by Jeremy Nobile | Reporter
Stow — In terms of overall fire protection capabilities, Fire Chief William Kalbaugh said the Stow Fire Department is now ranked in the top 5 percent for all fire districts across the country.
The local fire department has risen from an ISO Class 4 Public Protection Classification to an ISO Class 3, meaning businesses and residents in the Stow fire district are at a lower risk for significant fire damage.
The rise in rankings, which will eventually contribute to a decrease in fire insurance costs for all in the district, has been eight years in the making, said Kalbaugh.
“Overall, this looks at a city’s total capacity to render fire protection services to the businesses and residents of the city,” said Division Chief Lou Ann Metz, one of several fire department administrators who have led an initiative to improve the ISO ranking.
“We went from ISO Class 4 to and ISO Class 3, and were are within striking distance of an ISO Class 2, which is our ultimate goal,” said Metz.
ISO (Insurance Services Office) is an independent agency that ranks the nation’s roughly 48,000 fire districts based on communications and dispatching capabilities, water department factors such as water pressure availability and hydrant placement, and most significantly, an overall fire department assessment that evaluates several factors including personnel levels, records keeping and response times.
Districts are rated on a one-to-10 scale, with one being the absolute best service and 10 being a lack of any fire department at all. EMS services aren’t factored into the rating.
“This is strictly our ability to extinguish fires in our jurisdiction,” said Kalbaugh, noting the achievement is an entire “group effort.”
“There is nothing more comprehensive than this evaluation,” said Metz. “This is the premier assessment of your organization.”
Kalbaugh said the last time the department was ranked was in 1997. The agency usually evaluates fire departments every 10 to 15 years, he said, but the Stow Fire Department was poised for a review at the end of summer.
He noted the department, which is on the fringe of achieving a ISO Class 2 rating that would put it in the top 1 percent of fire districts nationally, will have an opportunity to have another review before insurance rates are positively impacted in February.
“In 1997, we were barely at a [Class] 4. Now, we’ve gone all the way through [Class] 3, and we’re just a few points from a [Class] 2,” said Kalbaugh. “That’s a really big deal. It’s almost impossible to jump two full classifications, and we’re very close to that.”
Raising that rank has been a goal of Kalbaugh’s since he took his position about eight years ago. He noted there are no ISO Class 1 fire districts in Ohio and only about 60 nationally.
Kalbaugh explained how Metz has trained through the Ohio Fire Executive program to carry out efforts improving the way the department keeps records and does business.
Fire Captain Mark Stone had his position created about five years ago and has focused on increasing the amount of firefighter training and improving digital records keeping — both those areas factor into the ISO rating — while decreasing operational costs.
“It feels good to get to this point, but the work has not stopped,” said Stone.
Fire officials are particularly proud with how the ranking leads to a decrease in fire insurance costs — something that Mayor Sara Drew said is a significant tool in terms of economic development.
Drew said the ISO ranking gives the city a “competitive edge” in attracting and keeping business because not only are fire insurance rates lower, but they also get the peace of mind knowing they’re doing business in an area with strong fire protection.
“That’s a great advantage we have when someone is looking to expand or grow a business here because moving to another community may increase their cost of doing business,” Drew explained. “Those are the kind of things we can point to and say, ‘We have a track record for success.”’
“All the credit goes to Chief Kalbaugh and the fire department,” she added. “They have truly been working on this for a long time.”
The ranking reflects the department’s ability to do more with less. Kalbaugh said the Stow department has cut out millions of dollars from its budget over the last eight-year span — a bulk of which has been cut out from overtime pay for its full-time staff of 53 firefighters.
Kalbaugh said the department intends to have another assessment before February when insurance rates will be improved by the new rating. He said he’s confident the department can earn an ISO Class 2 ranking and achieve a top spot among the state’s and nation’s most elite fire departments.
“We expect to be a [Class] 2 very, very shortly,” he said.
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