Upgrading Your ISO Rating: Expanded Service to the Taxpayer

You might not know it, but you’re probably in a rut when it comes to your perspective of how your organization provides service and to whom. It’s fine. It happens to all of us. However, if you’re going to honor your commitment to constant improvement, you’ll need to mix it up every now and then. Try this for a change: Divide your community into three groups—the citizens, the public, and the taxpayers. Of course, most people in your community fit into all three groups, but let’s do this to gain that different perspective.

Now, consider the impact of your organization. If you’re like me, you’ll start your list with the unquestionable priorities: life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation. These priorities contribute to the core of our mission. They are what we do to serve the citizens. As you dig deeper, you’ll begin to consider those things you do in service to the public, like public education campaigns and firehouse tours.

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There is a third group of people that also deserves your attention: the taxpayers. This is the group that asks you why you drive the engine to the grocery store. You ask for (rather, you demand) money from the taxpayers in exchange for your assurance that it is spent wisely, and only on those things necessary to fulfill your commitments to the citizens and the public. What does the taxpayer get for his contribution? Outside of a warm and fuzzy feeling, most taxpayers will never directly benefit from your work, and it’s difficult for them to appreciate the many indirect benefits their taxes have on them and their community. How can you demonstrate tangible value to the taxpayer?

Every four years or so, your department gets an opportunity to document its greatness through an evaluation by the Insurance Services Office (ISO). When the ISO assigns a Public Protection Classification (PPC) to your department, it is telling participating insurance companies how likely it is that your organization will be able to mitigate or even prevent an insurance claim. Now, “opportunity” puts a nice, positive spin on that, but it’s quite a bit of work to pull off the well-prepared response to the ISO that your taxpayers deserve. Here’s an overview of a successful approach to improve your ISO results.

Leadership

It’s likely that your organization will give this matter the same effort it gives any other task. Proud, forward-thinking, hard-charging organizations will assign their best “project manager” to this task well in advance. That person will choose key people in the organization to whom assignments will be delegated. Those people will educate themselves, develop strategies, and go on to do what they often do (win).

Dysfunctional, poorly led, lazy organizations, on the other hand, will assign one person to complete the minimum required forms. That person will undoubtedly procrastinate and will not delegate any part of the preparation to retain some perception of unreplaceable importance. Then he will show up to a half-day meeting with the ISO fire protection analyst. This organization will learn nothing from the effort and will receive a PPC consistent with the preparation effort.

This is the point where we separate those who are just trying to get this distraction behind them and those who are looking to provide service to the taxpayer. First things first: Decide that you’re all in, and move forward accordingly.

The first step for the project manager is to be a leader. Call this person the “project leader” if it makes you feel good, even though the job is mostly “management.” Anyway, I could write an entire book about the situational importance of knowing the “why” behind “what” you’re doing. Don’t write this idea off as millennial foolishness. Deep down, you know it matters. Knowing “why” you’re doing something gives “what” you’re doing more meaning. It attaches a personal importance to a task. I’ll give you an example.

The Orders of Arrival guideline for my department dictates that when we arrive at a residence fire as the first-due truck, we are implicitly assigned to perform a primary search. Often, the homeowner reports that everyone is out of the house. Then, we do the search. In this case, my “what” is the typical primary search and my “why” is to confirm what we were told.

Let’s change the same example from “everyone’s out” to “confirmed entrapment.” My “what” remains the same, primary search. My “why,” however, changes to finding a known person who will likely die without my intervention. My risk tolerance will be dramatically different. In the second example, I am much more emotionally invested not because the task changed but because the reason, importance, risk, reward, and so many other things changed—the “why” changed. If you can get behind this key leadership philosophy, you’ll gain way more than an improved PPC. You’ll get the buy-in from the membership for which you have longed.

The members of your department need something to rally around, and this can be that thing. That’s just one of the reasons I spin this as an opportunity. So, delegate it. Give someone who rides backward a chance to show that he can do more than force a door or open the bail. Your first win in this effort will be when you learn just how talented your members are. I know this to be true because my chief gave me the chance to manage our effort. Now, my department holds a Class One PPC, ranking us among the top 0.6 percent of all fire protection organizations in the United States.

Starting Point

The strongest climbers in the world look to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Early on, even the most incredible climbers recognize the need for a knowledgeable guide to get them there. In your ISO evaluation preparation process, your guide is the Fire Suppression Rating Schedule (FSRS). Your evaluator will provide this document in addition to a host of forms to complete in advance of your formal evaluation meeting.

This is another fork in the road: You can choose to simply complete the forms and attend the meeting. In large part, the forms do not require the use of the FSRS. You can just fill in the blanks. However, your emotions and gut feelings about your people’s capabilities and the equipment’s capacities are not welcome here. It’s not what you know; it’s what you can prove. If you’re working to prove what you really do as a fire protection organization, you’ll focus on the intricacies of the FSRS. The forms you submit will become a matter of wrapping up your work instead of being the focus of your work.

Regardless of whom you designate to manage the project, establish a team effort to give the best showing in your evaluation. The project manager should start by taking whatever time is necessary to become familiar with the FSRS. Believe me, there will be at least one time during the work when the project manager will stare at a particular standard and completely fail to understand it, but this is not the time to worry about that. Now is the time to break chunks off the schedule to give others to review, address, or study. When you delegate these manageable chunks to qualified members, the magic starts to happen. This, by itself, could very well result in a higher PPC. Information and ideas that come from collaboration will begin to squeeze out valuable fractions of points just as if you were wringing a wet rag. Get every drop!

Preparation

The sooner you start, the better off you’ll be. The ISO will use data from the one-year period leading up to the evaluation. Preparing in advance is the key to everything we do, and this project is no different. For the best chance of success, start preparing no later than two years before your anticipated evaluation. That should be about two years after your last evaluation.

