Bloomington (IN) Fire Department Receives Rare Recognition

Boris Ladwig

Herald-Times, Bloomington, Ind.

(MCT)

Oct. 19—When emergency calls came into Bloomington Fire Department only a few years ago, alarms rang in all Bloomington fire stations, and firefighters had to consult physical maps hanging on walls to determine which station’s crew should be dispatched.

These days, a computer system determines the nearest station through GPS, and when firefighters get into their vehicles, they can look at their phones to get information about their destination, from square footage to hazardous materials storage and the number and location of bedrooms.

“It gives us an idea of what we’re dealing with before we get there,” said BFD Sgt. Kyle Steward.

Access to better information, coupled with upgrades to communication systems, a greater focus on training and new firefighting equipment, has helped the Bloomington Fire Department achieve a rare recognition: The highest possible rating from the Insurance Services Office (ISO).

BFD Chief Jason Moore said only three other Indiana departments, all near Indianapolis, have attained the top ISO rating of 1/1x. Before 2017, the rating was a 3 out of 10, with 10 meaning fire protection does not meet minimum standards.

Verisk, the Jersey City, New Jersey-based parent company of the ISO, said only 411 of nation’s 39,200 fire departments, about 1%, receive the highest classification. About three quarters have a score between three and seven. A plurality, about 9,000, have a rating of 5.

Moore emphasized the rating came about because of improvements the city has made over several years, including at its dispatch center and water utility. While the higher rating reflects well on the department and the city, the chief said its importance lies in the recognition of the department’s improved capabilities.

Moore said planning for emergencies requires effective communication with dispatchers as well as with owners of industrial and commercial properties. Firefighters used to have just a radio, and when that malfunctioned, it crippled communication. Now, communication goes through the internet, and if that fails, crews have radios and, if those fail, they have backup radios.

Moore said fire officials also talk to business owners about the maximum occupancy of their buildings, take note of fire hazards and the location of stairs and even ask which areas the department needs to protect to assure business continuity after a fire.

A lot of similar information used to be collected over the years and stored in binders, which rarely were updated and used. Crews used to arrive on scenes “semi-blind,” Moore said.

Now all the information is available anytime, anywhere.

“The more information we have, the better decisions we make,” Moore said. “When you know what you’re getting into, it changes your strategy and tactics.”

And good decisions save time: The longer a fire burns, the more damage it causes and the greater the risk to occupants and firefighters.

Faster response times start even before firefighters get into the truck. Lights within the stations illuminate automatically when a call comes in. The system also activates strobe lights to alert firefighters who may be wearing headphones while lifting weights, for example. At night, only red lights come on to not disturb the firefighters’ vision. Pathway lighting makes sure they know where they’re going.

To comply with ISO standards, the department now has to have equipment on scene four minutes after a call comes in. Two engines and an aerial truck have to be on scene within eight minutes. Moore said the importance of arriving on scene quickly has increased in part because of the composition of furniture. When he started his career, most chairs and couches were made from real wood and natural fibers, which burn more slowly and at lower temperatures than many of the petroleum-based products that firefighters encounter in homes today.

Whereas officers previously looked at their watches to note the time they arrived, the process now is automated through cooperation with the dispatch center. The accuracy of that data is critical to after-action analysis, which helps the department determine where and how to improve.

Guessing the arrival times doesn’t help, Moore said.

Steward said the chief’s data-driven approach annoys some of the firefighters, but they generally understand its importance and impact.

A second key component of the department’s improvements has been better equipment. After all, knowing what to expect on site matters little if your fire truck breaks down on the way. Steward said when he joined the Bloomington department 16 years ago, the Greene County department, from which he left, had better equipment. Firefighters at his station at East 12th Street and North Woodlawn Avenue sometimes had to respond to calls without their fire engine because it kept malfunctioning.

Moore said over the last six years, the department has spent more than $11 million, financed primarily through the public safety tax, to upgrade and standardize its entire fleet and every firefighters’ gear. The old equipment, including two aerial trucks, are now used for backup and training.

The department now has the appropriate tools so it can choose the best ones to take care of any problem faster and with greater efficiency than before, Moore said.

It’s part of Moore’s mantra to select “the right tool for the right job.”

“If you don’t have a tool, then you don’t have a good outcome,” he said.

The chief said a 10-year equipment replacement plan he established will help assure the equipment problems that used to plague the department don’t return.

Moore also credited the firefighters for their dedication to new and tougher training regimens. To achieve the highest ISO rating, firefighters have to train a certain number of hours in various subject areas. Drivers have to train for an additional 20 hours, in part because they have to do pressure calculations to prevent damage to the system: Demanding higher pressure than a hydrant can deliver can create a vacuum in the water main that can lead to water main breaks.

Moore said the department used to have essentially no minimum training standards, and if a supervisor felt a firefighter was ready to drive, that firefighter drove.

It took a lot of effort from the firefighters to change that inadequate but ingrained system, the chief said.

Steward said younger firefighters these days have less time to learn from experienced colleagues, because they are leaving the profession with greater frequency than before, a phenomenon that also is plaguing the police department. That means training becomes more important, both to build the novices’ muscle memory but also to help increase their awareness of their surroundings and their confidence to take decisive action — to ventilate a building or secure utilities — without having to be given orders.

Steward said the training also helps firefighters keep up with best practices, which keeps everyone just a little bit safer.

About 40% of the ISO rating comes from the city’s water utility, which has to meet high standards related to fire hydrants, inspection and flow testing as well as the supply system, including tanks, pump stations and pipes.

The hydrants have to be tested every five years, but the City of Bloomington Utilities tests them every four, said Holly McLauchlin, the department’s communications manager. The size, type and installation of the hydrants matters, too. The city has 3,158 fire hydrants, whose painted bonnets indicate their flow capabilities, which range from more than 1,500 gallons per minute (blue) to less than 499 gallons (red.)

The water utility already had received 34.13 out of 40 points in 2017. Information about the latest score was not yet available, but McLauchlin said the utility’s latest score may have gotten a boost from upgrades to hydrants and replacements of water mains.

Moore said the ISO rating is relative to a city’s needs, which means a department in a city such as Indianapolis, with higher, bigger and more complex structures, must show greater capabilities than the Bloomington department to achieve a top rating.

Verisk told The Herald-Times via email that the ISO rating “helps insurance companies measure and evaluate the major elements of a community’s fire suppression capabilities,” and the city of Bloomington said in a news release that the new rating “may result in a decrease of annual insurance premiums.”

Michael Barry, chief communication officer for the Insurance Information Institute, an industry-fronted nonprofit, said many insurers rely on the ISO’s data and analyses to assess a city’s firefighting capacity.

However, he said, insurers look at many other factors, including an area’s likelihood to be hit by natural disasters, the materials used in building construction and even prevailing labor rates to determine how much it would cost to repair any damage.

Moore said while he appreciates the ISO’s recognition, he places greater value on the effects the work over the last few years has had.

In some cases, the improvements the city has made may save costs: If firefighters know where they can obtain a security code to get into a door, they don’t have to break the door. If they use the right amount of water, they minimize fire and water damage.

In other cases, the improvements may save lives.

Moore said that between 2006 and 2016, the city suffered an average of 1.5 fire fatalities per year. In the last four years, that number has been zero.

Boris Ladwig is the city government reporter for The Herald-Times. Contact him at bladwig@heraldt.com.

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