Fire chief: Huntsville ISO rating to be surveyed this year

Huntsville Assistant Fire Chief Jeremy Shinn (center) trains volunteer firefighters on hose operations at the city’s fire station near the Highway 412 Bypass Saturday morning.

The City of Huntsville’s fire services will be assessed this year by the Insurance Services Office (ISO), which could have an effect on what homeowners pay for insurance.

Huntsville currently is rated a Class 4 city. An improvement to a Class 3 city could reduce insurance from between 10 and 20 percent, Fire Chief Kevin Shinn told the city council last week.

If the city drops to a Class 5, however, insurance rates could increase by the same amount.

According to an Arkansas Performance Audit in 2003, “the  ISO  Rating  serves  as  the  primary  incentive  for  fire  departments to improve in order to reduce fire insurance rates.”

Huntsville was last surveyed in 2007. Changes in ISO went into effect in 2012.

“We’re one of the very last [cities] that hasn’t been re-rated, so we’re on their check-off list. They’re coming up,” Shinn said last week.

ISO ratings are used by insurance companies to determine home insurance rates. The lower the ISO rating, the lower the cost of insurance.

The 2019 rating is based on a 100-point system, with 105 points possible, Shinn told the council last week. In 2007, Huntsville received a score of 61.70 out of 100.

According to the 2003 audit, most rural volunteer fire departments in Madison County were rated as Class 9, including Clifty, Witter-Aurora, Marble, Hindsville, Bohannan Mountain, St. Paul, Forum/Alabam and Japton. Pettigrew/Boston was a Class 10.

In 2016, the Wesley Volunteer Fire Department lowered the town’s ISO rating from a 9 to a 7.

Keith Edmonds was recently hired as Madison County EMS Director and fire services coordinator. During Monday’ Quorum Court meeting, Edmonds said rural fire departments can lower their ISO ratings.

“The biggest thing is to start gathering information,” he said. “I need them to gather the number of personnel they have, how many are responding to those fire calls and just ensuring they have good equipment and their response times are good.

“We’ve got to build all the information now. It doesn’t take a lot to lower those numbers ... it’s just a matter of us working together across the county and we’re going to start doing that now. Three years from now, we’ll be ready to attack this thing.”

In 2007, the Huntsville Fire Department was judged on engine companies, reserve pumpers, pumper capacity, ladder service, reserve ladder and service truck, distribution, company personnel and training.

Shinn said there’s a chance the city could move to Class 3, but it will be difficult.

“I think we’ve got a shot. It depends on a variety of things,” he said. “It is not in any way a simple process.

“My [goal] right now is to keep us at a Class 4. We were that close last time. We just got over the hump.”

A Class 4 rating means a city is in the top 20 percent nationwide, while a Class 3 rating is in the top 10 percent.

Huntsville has made positive strides since 2007 in its fire protection, but Shinn said he is still worried about the ISO rating. The local fire department could lose points on its lack of a ladder truck and its response times to fires, which often occur out in the county but within the Huntsville Fire District.

“Right now it’s a toss-up. As I look at some of these things, we’re going to sit down and look at the things we’ve done, the improvements we have made and the categories we have and see how it offsets these other things,” Shinn said.

A city is judged on its fire department (50 points possible), water department (40), communication system (10) and community risk reduction (5).

An overall score of 90 or above rates a city Class 1. A score of 80-89 means a Class 2 city, while a 70-79 is for Class 3 cities. To be a Class 4, a city must score between 60-69.

Shinn said there have been improvements since 2007, which should help increase Huntsville’s overall score.

“We built that live fire facility for us out at what used to be the city dump area,” he said. The facility is located on Madison 8735. “That’s big points. We built that three-story training tower out at Station 2 [on Harmony Road.] Those are big points. We have made some significant changes in how we do record keeping and how we do some of the training. Those things have been improvements.”

Shinn’s concerns include the assessment of ladder trucks. In 2007, the town got 4.25 out of 5. The fire department had enough ladders for the five biggest structures in town. Now, with bigger buildings in town – including churches and the planned activity center for the Huntsville School District – the fire department may lose points. The department does not have a ladder truck.

