BY JAMES P. FESTA
As firefighters, we often hear references to the ISO or the ISO rating of our fire departments. Many departments have set up ISO committees, in which a small number of members get together and discuss the ISO. But most of us have no clue about what it is we are discussing.
“ISO” stands for the Insurance Services Office, a private corporation that evaluates industries for insurance rating purposes. For the fire service, the ISO uses the Public Protection Classification (PPCTM) program, in which the ISO conducts periodic audits of every fire department in the United States on a constantly rotating basis, usually about every 10 years. Every audit results in a rating from 1 to 10 for the audited department; this is known as the department’s PPC number. A rating of 1 is the best; 10 is the worst. Insurance companies use this rating to determine proper insurance rates for structures in the fire district. So, residents living in a fire district with a rating of 3 should have lower fire insurance rates than residents living in a district with a rating of 8. A fire department with a better rating has a lower risk of having to pay insurance claims.
The PPC program also serves as a guide for fire departments to improve services. A district with a poor rating may be motivated to improve its services, thus benefiting the fire service, its customers, and the insurance industry. This makes sense in theory, as long as it is comprehensible, accurate, and useful.
The brief description of the PPCTM program above does not include the intricacies I do not have room to discuss. For many firefighters, however, the above description may be the first introduction to the PPC program or even to the ISO.
For this article, I conducted an informal small-scale survey of seven fire departments across my county in upstate New York. My sample of firefighters was not selected scientifically—i.e. the firefighters interviewed were only those present for drill on the evening that I visited their department. Nonetheless, I received feedback from more than 90 firefighters, line officers, and chiefs. Only one-fifth considered themselves familiar with the PPC program, and only a third knew their own department’s PPC number. For a program that evaluates the ability of our departments to provide fire protection, this is awfully low.
Even the ISO’s own commissioned survey of 501 fire chiefs nationwide indicated that only 87 percent of fire chiefs were familiar with the PPC program and only 76 percent of fire chiefs knew their department’s PPC number.1 This means that more than one in every 10 fire chiefs is unfamiliar with the program and an even greater proportion are oblivious to their own department’s PPC number. If the chiefs aren’t fully aware of or knowledgeable about the ISO’s rating system, it is unlikely that the firefighters are.
But who cares? Why should firefighters or even chief officers concern themselves with something that is not related to firefighting? After all, a firefighter’s knowledge of the PPC program is not as crucial as his knowledge of fire suppression tactics or vehicle rescue operations. In the long term, however, knowledge of the PPC may be extremely useful for maintaining firefighting effectiveness and providing direction for individual departments. The ISO’s audits provide a roadmap for improving firefighting capabilities. Assuming this roadmap is accurate, following it should lead to building better and more efficient departments.
Almost three-quarters of the surveyed firefighters expressed interest in learning more about the PPC program. So what should be done? Firefighters seem to think that their individual departments and the ISO should educate them on this topic.
As for the ways to improve their knowledge of the PPC program, firefighters indicated that presentations by the ISO would be most effective. Firefighters also responded positively to the idea of having departmental information sessions at meetings or drills. Since it seems unlikely that the ISO will visit individual fire departments for information sessions, the latter option seems to be the better idea. A quick overview of the PPC program would clear the fog surrounding the evaluation system and aid in the collective effort to improve fire department efficiency.
It’s one thing if the department’s ISO committee knows where to improve, but this does little good if the knowledge isn’t shared with the members of the department. Such an overview might only need to be provided once a year to be fully effective and could be relatively brief. We owe it to our members, especially our new firefighters, to make sure they know as much as they can about the fire service; the manner in which fire departments are evaluated is certainly an important aspect of our profession.
At the same time, however, many of the firefighters with whom I spoke question the accuracy and effectiveness of the PPC program. Looking only at that portion of firefighters who considered themselves familiar with the PPC program, more than three-fifths said that the program was generally only somewhat accurate. Less than one-fifth said that it was very accurate. As for the program’s effectiveness in helping them provide fire protection, the numbers were nearly the same, with a little more than half responding that the PPC was somewhat effective and less than one-fifth saying that it was very effective.
When I asked these firefighters to comment about strengths and weaknesses in the PPC program, firefighters gave me important verbal and written feedback. Among the general ideas put forth was that the PPC may be outdated or irrelevant. Among specific weaknesses cited was that there may be too much emphasis on water supply in the grading criteria, which is the reason departments with extensive mutual-aid agreements may end up with a lower rating. Thus, departments might improve their rating by unnecessarily increasing their mutual-aid agreements without making substantive changes in their own operation. Instead, the PPC should focus more on other areas such as training, staffing, and the age of fire apparatus. Respondents also said that the ratings from 3 through 8 do not affect the insurance rate very much. Indeed, it is hard to picture a fire department stressing over whether it has a rating of 6 or 5. It is probable that only the opportunity to significantly improve the existing rating or the poorest ratings (9 and 10) would motivate most departments. Keeping in mind that these are only a handful of the comments among many that could be gathered from a nationwide discussion, it is still important to consider these potential problems in the PPC program. In spite of these difficulties, however, these knowledgeable firefighters responded generally that the level of fire protection in their districts had increased as a result of the PPC program and its audits.
So, where does this leave us? We are left in a rocky position, torn between the value and high aims of an evaluation system on the one hand and the reality that the system currently in effect might be inaccurate or flawed. It is important to keep in mind that my conversations and survey results were not scientific, and my results are not conclusive in themselves. I can only provide ballpark estimates on the attitudes clearly visible in the profession, but the estimates are relevant nonetheless. Perhaps the PPC program, because of its nationwide scope, is akin to a nationwide government program in that it means well but has problems with practical implementation. A revamping of the criteria used in determining PPC ratings may be called for,2 especially in light of the current informed attitudes toward the program.
As firefighters concerned with the quality of our departments, we should pay attention to the ISO’s PPC program and use it to guide us toward improvement. But we should also remember that the program is imperfect and that firefighting may require emphasis in different areas from those stressed in the ISO’s rating system. We should lobby for changes that increase the accuracy and effectiveness of the PPC ratings, but this cannot be done without first increasing firefighter awareness and understanding of the program. We need to better educate ourselves about the evaluation system currently in place, its strengths as well as its weaknesses. The future direction of the fire service may depend on it.
1. Opinion Research Corporation International, study # 33343, pp. 24-25. Conducted January 12-19, 2001. The press release can be viewed online at http:// www.iso.com/press_releases/2001/02_21_01.html.
2. These criteria are known as the ISO’s Fire Suppression Rating Schedule, which can be purchased from the ISO.
JAMES P. FESTA is a five-year veteran of the Jonesville (NY) Fire Department and served three years with the Durham (NH) Call Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science.