ALBUQUERQUE (AP) - Nearly half the state's fire departments miss
or barely meet the minimum insurance industry standard for fire
protection, yet state lawmakers divert funds from the departments
every year, according to officials and industry ratings.
Over the past five years, $97.8 million collected for fire
protection has gone to help pay for general fund budget items like
education, prisons and Medicaid, records from the state Fire
Marshal's Office show.
A tax on property and vehicle insurance premiums has yielded
nearly $193 million, of which less than half - $95.1 million - was
spent on fire departments and fire-related expenses.
Statistics collected by a nationwide company rate more than 200
of the state's fire departments as not equipped to protect homes.
"There is no doubt we have too many rural districts that are
not in healthy condition," says state Insurance Superintendent
Eric Serna, who oversees the New Mexico Fire Marshal's Office.
The Insurance Services Office of Jersey City, N.J., sets a
minimum standard for fire protection. The company's ratings of
nearly 46,000 departments are used by some insurance companies to
set premiums for homeowners coverage.
It rates departments on a scale of 10 to 1, with 1 being the
best fire protection. A rating of 10 means a department doesn't
meet the minimum standard for fire protection. A rating of 9 means
the department just meets the standard.
Water supply, equipment, personnel, and alarm and paging system
are factors that are considered.
Of the 486 fire departments in New Mexico reviewed by the
company, 218, or 45 percent, are rated 10 or 9.
Compared to neighboring Utah and Colorado - who have 12 and 15
percent with poor ratings - New Mexico is in sad shape.
New Mexico's urban fire departments are rated well, but it's
rural areas have trouble. Compounding the issue is that those areas
are surrounded by tinderbox forests.
The departments with a 10 rating include those in Vallecitos in
the Santa Fe National Forest; Chacon, Coyote Creek and Ledoux on
the eastern slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains; and Mogollon
in the Gila National Forest.
The departments with a 9 rating include Timberon and Mayhill in
the Sacramento Mountains; Jemez Springs in the Jemez Mountains;
Chimayo and Cordova/Truchas on the western slopes of the Sangre de
Cristos; and Tierra Amarilla and Brazos Canyon in Rio Arriba
County.
Rep. Max Coll, a Santa Fe Democrat and chairman of the House
Appropriations and Finance Committee, says it's obvious many fire
departments need help, but lawmakers are faced with hard decisions.
"There are other needs in the state. It's tough competition
when you're competing against school needs, health-care needs and
other needs," Coll said.
Rural departments could boost their budgets by asking counties
to impose a gross receipts tax to help finance fire protection, but
only 20 of the state's 33 counties have done so, the Albuquerque
Journal reported.
"There needs to be support at a local level," acting state
Fire Marshal John Standefer says.
Coll agrees, saying the state might want to consider a program
that matches fire-protection money raised by local governments.
While some insurance companies use the ratings of fire
departments by the Insurance Services Office to determine fire risk
in setting premiums for homeowners coverage, others use historical
data on actual fire losses to calculate risk.
The Insurance Services Office said it found that the cost of
fire losses for homeowners policies in communities with poor
departments rated is 65 percent higher than in communities with
good departments.
Exactly how much New Mexicans could save in premiums by
improving fire protection isn't known, but in 1999 the state ranked
24th in coverage cost when compared with other states and the
District of Columbia.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)