Ratings change affects only a handful
Several dozen Semiahmoo residents expressed relief following a meeting with city and fire department officials about their ability to insure their homes. �What I�m hearing here is that not as many of us are affected as we thought, there are ways to handle it and you�re working on it. That�s all good news,� said one audience member at the January 23 meeting at the Blaine community center.
The city and North Whatcom Fire and Rescue Services (NWFRS), organized the meeting to discuss recently surfaced information that the insurance rating for many Semiahmoo homes had been downgraded to the lowest possible grade, 10, and calling into question the insurability of those homes. �For insurance companies, it provides the ground rules for how they provide insurance,� said NWFRS division chief Jim, Rutherford.
Last year the Washington Survey and Ratings Bureau (WSRB) updated their database, which insurance companies use to evaluate the risk for properties, to reflect the fact that the Semiahmoo fire station was inactive and emergency calls in the area were being responded by the Birch Bay fire station. According to criteria established by the Insurance Service Organization (ISO) any home further than five miles from an active station is rated as a 10. �Their rating is based on what they describe as credible statistical data,� Rutherford said. �We know we have good fire protection there and we�ve demonstrated that but that is their criteria and they won�t budge.� Rutherford said they had not been notified by the WSRB but had found out about the change through a call from a homeowner.
Rutherford said they had met with WSRB and had clarified which areas specifically were affected and what they needed to do to get those areas back under the city�s fire rating of six. Because the current ISO system uses computer mapping to identify each piece of property, neighbors can have different ratings depending on exactly how far they are from the fire station responding to their address. �There can be little pockets or even single residences with a lower rating,� Rutherford said.
Both Rutherford and Blaine city manager Gary Tomsic drove from the Blaine and Birch Bay fire stations and hit the five-mile mark near the intersection of Semiahmoo Parkway and Drayton Harbor Road. Checks of specific addresses through the WSRB website indicated most of the homes in Semiahmoo do fall under the city�s rating of six. Addresses on Semiahmoo spit scored the lower 10 rating as did certain pockets in the Boundary Ridge neighborhood and along Semiahmoo Drive. �The increments are so small the first thing I�d do is drive it,� said Blaine police chief Mike Haslip.
Duane Sammons of Blaine Insurance said a rock bottom insurance rating wasn�t as bad as it sounded. While they may have to pay more for their policies, homeowners with a 10 rating could still get coverage. �Everything is insurable, it�s the price that changes,� he said. Homeowners with existing policies didn�t have anything to worry about. �It doesn�t affect your coverage. When you get your policy and pay for it you get that coverage,� he said. �If you haven�t been bothered by an increase in your premium, be nice and quiet and let the city and the fire department work it out.�
Rutherford said the city expected to have a short-term solution in place in several weeks, meeting conditions under which the WSRB has said they will review the status of the Semiahmoo station: a minimum of six volunteers responding to the station and functional equipment, including an engine. �We want to see if we can staff it with volunteers we already have,� said Rutherford. A condition will be those volunteers need to live within five miles of the Semiahmoo station, and there are no volunteers in Semiahmoo, though Rutherford said they did have a new recruit living one block from the station.
Rutherford and Tomsic both apologized if they had offended the Semiahmoo community by discussing the lack of volunteer firefighters from that area. �We are in no way implying you aren�t interested in jumping in and solving problems in our community,� Tomsic said. �Some of our greatest volunteer efforts come from this part of our community.� Rutherford said the demands of volunteer firefighting weren�t a good match for the skills and abilities of Semiahmoo volunteers. �If you look across the room here, it�s not the typical view of the volunteer firefighter,� he said. �There are probably some who could do it but it�s a lot of time and commitment.�
Ultimately Rutherford said they would boost recruitment efforts in the Semiahmoo community. �There�s probably a cadre of people, mature, experienced people, who will step up to the plate.�
�What will you do if you can�t find volunteers?� asked an audience member. Rutherford said options for a long term solution include reestablishing a volunteer sleeper program at the station.
Another audience member asked why the city had let fire district 13, now part of NWFRS, close the Semiahmoo station in the first place when the 1999 fire service agreement under which the district took over Blaine emergency services �required good fire service out there.�
The contract, signed in July 1999 compels the district to maintain the city�s ISO rating �in as much as it had control.� It also states that the district shall �keep fire and emergency medical apparatus in both stations and maintain both stations as regular response stations.� The plan Rutherford presented as a short-term fix would restore the Semiahmoo Station to that condition.
�The Birch Bay fire station can serve the area quite well,� Sammons said. �The ratings bureau works with regulations and they don�t always fit with practical reality. What�s a tenth of a mile difference if you�re responding to a fire?�
�To me the issue of fire protection is time,� Rutherford said. �The way emergency medical services are evaluated is response time.�
Tomsic said more meetings would be scheduled as changes are implemented. In the meantime he asked that anyone who ran into trouble with their insurance call his office. �We would be happy to work with you if there�s a problem,� he said.