Columbia’s fire score under review

The fire protection rating can affect the city’s insurance rates.
Friday, November 26, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:10 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Columbia’s fire-protection rating — which helps determine insurance rates and can attract businesses looking to relocate — is under review by the Insurance Services Office, now called ISO.

On a standardized 10-point scale, with 1 being nearly ideal fire protection, Columbia rated a 3 when last reviewed 15 years ago. That rating earned the city a spot in the top 4 percent nationwide.

ISO inspectors hope to have the review complete in about five months.

Although Columbia must wait for its new rating to be released, it’s not too early to examine how the city’s fire protection has changed over the past 15 years and whether those changes will affect Columbia’s rating.

In Missouri, Columbia’s rating stacks up well against those of other cities. Only one community has a rating of 2, while 42 communities share Columbia’s score of 3.

Nationwide, there are only 43 communities with ratings of 1; the closest to Columbia are the Chicago suburbs of Arlington Heights, Skokie, Lisle-Woodridge and Oak Lawn, Ill.

Assistant Fire Chief Chuck Witt said it’s impossible to forecast Columbia’s new score. “I asked the surveyors that question several times,” Witt said. “And they kept telling me that they can’t say until the entire evaluation is complete.”

Three ISO inspectors spent four days in mid-October in Columbia testing water supply, inspecting fire equipment and collecting documents.

The inspectors tested the water flow at 40 hydrants around Columbia and on the MU campus, Witt said.

When they departed Oct. 15, the inspectors took with them a box of documents detailing the training of each firefighter and the testing of the department’s equipment and hydrants.

On their visit, inspectors found a modernized fire department that was in some ways much different than it was during the 1989 review.

The department’s biggest improvements in the past 15 years include the replacement of its fleet of front-line response vehicles and the downtown fire station and administrative headquarters and the addition of a new fire station.

Many of the department’s new trucks have ladders in addition to carrying water, hoses and a pump. Witt said those trucks are more versatile than the department’s old trucks.

The firehouses built on Orr Street in 1997 and East Nifong Boulevard in 2001 also improved the department’s response times to emergencies, Witt said.

The Orr Street station, which also houses new administrative offices, replaced the department’s Walnut Street facility, which had become cramped, Witt said.

Another big change for the department was the 1994 territorial agreement between Columbia and the Boone County Fire Protection District.

The agreement came about as Columbia sought to annex land around the city limits. Columbia’s expansion, however, meant the city was snatching residents, territory and tax base from the county fire district.

The city agreed to allow the county to continue collecting fire district taxes from people in newly annexed areas and to continue providing their fire service.

Witt said he anticipates that the fire service in Columbia’s annexed areas will not affect the city’s fire-protection score. When the inspectors calculate Columbia’s score, they likely will look only at the department’s primary response area, which excludes annexed areas the fire district covers, he said.

These outer areas, however, might not get the primary benefit of Columbia’s low score — lower insurance rates.

Jim Cunningham of the Columbia Insurance Group said a lower fire-protection rating can keep residential and commercial rates low, but the difference is not substantial when the rating is as good as Columbia’s 3.

Cunningham said residential customers generally get the same insurance rate for any fire protection score between 1 and 6.

For commercial customers, rates vary only 2 percent between fire protection scores of 2 and 3 and between scores of 3 and 4.

“The difference is really not as substantial as one might think,” Cunningham said.

Other factors, such as how close a residence or business is to a fire station, can have a big influence on insurance rates, Cunningham said.

On another level, a good fire protection score can help draw businesses to Columbia.

David Meyer, marketing director for Columbia Regional Economic Development Inc., said companies regularly ask about the city’s fire-protection rating, along with several other factors such as what workers expect to be paid when they consider moving here.

“It’s an important part of their overall consideration because insurance is a direct cost of doing business here,” Meyer said.

He said Columbia’s score can be a trump card over communities with higher ratings.

For Witt, keeping a good fire-protection score is about the fire department helping the city in a different way.

“This is something we can give back to the community,” Witt said.

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