“We now have bigger buildings than we did in 2007. We’re going to lose some points on that level of it,” he said.

A Deployment Analysis is new since 2007, worth 10 points. Also new is Community Risk Reduction, worth 5.5 points. Shinn called it “extra credit” that’s available for departments.

Deployment Analysis will measure the length of time it takes for a fire department to respond to a call.

“If we’re in town, we’re in pretty good shape,” Shinn said. “Right now, our average response time is just over four minutes. For a volunteer department, a 3 o’clock fire, that’s pretty impressive.”

Some spots in the fire district, however, take 15-20 minutes to respond. He gave an example of having to go on Highway 23 south to Highway 74 East, then north on another road. That drive is within the Huntsville Fire District.

ISO wants 5.5 minutes for a first unit to respond, and 9.5 minutes for the second unit.

“None of this is all or nothing,” Shinn said. “You do get partial points for what you’re doing. We will gain some points for some things, and we’ll lose some from others.”

The department should gain points due to improved record keeping system, as well.

“It is a complicated beast, trying to figure out all this stuff. We’re working on it and trying to get ready,” he said. “On the company personnel part of it, how we train and how we document that kind of stuff, we’re going to be good. Our numbers are an issue on calls.”

Regional ISO sent a pre-survey packet for the fire and water departments. Shinn and Larry Garrett with the Huntsville Water Utilities are filling it out before sitting down with ISO personnel. Shinn said he will begin phone conversations this week with the Regional ISO representative, then later this year ISO will visit Huntsville for its assessment.

Shinn said he was assured by ISO during the recent Arkansas Fire Convention in Hot Springs that Huntsville can at least hold on to its Class 4 rating.

“We’re just in the beginning stage of this stuff. We will go through all of the packet of information stuff, then will give it to him,” Shinn said. “A lot of things happen before they come on site. There is no set time frame. If we get a score that we’re not happy with, we can call them back and say, ‘could you regrade us?’”

Shinn said the fire and water departments both “have made some significant improvements” since 2007.

“When we passed the bond [in 2013], that allowed us to build Station 2, it also let them expand our water and improve their water delivery. It made the water delivery better and expanded where we have water,” he said.

In Arkansas, there are 168 fire departments which are rated a Class 4, with 66 being Class 3 departments. There are 228 departments registered as Class 5, with 419 – the highest number – as Class 9.

Small, volunteer fire departments in rural areas are judged the same way as those in larger cities, where firefighters are paid and budgets are larger.

Garrett said the Huntsville Water Utilities has made improvements since 2007, which should help gain points in the next ISO survey. Garrett said the city has added several new lines, including “the lines out on the [U.S. 412] bypass that have all been looped back into the present system, which has increased water flow, water pressure.”

“We got a new line out Highway 74, which is a 6-inch line, that goes out to the base of the hill before it goes up to the [Oak Ridge] golf course,” Garrett said. “It’s got fire hydrants on it – fire hydrants for the two churches that are out there – making both of them accessible.”

Garrett said Hillside Drive “never had any fire protection, [but] it does now.”

After the city passed the 2013 bond for multiple projects, the water department installed an 8-inch line and multiple fire hydrants along the U.S. 412 bypass.

“It’s got good flows on it. It ought to be set up pretty good,” Garrett said.

Garrett said he thinks the improvements around the city should help the ISO score.

“I would think that it would [raise scores] because we got fire protection on some large buildings that didn’t have fire protection before,” he said, referencing the Assembly of God and Seventh-day Adventist churches off Highway 74 and Hillside Drive. “None of those had any fire protection before.

“Out there along the bypass – all of those buildings, Walmart, McDonald’s, Cleavers, the banks, everything that’s out there – that’s all got fire hydrants on it,” he said.

Garrett said his department worked hard to put in lines along the bypass to help the fire department.

“When we put that in out there, we put in fire hydrants every 1,000 feet so they only have to travel 500 feet to get to a fire hydrant if it’s directly in the middle,” he said. “We tried to do it right to where we hope it’s going to help them.”

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