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New rating shows an improved fire department

By NATALIE MARTIN

An improved state rating for Vashon’s firefighting capabilities could mean insurance savings for islanders and provides what officials call a tool to further improve Vashon Island Fire & Rescue’s (VIFR) response abilities.

The Washington Surveying and Rating Bureau (WSRB) recently revised Vashon’s fire protection rating from a six to a five on a scale where a lower rating is stronger. The independent nonprofit’s extensive and complex evaluation system takes into account not only a local fire department’s strengths and response abilities, but other factors such as local water supplies and emergency communications in the area. The rating from the WSRB, which is funded by and reports to insurance providers, does not consider medical emergency response.

Improved ratings are reported to most major providers of homeowner’s insurance and often result reductions in insurance premiums. The rating applies only to homes within 5 miles of a fire station — nearly all houses on Vashon — and within 1,000 feet of a fire hydrant. Homes not in that distance of a fire hydrant could still see savings though, as their applied rating will change from a seven to a six.

“This was a huge thing,” said Assistant Chief George Brown, who worked with the WSRB to helped facilitate the evaluation on Vashon. “By us doing our job efficiently … if we can reduce insurance rates to taxpayers, to me that is huge.”

Vashon’s fire protection rating has not been fully evaluated since the 1980s, Brown said, and the department recently requested that the WSRB update the score. A less extensive evaluation was performed by WSRB in 2004, when Vashon’s score wasn’t changed.

Vashon’s rating improved from six to five this time, Brown said, largely because of changes made in the last few decades and in recent years to strengthen Vashon’s fire department, which has shifted from an all-volunteer agency to one with a mix of paid and volunteer responders.

The island’s water purveyors have also improved their systems, Brown said, and Vashon scored high on emergency communications, which are now coordinated by the off-island dispatch organization Valley Communications Center, often called Valley Comm.

Officials with VIFR say they’re pleased by the new score, but an 18-page report with sections devoted to evaluating VIFR also makes clear where the department could improve. While the agency scored high in areas such as equipment, maintenance and number of officers, it took hits in the staffing and training categories.

Brown said the poor scores in those categories stem from the fact that VIFR is a department with both paid and volunteer responders. Volunteers don’t carry as much weight in WSRB’s scoring system, and many of the volunteers don’t have the same amount of training as career staff and are sometimes trained only to respond to medical emergencies — the bulk of VIFR’s calls — and not fires.

While VIFR has struggled to grow its volunteer force for years, it will continue to put resources in volunteer recruitment and retention and may work to provide more training, Brown said, though volunteer training and service demands are already high.

“We shouldn’t feel alone. The same struggle is happening across the country,” Brown said of the difficulty in finding and keeping volunteers. “You can have all the equipment you want, but you have to have people to staff it and get it there.”

The department is now in the early stages of evaluating the report and what it means for VIFR, Brown said, explaining that he and other district officials would determine where the department could realistically improve its scores within its current funding limitations. Brown said he believes VIFR could improve Vashon’s overall ranking to a four and perhaps even a three.

Fire Chief Hank Lipe said he’s also been anticipating the report and will use it as a starting point to develop a strategic plan for the district, something it doesn’t currently have. He agreed that the district could likely improve its score.

“It’s not a bad number, but we could do better,” Lipe said. “We have the ability to reduce those numbers, so we’re going to look at that and kind of scrub each category and see what we can improve with our existing resources.”

Lipe is also in communication with King County Fire Marshal Services, which in recent years stopped regular inspections of businesses in unincorporated communities due to budget cuts. The change negatively affected fire protection scores for unincorporated towns throughout the county.

“I want to strike up some dialogue with them and with (King County Councilmember) Joe McDermott’s office,” he said.

Likewise, Brown has reached out to Vashon’s numerous local water purveyors, most of which have already agreed to partner with VIFR on efforts that could improve the island’s water supply score, such as more frequent testing of fire hydrants.

Eric Cunningham, a public protection field representative for WSRB who was involved in the evaluation, said the island’s new score of five is typical for a community of Vashon’s size. Large cities with greater resources tend to rank higher in the scoring system, which is used nationwide, while some small towns rank as low as 10. Seattle, for instance, currently has a rating of one, the highest possible score.

Cunningham hesitated to characterize Vashon’s rating as good or bad or to compare it with other small towns, saying every location is unique and has its own set of challenges.

“It would be hard to figure how Vashon is doing compared to other fire districts” he said. “We like to think of it as Vashon is competing with Vashon and leave it at that.”

Cunningham did say he believed Vashon could improve its score, while acknowledging that some factors are out of the fire department’s control.

“There’s no reason why, if you work hard enough, you can’t attain any score,” he said.

Brown said islanders should contact their homeowners’ insurance providers after May 1, when the new score goes into effect, to make sure the rating is applied in their plan and to see if it results in savings.

Statistically, Brown said, communities with better ratings see less monetary loss in commercial and residential fires each year. And although insurance providers take many other factors into account when setting their rates, Brown said he believes homeowners often save $50 to $100 a year with an improved fire protection rating.

Candy McCullough, the vice chair of VIFR’s board and a former VIFR volunteer, said she, too, is glad Vashon’s score improved, though she was disappointed to see some of the areas in which Vashon scored low. She said she believes some of those scores could be addressed by the time another evaluation is done, possibly a few years from now.

“The question is where do we go from here,” she said. “Where do we get the most bang for our buck, and what can we come up with to support those goals?”

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