City fire rating drops; officials discussing need for firefighters, stations
The city’s rating from the Insurance Service Office has dropped in the most recent audit.
The ISO is an independent company that collects and evaluates information from communities on their structure fire suppression capabilities and most insurance companies use those ratings to set insurance premiums.
The rating is based on emergency communications, the fire department and water supply.
Great Falls Fire Chief Jeremy Jones said during the Aug. 16 commission work session that the city’s rating had dropped, largely due to the fire department’s staffing resources.
The emergency communications and to put the rating in layman’s terms, “we got a straight up solid D,” Jones said.
Some of the major deficiencies under the ISO scoring system are the lack of an aerial truck that is staffed 24/7 and the number of firefighters at GFFR.
Jones said they’re at about a third of the recommended personnel for a city this size and geographical spread.
The department has asked for personnel in recent budget years that have largely not been funded by the commission.
GFFR does have a aerial truck and firefighters can staff it when necessary, but they’re typically on an engine company, so that takes more time to get the aerial truck, nor do they get the specialized training that is normally associated with a dedicated ladder company, Jones said.
Jones said that if they were able to staff a ladder company, he’d place it at the downtown station since that’s where the largest concentration of tall buildings currently exists.
Jones said they haven’t had the luxury of a dedicated ladder truck since the 1980s.
GFFR’s response times based on existing stations and personnel is also a factor in the rating, he said.
Jones told commissioners that “we need to build more fire stations.”
He said that ISO prefers a five-person ladder company and four-person engine companies. Currently, GFFR has three-person engine companies.
Jones told commissioners that if they gave him three more personnel per platoon, he’d add a three-person company per platoon, which equates to 12 firefighters.
“We have a lack of resources, lack of personnel covering different parts of the city,” Jones said.
He said that if the city keeps going on the same path, the ISO rating will continue to decline and that will result in increased insurance premiums for residential and commercial property owners.
ISO audits the city every five years.
“If we don’t address it at all, we can pretty much plan on receiving another regression grade,” Jones said.
If the city were to make some progress quickly, they can request a mid-audit review adjustment to potentially improve their rating, Jones said.
Commissioner Eric Hinnebauch, who works in insurance, said the current drop will probably result in a roughly 10 percent increase, but it will be greater for the commercial property owners.
“The commercial is a lot more sensitive to the number,” Hinnebauch said.
Commissioner Joe McKenney asked if the city needed another fire station.
Jones said, “if you truly want to meet response of what we need today in this community and plan for the very near future growth, we need two.”
Jones said that if the city funded construction of new stations, those projects would take some time for finding the right spot, acquiring land and construction, but that he could put personnel on the street ahead of time and run another company out of existing fire stations until construction was complete.
McKenney asked if they built two new stations, could they close an existing station and spread them differently.
“All of our data says no,” Jones said.
That’s due to the way the city grew and expanded in an odd shape and considering the projected near-term growth.
Commissioner Rick Tryon said, “seems to me that this is a pretty straight forward analysis. We don’t have the money to do what we need to do in the general fund at this time. This is pretty obviously a call for a public safety levy.”
Tryon asked Jones for a cost estimation and Jones said he’d prefer to come back with a good, better, best option framework on what they could add for cost estimates.
Tryon said, “I think we have let this go too long. We are at a place now that we have to do something and it looks like what we’re going to have to do it a public safety levy.”
The county is planning to put a public safety levy on the November ballot and commissioners have set a public hearing for Aug. 19 to vote on sending it to the ballot.
City Manager Greg Doyon said the ISO rating is only one aspect of the impact to GFFR and service to the citizens without more resources. He asked Jones to explain what will happen without changes.
“Eventually you’re going to call for help and no one is going to be able to come,” Jones said. “That’s where we’re headed.”
He said they’re already feeling that crunch even after they ceased responding to minor medical calls last summer.
Doyon said staff would start putting together information for a potential public safety levy to be discussed at a future work session.