A sign outside the City of Houston fire station and all the department’s trucks bear the acronym “ISO 4.”
While many people may have noticed the label, many are are not aware of its meaning – even those it effects most.
The three letters and single number refer to a rating by Insurance Service Offices, Inc. (ISO), a firm based in Jersey City, N.J., that measures fire suppression capabilities of individual communities. ISO ratings are recognized and endorsed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs and International Association of Firefighters, and almost every insurance company in the U.S. uses them to determine the cost of coverage for both commercial and residential property.
Among the criteria considered in rating fire departments are the type and extent of training provided to personnel, number of participants in that training, available firefighters and officers, firefighter response to emergencies and maintenance and testing of equipment.
But the rating system doesn’t stop at a fire company’s doors, as a community’s water supply and dispatch capabilities are also factored in (and actually account for a significant percentage of ISO’s overall grading schedule).
ISO uses a scale of 1-to-10, with lower numbers representing better ratings. A given fire company’s rating is typically reviewed about every 10 years, but departments that could be ready to move up a notch or two can request a review at any time.
City of Houston Fire Chief Don Rust, who has held the position for 30 years, said his department’s “4” rating is unusually low for a community the size of Houston.
“What it boils down to is in ISO’s formula, everything here – our water, dispatch, and fire department equipment and personnel – is pretty much top notch,” Rust said. Nationwide, a ‘6’ rating is most common. In Missouri, there are about 200 class 4 departments.
“But the average population of the communities those class 4s are in is over 5,000,” Rust said. “You see a big change in ratings from 2,000 to 5,000, but we’re up there with the bigger guys.”
Departments like those in Springfield and West Plains have ratings as low as ‘3’ or even ‘2,’ but they have distinct advantages over their smaller counterparts, all related to money.
“They have multiple stations and they have paid firefighters who are there all the time,” assistant chief Jon Cook said, “We have one station with a bunch of volunteers.”
“The way it is now, you almost have to have paid personnel to get a rating that low,” Rust said.
The Houston City FD has been rated three times, once in 1984 and again in 1995 and 2007. Rust said the major factor in the department’s rise from an ISO 6 to ISO 4 rating in 2007 was the acquisition of the state-of-the-art ladder truck the year before.
But Houston’s low rating is also the result of a combination of good department procedures, good water supply and good dispatch capability – and the job being done by the people involved in each segment of that combination.
“It’s not just about the fire department,” Cook said. “It’s really a team effort that involves a lot of people and a lot of details. There are a lot of layers to it.”
“It’s a pretty complex deal,” Rust said.
Most of Texas County’s other departments carry an ISO 9 rating, in part due to the water supply portion of ISO’s grading structure that’s based on how many thousands of gallons can flow through hoses in a two-hour period (hydrants in Houston’s city limits provide lots of help in that area). Cabool and Raymondville are the exceptions, as Cabool has a ‘6’ rating and Raymondville sports a ‘6’ rating within the town’s city limits.
In many cases, Houston’s ISO 4 rating applies to property not only within city limits but also within five “road miles” of the fire station on First Street. Insurance companies often consider proximity to that territory regarding properties beyond those boundaries.
“But there’s no set thing they have to go by,” Rust said. “Even within that five miles, most companies will use the city’s classification, but not all of them do. You really have to check around.”
ISO ratings also take into account “mutual aid” agreements between neighboring fire departments, and Houston has an automatic aid agreement with a couple of its neighbors.
Rust said ISO ratings have a very real effect on a local economy, and a low rating can actually be a financial boost to a local government.
“When we were getting ready to do our last rating, they came down here and we met with them and they explained to the city council that your fire department is one of those things you think is always an expense, but it can make you money,” Rust said. “They said in a town the size of Houston, there should be a savings of $280,000 a year between commercial and residential insurance premiums. They said ‘if that money doesn’t go to an insurance company, a lot of it will stay in Houston.’
“And when a check is written for a premium, you can bet it’s not staying in Houston. It’s probably not even staying in Missouri – it’s just gone.”
“What it amounts to is that the money we save people on insurance gives them more to spend at local stores, and those stores then pay more in local taxes,” Cook said. “So it benefits everyone in the community.”
To learn more about how Insurance Services Office, Inc. determines fire department ratings, log onto http://www.isomitigation.com/.
The City of Houston Fire Department’s roster currently includes 22 firefighters.
Six of those are officers, while six others have completed the required training to earn Firefighter 1 and 2 status. The remaining 10 have completed basic training.
Fire Chief Don Rust said five new members recently went through a basic training class and have expressed interest in continued training.
“But we’re always looking for more,” Rust said.
Assistant chief Jon Cook said that even a brand new department member can go to a fire scene.
“But you can’t just go into a house and fight fire,” Cook said. “You’re more of a go-getter, but the guys in the building need a lot of support, so there’s plenty to do. Once you complete basic, then Don and myself might bust down the front door and go in and put out the main fire, but you can then go in and put out some hot spots, pull ceiling and do some other things.
“Once you get Firefighter 1 and 2, you can do it all.”
Rust said reaching the 1 and 2 level often takes a person serious about the job about a year. He also said more personnel means shorter times on calls.
“When I first started with this, you took the hose, broke out a window and sprayed water in the window,” Rust said. “When you were done, you put the hose back on the truck and brought it back and parked it. Now we might be on a call for two hours and if there’s 12 of us, it can easily take three hours to get everything cleaned up and put away.
“With more manpower, that time can be greatly reduced.”
“We’d be happy to get 10 more people,” Cook said. “I guarantee they’ll keep busy.”
For more information about joining the City of Houston fire Department, call Rust at 417-217-1673.
City of Houston FD roster
Chief – Don Rust
First Asst. Chief – Joey Moore
Second Asst. Chief – Jon Cook
First Captain – Jeremy St. John
Second Captain – A.J. Morton
First Lieutenant – Joe Marsillo
Chris Beckerdite – Firefighter 1 & 2
Bobby Bell – Basic
Dustin Blair – Firefighter 1 & 2
Frank Chapman – Basic
Frank Gayer – Firefighter 1 & 2
Byron Kruse – Basic
Dale Kruse – Firefighter 1 & 2
Pat Jones – Firefighter 1 & 2
Josh Lohrer – Firefighter 1 & 2
C.J. Moore – Basic
Jeremy Werner – Basic