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Gainesville maintains good fire protection rating
Classification can help homeowners save on insurance
Firefighter Josh Sheridan of Pendergrass checks a truck Wednesday at Gainesville Fire Station No. 1. The Gainesville Fire Department recently received a fire protection Class 2 rating, close to the best possible rating of one. - photo by SARA GUEVARA
If you live in Gainesville and your house is on fire, you should expect good service.

A measure of fire protection that influences home insurance premiums for Gainesville residents has stayed among the best in the state, city officials learned this week.

Despite growth in demand for services, the level of fire protection provided to homeowners within the city limits of Gainesville is as high as it was 15 years ago, the last time the Insurance Service Offices, better known as ISO, conducted a "public protection classification" assessment.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with one being the best, Gainesville maintained its 2 classification, Gainesville Fire Chief Jon Canada said Wednesday.

"I’m very excited that we maintained the Class 2," Gainesville Fire Chief Jon Canada said. "It takes a collective effort to get this rating."

Gainesville’s fire department underwent the four-day assessment in December. The city’s last ISO assessment was in late 1993, when Gainesville’s classification was improved from three to two, Canada said.

Assessors from ISO look at everything from firefighter training — a minimum of 240 hours annually for city firefighters — to equipment and the number of personnel who respond to calls.

Gainesville’s utilities and emergency communications were also scrutinized as part of the assessment. The water department, with factors like capacity, flow and distribution of fire hydrants, makes up 40 percent of a city’s overall public protection classification score. The local 911 system and its policies and procedures make up another 10 percent of the score. Fire department operations account for half of the score.

A class two fire protection rating places Gainesville in a select group. Of the 45,000 fire departments surveyed nationwide by ISO, only 453 have a class two rating, putting Gainesville in the top 1 percent. There are 14 other class two departments in Georgia.

Macon is the only city in Georgia with a class one rating.

The ISO survey is considered one of the most important performance assessments a fire department can undergo and plays a role in how insurance companies set premiums for residential and commercial buildings.

Richard Laird, the director of Community Mitigation Programs for ISO, said that while insurance companies are solely responsible for determining individual premiums, "in general terms, for insurers using the ISO information, an improved protection class can lead to lower premiums — all other factors remaining equal."

Since the last time ISO assessors visited, Gainesville has grown through annexation, increased population and new construction. During that time, the city built Fire Station No. 4 on Memorial Park Road and added more personnel. The department currently has 83 employees, with 75 front-line firefighters, covering 36 square miles. "Maintaining a class two is an ongoing process," Canada said. "You don’t just get it and then sit on your hands until the next time around. So we’re staying on top of this to make sure we’re progressing to meet the needs of the community."

Canada expects there won’t be a 15-year gap before the next ISO assessment. Officials with the underwriting company have told departments to start looking for re-evaluations every three years.

The much larger Hall County Fire Department, with a coverage area of 394 square miles, has an ISO classification of 4. With more than 300 employees, the county fire department has vastly expanded service in the past 10 years, adding seven new fire stations in that time.

Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell said Wednesday that the department may request an ISO evaluation in the latter part of 2009 after the department’s 16th fire station is completed, with hopes of improving its fire protection classification.

Canada believes improving Gainesville’s ISO classification to a rating of one could be within reach.

"We are a very strong two," he said. "So it makes us want to look and see what we can do to improve that."

Canada said credit should go not only to his department, but also Gainesville’s public utilities, the 911 center, the city manager’s office and the mayor and council.

"Maintaining this class two is a direct reflection of their commitment to providing this level of services to the citizens of Gainesville," he said.

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