WAFF Investigates: Fire department rankings - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

WAFF Investigates: Fire department rankings


Some local leaders are calling for more help for the Tennessee Valley's hard-working volunteer fire departments. It might get emergency help out to where it's needed faster, but it could also save every homeowner in the community money by affecting its fire safety rating.

Hazel Green Fire Chief Joe Sullinger is uneasy about the emergency calls that hisdepartment has missed - 325 of them in 2012. 

"It's worrisome that we'renot able to take care of some of those calls," he said.  As one of Madison County's 16 volunteer fire departments, Hazel Green FD's ability to respondcan depend on the availability of its volunteers.

"A large majority ofour calls are Monday through Friday, 8 to 4, when most of ourvolunteers have regular day jobs," Sullinger noted.

The Madison County Fire Marshal's office reported that last year, thecounty's volunteer fire departments missed 1,253 calls, most of them EMT callsfor medical assistance, often a consequence of inadequate resources ormanpower. 

Nearby agencies managed to answer those calls instead, butongoing shortcomings in some of those departments may be leaving an expensiveblack mark for area homes and businesses. 

"Their insurance goes up,"explained Madison County District 1 Commissioner Roger Jones.  "Theirhomeowner's insurance goes up if you don't have a real good ISO rating." 

ISO ratings are compiled by the Insurance Service Office, an organization thatassesses risk for insurance companies. The system grades fire safety fora community and, by extension, the local fire department, on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being theworst.  

Those figures are not affected by missed EMA calls, but theycan be hurt by missed fire calls.   ISO numbers for a home or acommunity are frequently determined by distance from a fire station, the healthand maintenance of local fire hydrants, the capacity of area water lines, alocal fire department's equipment and training, even how well a fire departmentkeeps its records.   

"Not keeping up with the paperwork,"warned Madison County Fire Marshal Bobby Rollins, "if I don't know that you'retraining and you can't prove it to me with the paperwork, how do I know thatyou're training or not?"

A bad ISO rating can be costly, a "major impact" on homeowner's insurancerates, warned Alabama Fire Marshal Edward Paulk. "It could well behundreds of dollars a year," he said, "and it can get into the thousands."

Madison County's best ISO numbers are in the city of Huntsville, which has apaid fire department and achieves a nice low score of 3 in its downtownneighborhoods and those places within five miles of fire stations. 

ButHuntsville also gets the worst rating, a "10," in its more far-flungneighborhoods for areas more than 5 miles from fire stations. Volunteerdepartments like Big Cove, Gurley, and New Market manage a better rating fortheir more distant locations, a "9." 

The comparison between paid and volunteer departments likewise confounds simpleanalyses in the case of Killingsworth Cove's volunteer fire department, whichachieves a "4" for close locations and "9" for distant ones, better than thepaid department in the city of Madison, which gets a "5" and a "9."

Jones is calling for Madison County to approve additional funding for at least one volunteer department inhis district, Hazel Green's, to hire a staff employee to handle infrastructureissues such as truck maintenance, hydrant testing and recordkeeping.  

"Theywould be there to do this paperwork," he said. "There wouldn't be abacklog of paperwork that maybe wouldn't get handled because maybe thevolunteers wouldn't have enough time to get it done. A paid person wouldbe there 8 hours a day.  He would have enough down time, or time that hewouldn't be busy with other things that he could keep the paperwork updated."

County estimates put the cost of such an employee at around $26,000 ayear. Jones called that a pittance compared to the savings homeownerscould see if such extra help brings improved ISO scores and lower insurancerates. 

"It would be one of the best investments you could make," hesaid  "In my opinion, if you could save homeowners, say, a hundred dollarsa year, with the number of people with houses in this area, that would pay for manyemployees if this employee could make the difference in the ISO rating.  Iwould think it would be a very good investment instead of being acost. Certainly it would be a small cost but the effects would beenormous."

County Commission Chairman Dale Strong said the funds are already availablewithin each department, and each county district, if local leaders want to usethem to hire someone.  "There was money carried over in fiscal year 2012 and 2013, and nowthe budget has already been approved for 2014," he said. "The big thing isthere's sufficient money to do that. It could be executed immediately ifthey desired to do it."

Jones disagreed, pointing out that Hazel Green, for example, is trying toimprove its ISO rating by building two new fire stations.

"Well, the money'snot there, really," he said, "because this money, if they buy a piece of landand build a station… I don't see how they're going to doit out of their budget. They have saved their money as best theycould to have some carryover and this money wasn't carried over for anemployee."

Strong said fire protection in the county is a work in progress and he is opento potential changes.

Rollins said county leaders could face intense pressure to spend money toimprove fire services, if only homeowners were more aware of ISO scores andtheir impact on insurance rates.  "In most cases," he said, "they don'tknow.  They just pay their insurance bill." 

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