Spend the first year preparing for the evaluation period. During this time, learn about the evaluation and reconcile the evaluation criteria found in the FSRS with your operation. You’ll undoubtedly find you can make small changes that will result in significant points toward your overall score.

The second year is the evaluation period itself. During this time, the practices you worked so hard to refine in the first year start scoring points for your department. At the end of the second year, when it’s time for your evaluation, data is collected, reports are generated, and the ISO forms are completed.

Breaking Down the FSRS

As good as you are, only half of your PPC is based on your organization. The FSRS tabulates your PPC based on a maximum score of 100 points.

“Fire Department” (as titled in the FSRS) has direct control over 50 of those points. The points in your bailiwick come from your performance in areas such as equipment, staffing, training, response times, and locations of fire stations and companies.

“Emergency Communications Systems” has direct control over 10 points. At my place, we share a standalone emergency communications center with the other public safety agencies in the area. If you’re like us, be sure to meet with the director early in your effort. Also, bring along representatives from the other departments who share the dispatch center with you, since they will also be impacted by this work in their evaluation someday.

Ask that a specific liaison be appointed by the dispatch center for the project, and share the dispatch portion of the FSRS with the liaison. Ask for reports and documents that prove full compliance with the schedule to be generated. For other dispatching methods of operation, assign this block as appropriate.

“Water Supply” has direct control over a whopping 40 points. Why so much? Keep in mind that the ISO has a very clear mission. It provides its customers (insurance companies) with a clear picture of the risk of loss when an insurer enters into a policy with your taxpayers. What are the odds that you’ll mitigate a fire quickly and to the greatest extent possible? Insurance companies agree with us that quick access to lots of water is helpful in extinguishing fire, but is that water supply dependable and plentiful? Your local water provider will need to be on its game to do well in the evaluation. Its representative will not only need excellent documentation of the system’s capacity and maintenance but will also have to be knowledgeable enough to explain the system in detail to the ISO fire protection analyst at your evaluation meeting.

Just as you did with your communications center or dispatch, establish a knowledgeable and experienced liaison within your local water department. It’ll be a bit of thankless work for this person but will have a tremendous impact (40 percent) on your bottom-line score and your department will get all of the credit when you do well.

“Community Risk Reduction” adds 5.5 points above the 100-point total without changing the grading scale. All of the inspections, investigations, and public education efforts you have made can turn into valuable “bonus points” toward your overall score. As is the case with everything else, documentation is key. If you’re not tracking when the local Boy Scout troop tours the fire station, you’re losing fractions of points that can add up to a real difference in your score. Community Risk Reduction points are earned through the good and important work you do for the public, which will lead to tangible value for the taxpayer as well.

The Evaluation Meeting

All of your preparation will lead to a meeting with an ISO fire protection analyst. This meeting ordinarily takes no less than a half day, depending on the methods of the assigned analyst, the size of your organization, and the preparations you’ve made. The project manager and the chief should attend the entire meeting. Your dispatch director, water department representative, training chief, fire marshal, and public education representative should be prepared to attend the meeting during their respective discussions.

Photos by author

(1) Photos by author.

When the meeting is over, the ISO may ask to hold onto some or all of your supporting documentation for further review. The analyst will make arrangements to return it if necessary, but if you can provide copies during the meeting, everyone will be happier. If you don’t have an answer to a specific question during the meeting, the analyst may be able to give you a day or two to research or to gather documentation. That’ll be up to the analyst. Then, you wait.

The ISO will crunch the data and produce a report of the findings. Expect to wait at least a month or two.

The Results

You will receive a detailed report that explains the scoring process, the scores for the main criteria, and your new PPC. Review the report for accuracy and to learn from its findings.

If you gave it a good effort, you’ll be able to report that you’ve improved your PPC. Your membership will get a boost because everyone likes winning. You’ll enjoy a renewed love affair with your citizens on social media. The public will gain even more confidence in your ability. But, the taxpayers just might be the biggest winners.

Obviously, there are too many variables to say how an improved PPC will financially impact your taxpayers, but I can tell you how it affected mine. Brownsburg Fire Territory’s Class One rating became effective on July 1, 2019. It replaced the former Class Three rating. A few television stations and the print media in the Indianapolis market did nice stories for us, and we did our own social media blitz to advertise the win. We engaged heavily with the taxpayers to encourage them to shop for new rates and to report any savings they experienced. A few told us that there was no change in rates because their insurance company (most notably, State Farm) does not use ISO data. Others, however, reported an average savings of between eight percent and 10 percent.

Now, I’m not rich. So, you’d better believe I’d gladly take that $100! And the taxpayers will, too. I have not received a single complaint about apparatus at the grocery store since the new PPC took effect, but complaints are pretty rare for us.

We are also looking forward to hearing from local businesses soon. As an Indianapolis suburb, we have our share of big box distribution centers, retail and dining establishments, and apartment communities. Businesses like to make a profit, and substantially lower insurance costs make a big difference. Insuring tens of millions of dollars in structures and inventory gets expensive. We hope that the insurance expenses our businesses incur are reduced by more than 10 percent, based on some PPC improvement impact studies elsewhere. The numbers are not in yet.

The most important takeaway is if you have a question during your preparation, reach out to your ISO fire protection analyst, who is as committed as, or maybe more committed than, you are to ensure your department gets the right score. If you have not set a date for a new evaluation with your local ISO Mitigation, go to www.isomitigation.com to get started.


Jim Miller is a firefighter with Brownsburg (IN) Fire Territory, where he has served 15 years. He is a rescue specialist and heavy equipment and rigging specialist with Indiana Task Force One (IN-TF1) and is the owner of Miller Public Safety Consulting, LLC. Miller has an associate degree in public safety.

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