Posted on Tue, Aug. 20, 2002

Fire report may affect insurance
By Archana Pyati
TALLAHASSEE DEMOCRAT STAFF WRITER

A report issued this month by a well-reputed risk assessment company recommends that the city of Tallahassee's Fire Department should have more fire engines and trucks, and hire more staff to keep property insurance premiums down.

The city has one year to come up with a plan to address deficiencies identified in a report issued by the Insurance Services Office, a New Jersey-based company that rates thousands of cities around the country on the adequacy of their fire protection. If the city doesn't come up with a plan and begin to execute it within that time, it will increase insurance rates for homes and businesses covered by most major insurance companies.

The recommendations come at a time when the city still has to resolve how much of a raise to give firefighters over the next three years. Negotiations are currently at a impasse with the union.

Allstate, Farm Bureau, Capital Preferred, and Metlife are a few firms that use the ISO's city fire protection classifications when determining their rates. State Farm does its own assessment of the city's fire protection for its rates.

"Most credible" agency

Since ISO is a private firm, there is no mandate for cities to follow its recommendations. But it is considered "the single most credible actuarial agency in the U.S.," said Scott Johnson, executive vice president of the Florida Association of Insurance Agents, a trade and lobbying group.

ISO last evaluated the city's fire department in 1988, giving it a class 2 rating. That means that a fire engine or truck would only have to travel a few miles to put out a fire in an insured property, said Deputy Fire Chief Dan Spillman. After this year's evaluation, the new recommended rating is class 4/9. A class 4 rating means properties within certain parts of the city are within 1,000 feet of a fire hydrant and less than five miles from a fire station. A class 9 rating means the property is within five miles of a fire station but over 1,000 feet from a hydrant, said Stephen Copeland, a risk manager at Rogers, Atkins, Gunter & Associates Insurance.

Among its recommendations, the ISO says that the city needs 15 more engine companies and six ladder/service companies. Currently, the city has nine engine and five ladder/service companies. Each vehicle must be staffed with three or four firefighters, said Deputy Chief Dan Spillman.

City officials couldn't say exactly what parts of the city need additional fire protection. That is something it will have to determine during its meeting with an ISO representative next month, Spillman said.

Assistant City Manager Tom Coe, who oversees the fire department, is taking the report seriously but questioning some of its conclusions. ISO faults the city for spending too much time responding to medical calls and not enough time fighting structural fires. He said the city's response to medical calls has had "no impact" on its response to fires.

Coe said the city will work with ISO so the city can keep its favorable fire protection rating, which would allow insurance companies to keep their own rates down.

Rating the city

The ISO uses a variety of factors when rating a city's capacity to fight fires: the frequency and location of fire houses, the type and number of engines and trucks, staff training, its response time to fires, and the quality of its dispatch system and its water supply, said company spokesman Dave Dasgupta.

The city has just begun looking at which of ISO's recommendations it will adopt and how much these improvements will cost, said city budget director David Reid. The city has three months to "make a list of changes [it] intends to make" and one year to indicate whether the changes are "well under way," according to a letter from Carl Shaner, a senior mitigation analyst with ISO.

Dasgupta said the one-year deadline isn't meant to be punitive: "Each community is different. We try to be mindful of the needs of the city."

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Contact Archana Pyati at (850) 599-2206 or apyati@taldem.com.