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Homeowners premiums fluctuate with community's fire-fighting ability

One factor that affects your home insurance premium is how well your city copes with fires. For example, if your town has a volunteer fire department, your premiums are likely to be higher than those in a community with a professional department.

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Grading your city

The ISO measures your community's phone system, fire-fighting equipment, and water supply to determine its fire-protection class.

The Insurance Services Office (ISO), a New York-based independent industry advisory organization, rates communities throughout the nation on fire-fighting ability. The ISO uses a Fire Suppression Rating Schedule (FSRS) to grade how well a city deals with the reporting of, response to, and fighting of a fire. The FSRS measures fire protection on a scale from one to 10, where one is the best protection class and 10 is no protection at all. The average protection class in the nation is four.

Ten percent of the FSRS grade is based on how well the city's fire departments receive the news of a fire. The ISO reviews the city's telephone network, the emergency dispatch systems, and even the phone book's emergency-number listings to determine how well the city receives a fire call. Your city's having more operators to handle calls and more phone lines going into a dispatch center will help your fire-protection class.

The largest part of a city's grade is determined by the number of fire stations and the amount of equipment it has. The ISO sets a minimum protection standard of one fire station within five miles of a house. If your town is 10 miles wide by 10 miles long and only has one fire station, your community's class is likely to be an eight or a nine. Your town's protection class is an overall picture that's not based on one specific element of fire-fighting.

Another large chunk of your community's fire-protection grade hinges on the water supply. The ISO says that one fire hydrant within 1,000 feet of a home is the minimum standard of fire protection.

Despite what you may have heard, having a swimming pool in your yard will not not help your fire-protection rating.

Upgrade in class doesn't always mean savings

Many home insurance companies use fire-protection-class ranges to set premiums for homeowners. For example, everyone in classes one to four might have the same general premium.

Having a swimming pool in your yard will not help your fire-protection rating.

Remember that many factors go into setting your home insurance premium, so even a rise or drop in your town's grade may not affect your pocketbook. The weight given to fire protection also varies by state. For example, in Florida, where windstorm perils are frequent, less weight is given to fire-protection ratings in determining premiums.

Even if your community's fire-protection class improves and your premiums decrease, you're probably not going to come out ahead. A city may spend money to upgrade, and people will get better insurance rates, but those insurance savings may be offset by higher property taxes to pay for the upgrades.

Knowing thy grade

You're responsible for knowing your fire-protection class.

The ISO will notify your community — most likely your city council — 30 days before a grading change is announced so citizens will have time to contact their insurance companies if they have questions. Insurance companies are notified 45 days before the ISO's announcement in order to prepare for policyholders' questions and to update their coverage-renewal forms.

Unless your local paper reports on a fire-protection class change, you may have no way of hearing about it. Your insurance company is not responsible for telling you if your fire-protection class has changed. You, as a policyholder, are responsible for knowing the law and your community's fire-fighting ability. Calling your local fire department is probably the best way to find out what your fire-protection class is.

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