An early morning fire last September claimed two waterfront homes on the island’s west side (Christopher Overdorf Photo).

An early morning fire last September claimed two waterfront homes on the island’s west side (Christopher Overdorf Photo).

Islanders feel effects of poor fire protection rating

Some property owners facing steeper insurance costs.

A decreased rating for Vashon’s firefighting capabilities has meant increased insurance costs for some property owners and additional understanding of the importance of local volunteer firefighters.

Effective last June, the Washington Surveying and Rating Bureau (WSRB) downgraded the fire protection rating of some areas on Vashon and Maury Islands from 5 to 9, with lower scores being better scores. Emergency medical response is not factored into the rating, which affects insurance premiums.

The bureau, a property insurance rating organization, had not evaluated Vashon since 2014. The cause of the downgrade is the number of district volunteers and where they live, according to Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR) Chief Charlie Krimmert, who spoke about the lowered rating last summer and again recently. WSRB considers a fire station staffed if six firefighters live within 5 road miles of the station, he said. VIFR has no firefighters that respond out of the north- or south-end stations and only one who responds from the Dockton Station. Because of this, properties more than 5 miles from those stations, as well as the fire stations on Bank Road and in Burton, are affected. Those areas include the far north and south ends of Vashon and the southern half and eastern edge of Maury Island.

Krimmert said he has fielded a handful of calls about this issue, noting there has been considerable variation in how this downgrade has affected people’s rates.

“We can live next door to one another,” he said, “and your rates might double, and mine might go up 3 bucks.”

A recent Facebook discussion included comments from several people in Dockton who have seen their insurance ratings go up, sometimes doubling.

Susie Kalhorn was among those affected. In a recent phone conversation, she said that she and her husband had a nearly 100 percent increase in their rates. They had been insured with Pemco, and when communication with the company did not produce sufficient results, they looked further and found better rates with Allstate. While they still are facing an increase, it is less than first anticipated.

She also noted that she believes Dockton has a population that trends older than much of the island — possibly affecting the number of volunteers that could come from there. And she expressed some regret about this additional housing cost.

“It makes it more expensive to live in this area,” she said.

The message to shop around came through in the online conversation. Miriam Perez, who owns Island Insurance Center, also participated in that Facebook thread and encouraged people to call if they had seen large increases in their premiums.

In a follow-up conversation, she encouraged people to “do some local shopping” if their rates have gone up more than 30 percent. James Eliasen, an Island Insurance Center agent, noted that he has seen increases ranging from 25 percent to more than 100 percent, an increase, typically, of hundreds of dollars a year. He confirmed that Allstate’s rate increases have not typically been as impactful as some others regarding the fire rating.

He also encouraged people to understand what they are paying for. Some people, who pay their premiums and taxes as part of their mortgage payment, experienced an increase and attributed it simply to higher property taxes, he said.

“Property taxes did go up, but their insurance did too,” he said.

He also encouraged people to review any increases with the current insurance provider, shop around if necessary and not immediately lower their coverage to keep their rates the same.

“Look to see if someone else can offer what you have without reducing coverage,” he said. “Make an informed decision on how to proceed.”

Speaking more broadly, Perez said she recommends that all islanders think seriously about what it means to live on an island with a limited firefighting response. She encourages homeowners to be conscious of “defensible space” around their houses and not have tree branches hanging over a roof or dense brush right up next to a home.

And both Eliasen and Perez said the real solution lies with the community: more people becoming volunteer firefighters, a move Krimmert would welcome.

Vashon Island Fire & Rescue, like departments across the nation, has seen its volunteer ranks dwindle over the years. In addition to the district’s 17 career firefighters and nine part-time paid responders, the district has 34 volunteers, 12 of whom are firefighters.

For this insurance rating concern, firefighters who live within 5 miles of Dockton station are especially needed. Krimmert noted the district would welcome volunteers and would appreciate improvements to the fire insurance rating, but more importantly to bolster its firefighting capabilities.

“The more volunteers we have, the more likely we are to save a property,” he said. “We want more volunteers so we can better serve the community.”

Vashon Island Fire & Rescue now offers two fire academies each year that island volunteers could participate in. Prospective volunteers need to pass physical and psychological tests and complete a fire academy. They are six months long with classes two nights a week and all day Saturday. Students who pass the academy earn a state firefighter certification and as well as certifications in hazardous materials awareness and operation.

Krimmert, who began serving as a volunteer firefighter in high school, noted it is much harder now to serve in that capacity, with a substantial time requirement involved.

“You have to be willing to take on a second job to serve the public,” he said.

The district’s next fire academy that is open to island volunteers will begin in December.

Looking into to the long-term, Krimmert said the insurance rating issue is among the factors district leaders are taking into consideration when they consider the placement of a potential new station — and he added that the district is actively looking for property to better place stations.

For more information on volunteering see vifr.org or call the office at 206-463-2405.

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