Semiahmoo insurance rating hits rock bottom

Published on Thu, Jan 16, 2003 by Meg Olson

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Semiahmoo insurance rating hits rock bottom

By Meg Olson

North Whatcom Fire and Rescue Services division chief Jim Rutherford and city manager Gary Tomsic delivered a bolt from the blue to an aghast city council Monday night. “The Insurance Services Organization (ISO) rating for portions of our city have increased to 10, which is basically uninsurable,” Tomsic said. “It’s the homes in the Semiahmoo area.”

At the January 13 city council meeting Rutherford explained the rating change went into effect sometime in the past few months but, because of upheaval in his organization, “quite frankly it fell through the cracks.” Only after Lieutenant Ray Davidson started researching a complaint from a distraught homeowner who learned his insurance could not be renewed did Rutherford become aware of the problem. “I don’t know why it happened,” he said. “I honestly haven’t been able to get to the bottom of it.”

The ISO is a national organization that developed a system to grade the fire protection capabilities of more than 45,000 communities in 44 states, information that insurance companies use to determine whether to insure a property and for how much. The rating scale runs from one to ten, with ten being the worst rating. In Washington, state code established the Washington Surveying and Rating Bureau (WSRB), an independent non-profit agency, to determine ISO ratings within the state.

Patrick Conroy with the WSRB said Blaine’s rating was six but, “in order to get the classification of the city any building needs to be within five miles of a recognized fire facility.” Semiahmoo has a fire facility but it has been officially inactive since 2000, when the city and fire district 13 entered into a contract under which the district provided fire protection to the city.

With no volunteer firefighters in the Semiahmoo area, Rutherford said, the station was rarely used. “That’s a million dollar asset up there the developer may have set up to attract people but most of the people out there are retired business folk who have no desire to roll up their sleeves and lug hose,” Rutherford said. “One of the reasons the station was closed was it was costing too much money to heat it and keep it open.” He said the station now housed an inoperative engine and was not included in the emergency services dispatch loop.

Jeff Zechlin with the WSRB said they had given credit for the Semiahmoo fire station when it was first built but the lack of staffing led them to stop including it as a fire protection resource. “It’s been a problem for us almost since its been built,” he said. “There’s no volunteer response out there.” He said as the rating system became more computerized the distance of Semiahmoo homes from an active fire station triggered the ISO 10 rating. “It’s become recognized as a problem now but for us it always has been.”

Rutherford said he had not yet confirmed why the Semiahmoo area had been downgraded. “I haven’t been able to get to the bottom of this,” he said. Rutherford is now the de facto chief of all three fire divisions in NWFRS with the dismissal last week of Lynden division chief and NWFRS deputy chief Bob Hamstra in a flurry of downsizing and cost-cutting by interim administrator David Crossen. With NWFRS chief Mike Campbell on an open-ended leave facing criminal charges, he has also picked up a number of the chief’s duties.

Rutherford said he thought with a few swift changes they could get the Semiahmoo area back toan ISO rating of six. “By the end of the week we will put an engine out there that is equipped, and reactivate that vehicle as a response crew in the dispatch protocol” he said. “The other issue is people.” In the short term, Rutherford said volunteers from other areas could be assigned to respond to the Semiahmoo station. In the future professional staff could potentially be assigned to Semiahmoo or a sleeper program could be established for volunteers.

“It’s certainly possible for that station to get credit but it comes down to people again,” Zechlin said. “If there are enough people responding within an appropriate distance, fine, but if someone lives next to the Birch Bay station and you assign them to Semiahmoo it doesn’t make sense.”

In discussions with the WSRB Rutherford said he would also ask why the inactive station alone was enough for such a drastic ratings downgrade. “A ten doesn’t make any sense,” said Blaine mayor Dieter Schugt. “That’s like being on the top of Mount Baker with no coverage. It seems something is amiss.” Rutherford said he would have a solution to the problem before the council meets again January 27...

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