Special Report: Local fire departments graded on ability to keep you safe which may impact your wallet

Special Report: Local fire departments graded on ability to keep you safe which may impact your wallet

SOUTHEAST WISCONSIN (CBS 58) -- Every local fire department has a grade on its ability to keep you safe, and those scores can impact your wallet.

Insurance companies use the ratings to help set homeowners’ premiums.

Insurance Services Office, or ISO, is a company that conducts those evaluations all over the country.

It rates fire departments on a 1 to 10 scale, with 1 being the best and 10 equaling a failing grade.

Some communities where the departments cover large areas have split classifications. One score is given to the neighborhoods within five miles of a fire station, and another score is given to outlying areas more than five miles from a station.

In March, fire ripped through a Bayside apartment building.

“That fire had a head start,” said Robert Whitaker, the North Shore Fire Department chief. “We had a lot of people in the building. It was 12:15 in the morning, people were sleeping. Your priority is to rescue people.”

Dozens of people lost their homes.

The insurance industry, however, viewed the building as safely protected. North Shore holds the very high score of 2.

"The ISO rating is used by the insurance industry to create somewhat of a predictive analysis of the fire department," said Jon Cohn, the Greenfield Fire Department chief.

ISO comes up with its scores by grading communities on three categories, each with several components: emergency communications like 911 and dispatch, water supply, and the fire department itself which includes equipment and training.

A phone call to your local department should be enough to find out its ISO score where you live.

Lower scores don’t mean the fire department is lower quality, just that firefighters in rural communities face more natural challenges like driving distances and water access.

“You’re way off the beaten path in [those] communities,” Whitaker said. “You may get a different rating if you’re closer to the city or the town.”

Insurance companies can use the ISO scores to help set homeowner rates.

Jim Schwalen with West Bend Mutual Insurance says lower-risk communities with stronger ratings can mean lower premiums.

"You take that protection class from a 3 to an 8, you're talking a $150 or $250 difference on the price, so it definitely has an impact," he said.

Greenfield FD was just re-evaluated last year and had its score improved from a 3 to a 2.

"All the things we've done here to get our score to elevate have been somewhat organic,” Cohn said. “Better documentation of training, better call handling at our dispatch center."

A better score in the next town over isn’t necessarily a reason to get up and move though.

Schwalen says companies like his view all scores of 1 through 5 as generally the same, and a point here or there won’t affect insurance rates.

In fact, Schwalen says weather and water often come in above fire protection on the list of factors for setting rates.

What he suggests if calling your insurance company if you see a new hydrant go up on your street or your local fire department gets upgrades done.

There might be a discount waiting.

"It's very possible that their rating would change and they could save some money on their insurance," Schwalen said.

As prevalent as ISO scores are, not every insurance company uses them in setting premiums.

State Farm and Badger Mutual both do not.

Your insurance agent should be able to let you know how they evaluate fire protection.

For your convenience, we’ve gathered a list of ISO scores in southeastern Wisconsin.

  • North Shore Fire/Rescue: 2 in areas 1000 ft from a hydrant
  • Milwaukee: 1
  • Waukesha: 2
  • Racine: 2
  • Kenosha: 2
  • Sheboygan: 2
  • Greenfield: 2
  • West Allis: 1
  • South Milwaukee: 4
  • Mequon: 4/10
  • Caledonia: 3/5
  • Mukwonago: 4/8
  • Germantown: 3
  • Waterford: 3
  • New Berlin: 3
  • South Shore (Mt Pleasant): 3
  • Wauwatosa: 1
  • Cedarburg: 3 in City/6 in Town
  • West Bend: 2/4
  • East Troy: 7
  • Delafield: 7
  • Sussex: 2
  • Wales Genesee: 4 in Wales/6 in Genesee
  • Delavan: 3 in City/9 in Town
  • Union Grove-Yorkville: 4 in Union Grove/7 in Yorkville
  • Port Washington: 3 in City/5 in Town 5 miles from station
  • Thiensville: 4
  • Beaver Dam: 3
  • Watertown: 3 /8
  • Richfield: 5/10
  • Kewaskum: 4/6 in areas >5 miles from station but 5 miles from station and >1000 ft from a hydrant
  • Hartland: 3
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