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ISO-1: An impressive ranking, but not the whole story in measuring a fire department

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By Reggie Connell, Managing Editor

Editor's Note - The Apopka Fire Department and its budget played a key role in the FY2021-22 budget workshops, and again during the vote to approve the budget/millage rate. How important is an ISO rating? Should the AFD have two, three, or four firefighters on a fire engine or a tower truck?

All of these questions went largely unresolved by the end of the budget process. However, The Apopka Voice thought the discussion was important enough to look into all of these questions. Today, we begin with ISO.

How important is an ISO Rating?

Since 2004, the Apopka Fire Department has held an ISO-1 rating. According to the website ISOmitigation.com, the AFD is among only 43 departments out of 500 Florida agencies with an ISO-1 ranking, which puts it in the top 0.86%.

ISO-1 is an impressive rating, but what does ISO measure? How often do they rate a fire department? And what is not part of the ISO survey?

What does ISO measure?

According to the website powerdms.com, an ISO rating is meant to score a fire department’s ability to protect the community.

ISO stands for Insurance Services Office (ISO), which is an independent, for-profit organization. The ISO scores fire departments on how they are doing against its organization’s standards to determine property insurance costs.

The ISO fire rating determines how well a department can protect the community and its homes. Insurance companies use the score to help set home insurance rates, as a home that is less likely to be severely damaged or destroyed by fire is cheaper to insure.

After analyzing the data it collects, the ISO assigns a Public Protection Classification (PPC) on a scale from 1 to 10. The higher the ISO fire protection class (with Class 1 being the best), the “better” the department – at least in the eyes of the ISO.

How is the ISO score determined and how often do they survey a department?

To determine ISO rating for fire departments, the Insurance Services Office conducts a field survey and scores the department across four key areas using the Fire Suppression Rating Schedule (FSRS).

  • Emergency Communication Systems: 10 points
  • Fire Departments: covering personnel, capabilities, training, equipment, response models, etc: 50 points
  • Water Supply: 40 points
  • Community Risk Reduction: extra credit of up to 5.5 points

It uses a 100-point scale and the more points scored, the better the ISO fire rating. A score between 90-100 earns the community a Class 1 Rating.

However, the ISO only conducts a field survey approximately every 5-10 years. In the AFD's case, it was 2015 when they last conducted a survey.

According to AFD Fire Chief Sean Wylam, the AFD's last rating was in 2015 when it received a 100.47 score.

Here are the AFD's scores on the 2015 survey:

  • Emergency Communication Systems: 9.37 out of 10
  • Fire Department: 46.95 out of 50
  • Water Supply: 40 out of 40
  • Community Risk Reduction: 5.37 out of 5.5

This totals 101.69, but according to Wylam, there is also a divergence assessed as part of the equation of -1.22. So the score of 101.69 – 1.22 equals 100.47.

Since its last ISO rating, the AFD has opened Stations 5 and 6, and added 27 firefighters to its ranks, going from 75 firefighters on a shift in 2017 to 102 current firefighters. And Wylam is confident the AFD would survey at ISO-1 again if tested.

"In 2015 we were one of the first fire departments to be evaluated under the updated schedule," he said. "ISO survey or not, we are always improving to keep our department the best it can possibly be for our citizens. During our last rating in 2015, we had an average of 22 firefighters per shift. We now have an average of 29 firefighters per shift. We also have added additional personnel to the deployment model for fires through an additional squad and ambulance. This means we have more firefighters responding to fires today than we did in 2017, which was after our 2015 survey. With these improvements as well as maintaining all other efforts I am confident we will continue our tradition as a Class 1 department."

What ISO doesn't include in its survey

An ISO rating is an excellent scale to measure a fire department, and an ISO-1 rating means a department is doing a lot of things right.

However, as powerdms.com states in its December 2020 article about ISO ratings for fire departments:

"Although the ISO rating is meant to score a fire department’s ability to protect the community, it is not a perfect measure of a fire department, as many factors come into play. While it is an honor to receive a high rating, in reality, there isn’t anything concrete on the line."

Alex Klepper believes there are other elements not included in an ISO rating that are also important to an effective fire department.

"The addition of stations to higher density areas and the implementation of a third member to an engine creates that immediate climb in safety, for the citizens and firefighting force," said Klepper, an Engineer/Paramedic for the AFD, but speaking as the AFD Union's (IAFF Local 5293) Public Information Officer. "The insurance companies are looking at the bottom line in cost, and we (the fire department) are looking at meeting each emergency with a professionally structured force. Essentially value vs. cost."

According to Klepper, ISO does not take into account emergency medical response or the level of training required to provide a full advanced life support complement, which is a major part of the AFD and a major drain or utilization of resources strictly for fire scenes.

"It is the seconds and minutes that count in our industry," he said. "The time difference between breathing and resting eternally. We have always upheld a high standard in Apopka and view our effective response force for medical care as strict as for fires. All emergencies require the same strength in service, commitment, and safety."

Klepper referenced two organizations - the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) that look directly at the life safety of both the citizen and the firefighter and set standards on staffing numbers that should be on a piece of equipment to efficiently function.

"Both organizations show that three people on a fire engine is not an efficient model and strongly recommend four," said Klepper.

Klepper's comments open the door for the next installment: How many firefighters should be on a fire engine and tower truck? Those questions will be analyzed in the next article.

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