Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 8:30 PM on Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Change may mean insurance premiums could increase 2 percent HVFD rating gets worse, says chief



Photo by Michael Armstrong

Homer Volunteer Fire Department Chief Bob Painter discusses the ISO Fire Suppression ratings at a meeting of the Rotary Club of Homer-Kachemk Bay last Thursday.

Following a recent change in the Fire Suppression Rating for the Homer Volunteer Fire Department, fire insurance premiums in Homer could increase slightly, by about 2 percent, according to some insurance agents. The Insurance Services Office in November released its new ranking for HVFD.

HVFD's ISO rating went from a 3-8 to a 5-8.

Rankings are like golf scores — the lower the better, said Fire Chief Bob Painter. HFVD's ISO rating has two parts. One score is for buildings within five miles of the fire hall on Pioneer Avenue and Heath Street and within 1,000 feet of a fire hydrant. The second score is for buildings within five miles of the fire hall but more than 1,000 feet of a hydrant. Only the first score got worse.

Homer Insurance Center ran some scenarios to determine how the new rating might affect homeowners. In one scenario, the annual rate went up $13 on a new premium of $650, said Joan Ellington, co-owner with her husband, Clayton Ellington, of Homer Insurance Center. Insurance companies have to send out a notice of a premium increase if that increase is more than 10 percent.

"So far, they aren't sending out any notices," Ellington said.

Painter spoke last month at the Homer-Kachemak Bay Rotary Club about the new ISO ratings.

ISO agents do inspections every 12-14 years. Homer's last inspection was in 1995, when the rating improved from a 5-8 to a 3-8. An inspection was done in August of 2008. The new ISO rates were published in November.

Mike Waters, vice president of risk decision services for ISO, in Newark, N.J., said field representatives evaluate a department and determine its Public Protection Classification, or PPC, based on these factors:

* The department's equipment, training and operation, which counts for 50 percent of the evaluation;

* Fire alarm response, including dispatching, for 10 percent; and

* Water supplies, for 40 percent.

Painter said HVFD lost points for not having some equipment, like a ladder truck able to raise a ladder to buildings 35 feet or higher. If a city has more than five such buildings, it should have a ladder truck, according to the ISO. Homer has many buildings that high, such as the Land's End Lodges condominiums on the Homer Spit, the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center and South Peninsula Hospital. Homer has put buying a ladder truck on its capital improvement project list, but not been able to get funding, Painter said.

ISO inspectors also dinged HVFD for not having some training equipment, like a cutaway fire hydrant — a hydrant cut in half — to show recruits how hydrants work. Painter said computer graphics work better to show how hydrants work. Waters of ISO said it does accept multimedia training aids.

HVFD also lost points for not having two dispatchers on duty 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Dispatchers with the Homer Police dispatch all emergency calls in the city. Police Chief Mark Robl said HPD has seven full-time dispatchers and would need at least nine to cover all shifts with two dispatchers. HPD lost one dispatcher position in budget cuts this year.

"That's hurting us with the ISO rating," Robl said. "That's one of those outcomes you don't realize."

At the Rotary meeting, member Ron Keffer made the same observation in a question-and-answer period with Painter.

"If we lose paid (dispatcher) positions because we don't pay taxes to support them, we end up paying anyway because of a rise in our insurance. Am I right there?" he asked Painter.

Some citizens have complained about dramatic increases in insurance premiums, Painter said. One woman told him her rates doubled. That could be because of better monitoring of a building's proximity to the fire station and a fire hydrant. Insurance companies look at the street distance from the hydrant, not the distance as the crow flies. Firefighters can't string hoses through yards and over fences, Painter said.

Sometimes people give inaccurate information on applications, and when insurance companies review a policy, note the wrong information, Ellington said. Insurance companies use information from the Kenai Peninsula Borough to determine exact distances from the fire station and hydrants.

Another factor affecting HVFD's ISO rating was its staffing. ISO inspectors look at the size of fire crews responding — even if a call is canceled before a full crew responds. For example, Painter said the hospital has an automatic fire alarm response system. When the alarm goes off, HVFD responds, but often the alarm is false. Dispatchers cancel the call, but the ISO inspector said HVFD should have had a large crew to have been at the scene even if it's known to be a false alarm.

HVFD is trying to build up its department, Painter said. It just graduated a class of 12 new firefighters and 15 new emergency medical technicians. HVFD has more than 30 firefighters, all ranked to do interior attacks. More firefighters are needed, Painter said.

"It's hard to convince people to take three months off of their lives for 16 hours a week," he said. "You don't have to be 18 and male to be a firefighter."

HVFD plans to get more resources such as equipment, Painter said. The city is looking at converting a surplus building at the water treatment plant on Skyline Drive to a fire engine garage.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong.@homernews.com.