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Fire department investment pays dividends

JACKSONVILLE — A fire protection rating of 02 — one short of the best — moves the city into a small group of Oregon firefighting agencies and may lead to a decrease in homeowner’s insurance costs.

Fire Chief Devin Hull announced the new classification, down from a 04, at the City Council meeting Tuesday. The rating was awarded by the Insurance Service Office Inc., which evaluates more than 49,000 fire agencies nationally, following a June visit.

Only 21 other fire agencies in Oregon, all in the Portland metro area, have an 02 rating, Hull told the council. He attributed the rating to improvements in training, staffing levels, the water system and equipment and to the willingness of the council to support upgrades.

Hull had hoped efforts would move the department to a 03 rating, and was surprised to see an even better result.

“I was absolutely taken aback,” said Hull, when he learned of the two grade jump. “I thought, 'Boy that was really something. I can’t believe that.'”

Insurance companies typically offer a 5 to 6 percent reduction in homeowner premiums with such rating changes, Hull told the council. He estimated insurance savings for businesses may be $300 to $400 annually.

Nationally, just 750 fire departments out of 49,010 listed had a 02 rating according to ISO data published this year. Jacksonville’s rating is good for three years.

All aspects of a fire department can earn up to 50 points on a 100 point scale, while the water supply can gain up to 40 points. The supply was rated at a 39.52. Maximum credit for engine companies — the number of firefighters on an engine — and pump capacity, were awarded by ISO.

“The pump capacity is very good for those trucks,” said Hull. They can pump 1,250 gallons of water per minute.

About 10 so-called “village” hydrants have been replaced with larger units. The older hydrants had just two 2.5- inch hookups. Newer units also feature 4-inch hookups.

Emergency communication and how the trucks are dispatched are also criteria considered by ISO.

Improving the rating has been a challenge. When Hull was hired in 2007 he was the only paid firefighter in a Public Safety Department with volunteer firefighters. At one point shortly after his arrival, the city had a 08 rating, but that was corrected within six months, he said.

In 2009 a separate Fire Department was established. The department now has seven paid firefighters plus volunteers.

Some residents have complained about a monthly public safety surcharge used to finance fire services. In 2011 a failed recall effort was mounted against council members who voted to increase the surcharge by $11 just one month after voters had rejected a measure to support the department

Hubert Smith, who led the recall and has been a critic of the department, declined to comment when informed of the latest rating.

Insurance savings will help offset coming surcharge increases. The $26 fee will go up $2 in 2015-16 and again in 2016-17.

While he’s gratified with the outcome, Hull said things can still be made better.

“We are always looking at trying to improve. We are not going to stagnate.”

 Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.