Fire insurance rating to be evaluated

In the wake of the deadly Sofa Super Store blaze, Charleston officials defended the city fire department's capability by pointing to its top rating from an independent insurance group.

What remains unclear is whether the Charleston Fire Department will hold on to its much-touted Class 1 ranking following the June 18 fire and a consultants' report that identified nearly 200 areas in need of improvement. The ranking from the Insurance Services Office is used to calculate business and home fire insurance premiums.

ISO officials plan to visit Charleston later this month to resurvey the city and get updated information. That initiative was in the works before nine city firefighters died in the sofa store blaze, agency officials have said.

City officials have not received a firm date on when agency representatives will arrive.

Mark Ruppel, public information officer for the Fire Department, said the department is not worried about the visit or losing its Class 1 ranking. About 50 departments nationwide hold that top rating.

"We are looking forward to them coming and working with them," Ruppel said. "Whatever they ask from us, we will provide to them."

Mike Waters, ISO vice president of risk decision services, has said that one fire, even with tragic results, would not normally affect the ISO ranking assigned to a city. But a re-evaluation of the ranking could be warranted if a fire revealed "systemic deficiencies" within a department, he has said. The ISO ranking system considers fire alarm/communications systems, water supply and staffing.

Janet Wilmoth, editorial director for Fire Chief magazine, said the ISO system is outdated, lacks accountability and has failed to keep pace with technology. Charleston proves that point, she said. The Fire Department holds a top ranking even though the city's own consultants recommended top-to-bottom change in its equipment, tactics and staffing, she said.

"If ISO doesn't make some significant changes to the ranking that is there, then I think that should reflect on ISO," she said.

Jay Lowry, a former Charleston firefighter who writes the Internet blog Firefighter Hourly, said the ISO ranking "is really about equipment and water, not how you do your job."

With that in mind, he predicted that the Charleston peninsula will retain the top rating. But he suspects a re-evaluation could lead to a lower ranking in other areas of the city where equipment, water and staffing have not always kept pace with growth, he said.

Any downgrade would be a blow to the Fire Department's pride. City firetrucks display the Class 1 designation, and firefighters wear an ISO 1 patch on their sleeves. Mayor Joe Riley routinely touts the Class 1 rating at press conferences on the department.

During an interview published in the December issue of Fire Chief, Wilmoth asked ISO's Waters whether it created a false sense of security for departments to incorporate the ISO 1 rating in logos and on apparatus. "We don't encourage that in fire departments," Waters replied.

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