An upgrade in the ISO fire protection classification of the Bulloch County Fire Department’s main service areas will take effect this Friday, Dec. 1, and the department is pressing forward with other improvements.
As a result of a recent evaluation by the Insurance Services Office of Verisk Analytics, the ISO rating for areas within five miles of the department’s stations will improve from the previously split 5/5X classification to a split 4/4Y. Bulloch County Fire Chief Ben Tapley made an informal report to the county commissioners during a work session held with their Nov. 21 regular meeting.
“The ISO survey did reveal we need more stations, more personnel, ladder trucks and better water,” he said in prepared remarks. “Without pressurized water, we need to expand our tanker fleet to cover more of our county and hire firefighters to better establish a tanker shuttle. Overall, our vision is to add additional personnel (a third firefighter on each engine) and open more staffed stations.”
A for-profit business organization that provides data to insurance companies, the ISO issues fire protection ratings on a basic scale of 10 to 1. Details have changed over the years, but “10” still means no ISO-recognized public fire protection, while “1” is the best fire protection available in the ISO’s estimation.
“Class 1 generally represents superior property fire protection, and Class 10 indicates that the area's fire-suppression program doesn't meet our minimum criteria,” is a quote from the organization’s website, at www.isomitigation.com/ppc.
As Tapley confirmed in a follow-up interview, the ISO rating for outlying areas of Bulloch County more than five road miles beyond any of the Bulloch County Fire Department’s 14 stations or the Statesboro Fire Department’s two stations remains, unfortunately, a “10.”
But the 4/4Y means that homes and businesses within five miles of a Bulloch County Fire Department station and within 1,000 feet of a pressurized water system or ISO “credible” water supply will have a “4” rating, he said. Credible water sources can include bodies of water such as ponds, but the department has to obtain an agreement to use these and submit the results of a 50-year drought study to the ISO.
Structures within five miles of a BCFD station but more than 1,000 feet from a pressurized hydrant or credible water source get a “4Y” rating. While not as good as a straight “4,” the “4Y” is an improvement from the previous “5X” classification because the “Y” means the ISO is recognizing the effectiveness of the BCSO’s water tanker shuttle service within that range, Tapley said.
Either a “4” or “4Y” rating could mean lower fire insurance premiums for residents and commercial property owners, at the discretion of specific insurance companies.
The BCFD responds to fires and other emergencies throughout the county, including in the outlying ISO 10 areas, and also assists with structure fires in the city-served area.
The separate, city-operated Statesboro Fire Department, staffed 24/7 by all career firefighters, now maintains an ISO fire protection rating of “2” for its service area, consisting of the city and unincorporated areas of the county within five miles of Statesboro’s fire stations.
In addition to the county’s general property tax rate, the county commissioners levy separate fire service millages for the SFD-served zone, forwarding that revenue to the city government, and the rural zone, using that revenue to fund the Bulloch County Fire Department.
In recent years, the county has upgraded the BCFD from an almost all-volunteer department to a “combination” fire service with career firefighters to staff full-time stations at key locations, but still a larger number of volunteers to help respond to calls.
“First, I would like to brag about your firefighters,” Tapley said to the county commissioners. “We currently have 18 career firefighters, 12 part-time firefighters, four administration staff, a fire inspector, a volunteer coordinator and 55 volunteers.”
During fiscal year 2023 (July 1, 2022–June 30, 2023), the department answered 2,063 calls for service, compared to 1,042 calls in fiscal 2022 and 785 calls in fiscal 2021. That amounts to a 232% increase in two years, Tapley noted. From July 1, 2023, to Nov. 18, the department responded to 1,349 calls, which he said puts it on track for about 3,200 calls this fiscal year.
According to Tapley, one reason for the increased number of calls is that the Fire Department’s service delivery strategy was expanded based on a 2020 study by the Center for Public Safety Management.
“It recommended we add career firefighters in stations around the county and we start helping EMS with their calls,” he said.
Now the Fire Department helps the Emergency Medical Service with calls more often, with firefighters performing basic life support until an ambulance arrives or, on occasion, even driving a critically injured patient to the hospital rather than waiting for another ambulance to arrive, he said.
Additionally, since July 1, 2022, the Bulloch County Fire Department has been dispatched without EMS on “lift” calls. This is when 911 is called about someone who has fallen or just cannot get up but is otherwise well and uninjured. Firefighters have training to perform lifts, as well as basic first aid.
The department answers these, and of course calls to fires and accidents, out of three “career” fire stations staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 11 volunteer stations where apparatus awaits the arrival of volunteers.
The three staffed stations are those in Brooklet, Portal and Register.
Currently, the county is upgrading the Portal and Register fire stations to accommodate more career firefighters on shifts and also to serve as stations for the Bulloch County Emergency Medical Service.
“We’re adding true living quarters,” Tapley said.
The county, with some inmate labor, is now completing a renovation at the Portal fire station, creating a six-bedroom, two-bathroom and dayroom lodging area for firefighters and EMS. A parking area remains to be created as the finishing touch, he said. EMS started staffing the Portal station 24 hours a day in mid-November.
Now a contract has been awarded for a similar upgrade to the Register station. Brooklet has had an EMS station for nearly a decade, paired with the fire station there.
Fire millage hike
With the fiscal year that began July 1, the commissioners increased the fire service millage in the rural fire district from 1.97 mills to 3.0 mills, a 52% increase, not counting property value inflation.
The additional revenue to the Fire Department is paying the career firefighters hired in December 2022 to staff the Register station, Tapley said. The money also funded the promotion of nine of the department’s 18 firefighters to the rank of lieutenant. That way, each of the three shifts at each of the three staffed stations has someone to oversee daily operations, he said.
But with 18 full-time firefighters total, there are still just two on duty each shift at each station, he notes, with part-timers to fill in during vacations and sick leave.
Objectives toward further improvements in response times and ISO ratings include adding a fourth full-time staffed station next year, at a location yet to be determined, and eventually adding a third full-time firefighter for each shift in the staffed stations, Tapley reports.
Budgeting special sales tax funds for capital purchases, the county already has three additional fire engines on order for the department, at a combined cost of more than $2.2 million.
“The first will be delivered in August of 2024,” Tapley said. “The next two will be delivered in September of 2025. An aerial is the next large apparatus purchase that needs to be made soon.”
The “aerial” fire truck would be a tower or boom truck with at least a 100-foot reach, recommended by the 2020 study.