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How your fire department's rating affects your home insurance bill

You know that your community’s fire department can prevent your home from burning down, but do you realize that its overall quality and performance can affect the cost of your home insurance?

Fire departments are monitored and rated closely, and for good reason, says Peter Moraga, a spokesperson for the Insurance Information Network of California (IINC). Fire is the No. 1 reason for homeowner policy claims in the country, and in the last decade those claims totaled $120 billion, according to the Insurance Information Institute (III).

Often, losses go beyond direct damage from the fire. Your home may have smoke damage or mold that results from the water used to douse the fire. Insurers also have to pay temporary housing costs for their customers while their homes are being repaired, says Moraga.

fire department ratingsThe Insurance Services Office (ISO) provides a Public Protection Classification (PPC) fire department rating for more than 45,000 fire districts nationwide (but they are not available to the general public).

“They examine considerations like fire department's call times, how long it takes them to reach areas, coverage area size, water pressure, extent of hydrants and fire training," says Moraga.

The ISO evaluation

The PPC helps home insurance companies measure and evaluate major elements of a community's fire suppression system, says Joseph Masington, an assistant vice president in ISO's Risk Decision Services unit.

Masington says 10 percent of the rating reflects the community's emergency communications capabilities, including 911 telephone systems, adequacy of telephone lines, operator supervision and staffing, and dispatching systems. Fifty percent of the rating reflects the quality of the fire department, including adequacy of equipment, sufficiency of staffing, level of training and the geographic distribution of fire companies.

Evaluation of the water supply comprises the remaining 40 percent of the ISO rating. This  looks at the condition and maintenance of hydrants, existence of alternative water sources, and the amount of available water, both in terms of volume and pressure, compared with the amount needed to suppress fires.

The ISO evaluates this information and assigns an advisory number from 1  to 10, Masington says. "Class 1 generally represents exemplary fire protection, and Class 10 indicates that the community's fire suppression program does not meet ISO's minimum criteria," he says.

“ISO provides detailed grading results to the highest-ranking community officials at the conclusion of a PPC grading,” adds Masington. “The resulting advisory PPC classification is also provided to participating insurance carriers.”

Home insurance companies weigh results

For insurance companies, ISO ratings are important in the formulation of insurance quotes, Moraga says. However, their weight can vary from company to company.

At Allstate Insurance, quality of fire protection, including distance to the fire department, is only one factor used when calculating risk for a customer’s property.

Allstate also considers such things as home construction features, age, roof type, whether the home is a primary or secondary residence, the presence of fire extinguishers and smoke detectors, and previous claims, says Allstate spokesperson Stephanie Sheppard.

"In addition, Allstate offers homeowners discount opportunities to lower their rate by taking actions to reduce risks, including fire prevention,” she says. “Taking safety precautions, such as installing smoke detectors and an automatic sprinkler system on each floor, owning fire extinguishers and even knowing what fire-resistant construction material to look for in a new house, [all] can go a long way in protecting your home and saving you money."

Your home insurance premium

The ISO advises you to consult insurance company representatives about how PPC ratings may affect your homeowner insurance premiums. What should you do if you feel your insurer has overstated your home's fire risk? Keep in mind that insurers want happy consumers, says Moraga. If you feel your insurance carrier is overstating your risk, talk to a company supervisor and be specific about where you feel the carrier has gone wrong.

"Be aware the insurance company will have very specific and even scientific information to support their conclusions," he says. "Understand what you're challenging and why. If you've changed a wood shingle roof to a fire-resistant roof, you may have a claim on a lower premium.

"A wood rear deck is the kindling that may light your house on fire,” he adds. “If you've fireproofed that deck, or turned it into a [cement] patio instead of a deck, you may have a claim on a lower premium."

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