What’s at stake is the department’s Insurance Services Office rating, a figure that helps determine how much money people pay for homeowners insurance. Commonly called an ISO rating, the figure ranges between one and 10, with 10 being the worst.
“ISO ratings tell insurance companies how well equipped a fire department is,” said David Glass, owner of Calhoun County Insurance Center Inc. “It helps generate your insurance premium.”
Currently, Jacksonville Fire Department’s ISO rating is a five for residents who live within the city limits, and nine for those who live in remote parts of the fire district. Fire Chief Wade Buckner, who came on board in 2009, is taking steps to improve that rating, but says residents’ bottom lines are not his first concern.
“We can have the good ratings, but if we aren’t doing a good job of preventing the fire, putting the fire out in the first place, the rating is irrelevant,” Buckner said.
He said the rating system evaluates a department based on its training, record keeping, facilities and equipment, among other criteria. Departments that meet the advisory agency’s standards develop effective fire prevention and firefighting strategies, he said.
ISO gave Jacksonville Fire a rating of five regarding its ability to serve residents who live within 5 miles of the department and 1,000 feet of a fire hydrant. Buckner said that rate applies to virtually everyone in the city.
The rating of nine for service to residents who live outside that radius is mainly due to the fact that it takes longer for firefighters to reach those homes.
Jacksonville encompasses 14 square miles, but the fire district is much larger, at 67 square miles, Buckner said.
Glass said the ratings’ effect on the cost of homeowners insurance is marginal when comparing a three rating to a four rating, or a five to a six. But a rating of nine can boost the cost a lot.
“A five is a good rating,” Glass said. “A nine will double the premium.”
He added that the ISO rating is only one consideration companies review when setting insurance premiums. The most important factor, he said, is the customer’s credit rating.
Buckner said the Fire Department has already taken steps to help improve ISO ratings for some residents. On Oct. 1 the department entered a mutual aid agreement with the White Plains Volunteer Fire Department. Under the terms of the agreement both departments will respond each time there is a fire in the eastern part of Jacksonville’s district near White Plains, Buckner said. Because of the agreement, some residents who used to have a nine ISO rating now have a 6, he said.
Jacksonville has already discussed a similar agreement with the Knightens Crossroads Volunteer Department; volunteer departments in Angel and Webster’s Chapel may also be good candidates for mutual aid, he said.
The department has improved in other areas that may help it get better ratings, he said. In June the department began using a new Internet-based records system, and in 2011 it implemented, with help from the Jacksonville Water Works and Sewer Board, a GIS system to help firefighters better locate hydrants.
The department also is on schedule to get a new station when the city completes a planned public safety and municipal court complex project. That building, Buckner said, will be equipped with improved training facilities.
Buckner said he also is trying to reduce the department’s response times by eliminating some of the steps callers must go through to report fires.
Currently, callers who dial 911 report their emergency to a dispatcher there, who confirms the emergency and reports it to a Jacksonville police dispatcher. That dispatcher then simultaneously puts the information into a computer system while alerting the Fire Department by radio.
Buckner said the Police Department does a good job of relaying the information, but he believes sending calls to police is an unnecessary step.
“We can eliminate that one step,” he said.
In one recent instance, it took 911 and the police a minute and 40 seconds to alert the Fire Department to a kitchen fire two blocks from the station. Buckner said that time was good, but that if 911 had notified firefighters directly, that minute and 40 seconds could have been spent in actually getting to the scene of the fire.
Buckner said he’d also like to obtain a grant to buy new equipment to help improve response times, and that the department is working to improve fire prevention.
Improvements in all of those areas can add up to a better ISO rating, he said. He said he would like to compile the objectives into a strategic plan to give the department a road map toward improvements.
“I’d love to see us get a three,” he said. “I think that’s achievable.”
Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.