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 his department has missed - 325 of them in 2012. 

"It's worrisome that we're not 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 respond can depend on the availability of its volunteers.

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

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

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

"Their insurance goes up," explained Madison County District 1 Commissioner Roger Jones.  "Their homeowner'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 that assesses risk for insurance companies. The system grades fire safety for a community and, by extension, the local fire department, on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the worst.  

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

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

A bad ISO rating can be costly, a "major impact" on homeowner's insurance rates, warned Alabama Fire Marshal Edward Paulk. "It could well be hundreds 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 a paid fire department and achieves a nice low score of 3 in its downtown neighborhoods and those places within five miles of fire stations. 

But Huntsville also gets the worst rating, a "10," in its more far-flung neighborhoods for areas more than 5 miles from fire stations. Volunteer departments like Big Cove, Gurley, and New Market manage a better rating for their more distant locations, a "9." 

The comparison between paid and volunteer departments likewise confounds simple analyses in the case of Killingsworth Cove's volunteer fire department, which achieves a "4" for close locations and "9" for distant ones, better than the paid 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 in his district, Hazel Green's, to hire a staff employee to handle infrastructure issues such as truck maintenance, hydrant testing and record keeping.  

"They would be there to do this paperwork," he said. "There wouldn't be a backlog of paperwork that maybe wouldn't get handled because maybe the volunteers wouldn't have enough time to get it done. A paid person would be there 8 hours a day.  He would have enough down time, or time that he wouldn'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 a year. Jones called that a pittance compared to the savings homeowners could see if such extra help brings improved ISO scores and lower insurance rates. 

"It would be one of the best investments you could make," he said  "In my opinion, if you could save homeowners, say, a hundred dollars a year, with the number of people with houses in this area, that would pay for many employees if this employee could make the difference in the ISO rating.  I would think it would be a very good investment instead of being a cost. Certainly it would be a small cost but the effects would be enormous."

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

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

"Well, the money's not there, really," he said, "because this money, if they buy a piece of land and build a station… I don't see how they're going to do it out of their budget. They have saved their money as best they could to have some carryover and this money wasn't carried over for an employee."

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

Rollins said county leaders could face intense pressure to spend money to improve fire services, if only homeowners were more aware of ISO scores and their impact on insurance rates.  "In most cases," he said, "they don't know.  They just pay their insurance bill." 

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