Improved fire procedures will benefit Forest Lake, Columbus property owners

In late June, the Forest Lake Fire Department received good news that could result in lower insurance premiums for many Forest Lake and Columbus property owners.

The news, that the department’s Insurance Services Office rating had dropped for homes within a 5-mile radius of either of the department’s two fire stations, also illustrates how the department has made strides on safety, efficiency and training in the last five years.

ISO ratings are placed on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being the best rating – a rating that is very hard to achieve, even for fire departments with full-time paid staff. For many years – at least the last 15, if not longer, by Fire Chief Alan Newman’s count – all properties in Columbus and Forest Lake that are located more than 5 miles away from a fire station have been rated a 10. For those within the 5-mile radius, Forest Lake properties were rated a 5, and Columbus properties were rated a 6. The ISO rating is updated every five years, and when the new evaluation came in this summer, the 5-mile radius properties in Forest Lake had dropped to a 4, and the Columbus properties dropped to a 5.

How it happened

The Insurance Services Office evaluates departments on a variety of factors, including equipment, vehicles, water infrastructure, and many other categories. One big factor is response time, which is why properties outside the 5-mile radius are stuck at 10 and likely will be unless the department builds a third fire station. The ratings are ultimately meant to convey the probability of a department successfully fighting a structure fire (even though properties with high ISO ratings can still potentially be saved).

Newman, who took over the fire chief job about four years ago, said the reason for the drop wasn’t due to one or two tweaks made by the department in the last five years. Instead, he explained, the department undertook an analysis of how the ISO ratings are made to determine how to effectively net “points” that would improve the cities’ scores.

“Then, we worked on those things that were obtainable within our budget and improved on those levels,” he said.

One of the reasons ISO ratings are difficult to change is because the rating only factors in elements that are deemed to affect structure fire readiness in some way. However, firefighters have to be ready for many other types of problems as well, like car crashes, grass fires and water rescues. When the department conducts a water rescue training, it might net a few positives toward a better ISO rating on some ancillary element – perhaps on radio communications – but the main thrust of the training is unrelated to structure fires and thus not factored into the rating.

Many of the improvements the Fire Department made were incremental, like its policy toward driving time from rookie firefighters.

“To get the most points you can in training for drivers, rookie firefighters have to have a certain amount of driving hours in the first year,” Newman said.

To accomplish this, the department wrote a policy requiring all rookies to take a driving course in St. Cloud, but it also started closely monitoring who drove which fire vehicle and how long, taking work the department was already doing and turning it into data for ISO.

The department has also been doing more specific trainings, working with the Stacy Fire Department at a controlled burn facility and attempting to improve its “fast water attack”: a process in which firefighters arrive at a building, evaluate where the source of the fire is and get hoses to it as quickly as possible. This kind of training was already happening, but the department’s new ISO approach meant that it’s been done more regularly and documented more stringently, increasing firefighter efficiency.

“Now you’re setting benchmarks, and you’re testing against that to see if you’re improving,” Newman explained.

One of the more significant factors in the improved ISO ratings are the new Forest Lake Fire Hall, which was completed as part of the Forest Lake City Center at the end of 2014, not long after the department got its last ratings. Another is the department’s new pre-planning initiative in which the department works with large commercial and residential buildings to create digital maps of structures so firefighters know where all the significant points of a building are before they even arrive on the scene.

The new building has given the department more room, more mobility, better training facilities, and a better response time for the Building Department employees who also work as firefighters. The pre-planning improves the department’s ability to start fighting a fire as soon as trucks reach it.

“We use [pre-plans] every time we go to an apartment building on a fire run,” Newman said.

Effects

“It could reduce the insurance premiums that you pay for insurance coverage for your home,” Newman explained of the new ISO ratings. “Both residential and commercial [properties] could be impacted.”

Newman said that most, but not all, insurance policies factor ISO ratings into their premium costs and that insurance companies check the rating periodically. He suggested some self-advocacy on the part of property owners to make sure they’re seeing the benefits of the change – especially commercial property owners, who could see a big decrease if they’re paying a large premium.

“It’s something that the [property] owner should ask their agent. … If you can prevent the incident before it happens, the insurance company doesn’t have to pay out a loss,” he said.

Beyond insurance, however, the improvements have led to an improved fire department. The department’s pre-planning process allows firefighters to know the locations of gas shut-offs, electrical panels, master key storage, stairwells and risk areas like propane tanks in any pre-planned building.

“All those things speed up your ability to complete your mission,” Newman said.

He used the example of what could happen if there was ever a fire at the Forest Lake Walmart. Without pre-planning, he said, firefighters wouldn’t know where the gas shut-off is, potentially costing them valuable, even life-saving, time.

“By the time you drive around that building looking for it, that could be several minutes,” he said.

What’s next?

There are some built-in barriers for a fire department like Forest Lake’s when it comes to achieving a low ISO rating. For one thing, most Forest Lake firefighters are paid on-call rather than full-time. For another, the rural nature of much of the two cities means that water infrastructure can be limited; the lower fire hydrant count in Columbus than in Forest Lake is one reason for that city’s higher ISO rating. There is a cost involved with every “point” earned toward a lower ISO, but Newman believes both cities can go one more step down.

“A 3 is possible, and that’s what our goal for Forest Lake is,” he said, adding that the goal for Columbus is a 4.

Some of that work has already begun. The department is currently replacing some of its older vehicles in both fire stations, and the newer vehicles come with updated equipment – for example, a much more powerful pump in one of the Columbus tender trucks – that could affect the ratings.

As for other improvements, that remains to be seen. One big improvement, if the cities decide it’s within their budgets, would be adding back a job that was removed from the department at the end of 2014.

“We used to have a fire inspector and the fire inspector position was basically eliminated, and so that is something we’ll be looking at,” Newman said.

Newman said a fire inspector is one of multiple aspects of fire safety that are taken for granted because when they work, they aren’t noticed. He compared it to the sprinkler systems at the Forest Lake American Legion, which activated on July 29 to help extinguish a kitchen fire.

With the sprinklers, he said, the fire was a minor incident. Without them, the building could have burned down. It’s the same with a fire inspector; nobody knows how many fires were prevented due to the education and prevention dispensed by the position. These days, almost five years after the job was eliminated, Newman said, it’s not uncommon for firefighters to see potentially dangerous violations that an inspector would have spotted.

“We’ll go into electrical rooms, and they’re full of cardboard boxes or flammable liquids,” he said.

Regardless of what happens with that position, however, Newman said a reduced ISO rating will continue to be a goal of his team.

“It’s very time-consuming and you just kind of chip away at it, and hopefully the next time we get evaluated, we can continue to improve.”

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