwhile, an improved ISO ranking shows that your department is able to protect its community, which will mean peace of mind for all involved — firefighters, insurance companies and, most importantly, the community.


BOB GALVIN is a Portland, OR-based freelance writer specializing in pre-incident planning and software programs designed for use by fire departments.

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