Glenwood fire staffing raises threat of insurance rate hikes
Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series. The second story will look at the Glenwood Springs Fire Department’s decreasing use of volunteers.When Sharon Graves heard that only four Glenwood Springs firefighters responded March 19 to a blaze next door to her downtown business, it worried her.The owner of the Through the Looking Glass bookstore on Grand Avenue was even more concerned when responding firefighters said the whole downtown block could have caught fire if they had been notified of the emergency 15 minutes later.”That’s pretty major to me, and we didn’t have a (sufficient) response team,” she said.Fortunately, an employee at a business in the Grand Avenue Mall building was working that Sunday and noticed the fire early, helping to keep damage to businesses within the building.Graves isn’t the only one concerned about the response capability of the Glenwood Springs Fire Department. The Insurance Services Office, or ISO, a nationwide organization that evaluates fire departments to help insurance companies set premiums, is threatening to downgrade the city from a good rating of 4 to its lowest rating of 10.That’s akin to having virtually no fire protection.”For example, if you have a cabin in the Flat Tops where you have to snowmobile into it, it would still be (rated) a 10,” said Shauna Veo of Neil-Garing Insurance in Glenwood.As a result, she said, homeowners could see their rates double if the downgrading occurred. Worse yet, some companies might refuse to insure homes served by the fire department.That’s of concern to Neil-Garing and other local insurers who deal with the city’s ISO rating.”We’re very worried about it, that something’s going to happen if they don’t get all their manpower up,” Veo said.Of course, the situation worries the city, too, as well as the Glenwood Springs Fire Protection District, which is responsible for areas surrounding city limits. The district contracts with the city fire department for services.City and district officials plan to meet at the district board meeting next week to discuss manpower concerns. The fire department has a year to make changes to avoid the downgrading by ISO.”Right now we are understaffed and just basically trying to do as good a job as we can and cover all the bases. It’s really hard for us with the number of people we do have,” said Harlan Porter, president of the district board.City manager Jeff Hecksel said he is concerned about staffing and the ability of the fire department to respond adequately. But he also questions ISO’s methodology.He said the agency went through an exhaustive review and ended up assigning the city a score that should fall in the class 4 category. But then it ignored that score and, without explanation, said it planned to downgrade the department to a 10 rating.”I don’t know how this works, and they’re not telling us. It’s pretty frustrating, actually,” Hecksel said.In correspondence with the city, ISO has indicated that the proposed downgrade results principally from the city’s inability to always respond initially with at least four firefighters. The city’s average response rate is 3.91 firefighters.”How can you throw out the entire methodology because of one thing?” asked Hecksel.ISO spokesman Chris Guidette said that response rate is a fundamental of basic firefighting service. A failure to meet it results in a downgrading to 10 even when other criteria are being met.”This is considered a very important criteria. There are others that impact less on the overall grade,” he said.The rationale for the criteria tracks with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s “two-in, two-out” rule for firefighting, Guidette said. The rule holds that two firefighters should remain outside a fire, one to work the hose and pump and another to monitor the grounds. That leaves two firefighters to go inside to fight the fire.”You don’t want one person going in alone,” he said.Glenwood Springs has 18 paid, full-time firefighters. Theoretically, that’s enough to staff six per shift. But fire chief Mike Piper said only four were able to respond to the recent downtown fire, later receiving mutual aid from Carbondale firefighters. Usually, fewer than six Glenwood firefighters are available per shift because of vacations, illnesses, injuries, family leave or training, he said.The department fills in as it can with eight part-time reserve firefighters and two volunteers. The reserves must work two 24-hour shifts a month. The city’s barebone staffing also sometimes means it can’t keep all three of its stations operating at once. Piper said a minimum of two firefighters are needed at a station, or it must remain unstaffed.Frequently, it has to close station 3, which is up Four Mile Road and is its least-busy station. The station was opened in 2003 and built at a cost of just under $1 million.Closing a station can be frustrating to the fire department, district and those the department serves, he said.”Our goal is to keep all three of those stations open so that we can provide quicker response … especially for emergency medical services when minutes really can make a difference,” he said.As for staffing levels for responses, Guidette of ISO noted that four is the minimum requirement, but more firefighters might be preferable.”It depends on the size of the fire and the structure and so forth. There isn’t a perfect number,” he said.Piper praised the work of the firefighters who responded March 19, and acknowledged the threat the fire posed to the whole downtown block.”If it wasn’t for the quick actions of those four guys and a great knockdown of that fire, that thing could have been a disastrous situation. I think they did a wonderful job,” he said.Porter, of the fire district, said the firefighters seemed to get the fire under control fast. “It would have been a different matter if it had been the whole block, that’s for sure. I don’t know what would happen then.”
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