SURF CITY — Residents and businesses in Surf City are in safe hands with the local fire department, which recently earned a lower Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating, a signal of more efficient response time and improved fire protection. It also could affect the bottom line for homeowners’ insurance.
The Surf City Fire Department — which covers Surf City and the Northeast Pender Fire District, roughly 42 square miles of unincorporated area in the county — was handed a new ISO rating of Class 3. The Office of the State Fire Marshal (OSFM) surveyed the department on Sept. 23 to determine its ranking.
ISO establishes a fire department’s class rating through the Public Protection Classification (PPC) program, which is a measure of a fire department’s efficiency against nationally accepted standards and also used to determine property insurance costs. The rating is based on the distance of properties to the nearest water source and fire station and only evaluated on measures related to reducing property losses from fires.
The lower the fire protection rating, on a scale from 1 to 10, the better for those living in the area. A rating of 5 is the average rating among fire departments in the state.
“Government departments and agencies don’t have a way of really trying to determine how well you’re doing your job, but this gives us some form of measure,” Surf City Fire Department Chief Allen Wilson said.
When the fire department was last inspected in 2013, it received a split rating — Class 5 rating for Surf City and Class 9 rating for the Northeast Pender Fire District, which is roughly 95% residential. A 9 is basically the lowest that a rated fire department can be, with a 10 essentially equaling no fire protection at all.
The poor Class 9 rating (the minimum standard needed to be a fire department) was essentially inherited by the current Surf City Fire Department from the Surf City Volunteer Fire Department that covered the Northeast Pender Fire District at that time. Certain areas of the district do not have fire hydrants, forcing the fire department to haul in water. The Surf City Fire Department merged with the volunteer department, and entered into an agreement with Pender County to contract fire protection for unincorporated areas surrounding Surf City in 2013.
“The most common reason for this rating is water delivery to the area,” Wilson said. “The district is covered with about 50% hydrants and 50% rural water. In the district not all properties were a 9; only the properties that were more than 1,000 feet from a fire hydrant are classified as a 9.”
The OSFM is advocating for future straight rates across the board as opposed to split rates for fire departments serving both hydrant and non-hydrant areas, according to Wilson.
“The fire department is currently in a much better position to provide the same service delivery to the non-hydrant area,” he clarified. “We’ve done a lot in the last five or six years. We’ve added staffing, implemented more mandatory training and really done an overall more efficient job on how we manage and run the fire department.”
The department has added seven full-time personnel since its last rating, as well as a fluctuating number of part-time staffers and volunteers.
In 2013, the Surf City Fire Department responded to 384 emergency calls. So far in 2021, it has responded to 942 calls, a 145% increase, with an average response time of 5 minutes 10 seconds. Response time average from 2013 is not available, according to Wilson, who also said since the departments merged, it would make the data skewed.
“We’re doing more medical calls, more rescues, especially on the beaches, ocean rescues. We still do run fires, but we’re doing more,” Wilson said.
A fire department’s established ranking includes more than just the department itself.
“It’s also our water system in the town and the county, as well as our 911 dispatch center — all three of those components get graded together,” Wilson said.
Community efforts to reduce losses through fire prevention, public safety education and fire investigation also come into play.
OSFM performs random surveys on fire departments, aiming to check in every five to seven years or so, Wilson said.
It can be beneficial for property owners; ISO ratings play a role in decisions insurance companies make, affecting the pricing and underwriting of their policies. Insurance companies establish the premiums they charge to customers, but incorporate the ISO/PPC rating into that decision.
According to OSFM’s website, “insurance companies use PPC information to help establish fair premiums for fire insurance — generally offering lower premiums in communities with better protection.”
In terms of the savings a better ISO rating can bring, that varies based on several factors — such as deductibles, home design and location — making it difficult to determine an actual dollar figure.
For those living in Surf City, the savings may not be much, since the rate is going from a 5 to a 3. For those living in the Northeast Pender Fire District, savings would be greater but still unknown.
“Honestly, we pull in the fire department and it pulls the rating — it’s all done in the background of our underwriting,” said Shannon Boney, Horizons Insurance agent.
Boney said changes are not typically made on policies mid-term, but the ISO rating change will be automatically updated on a homeowner’s insurance policy at renewal.
“Consciously review that declarations page to make sure the change is there,” Boney suggested to homeowners. “If someone notices it didn’t change, they should call and check with their insurance company.”
The Surf City Fire Department has two stations, No. 23 and No. 25, located at 200 Wilmington Ave. in Surf City and 100 Deer Run Rd. in Hampstead, respectively.
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