Bulloch County officials have been working for more than a year to lower ISO (Insurance Services Office) ratings for county residents. As part of that effort, they hired consultant Skip Starling the fall of 2006 to help improve county fire services.
Starling, director of the National Fire Service Office, met Thursday with Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch, Bulloch County Commission Chairman Garrett Nevil, and Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn to discuss questions surrounding the county's recent decision to end a 22-year agreement with the City of Statesboro and form its own fire department.
But despite rumors, Starling was not brought in to advise the county about the recent rumblings over the city's proposal to make changes in the agreement. He has been working with the county to lower ISO ratings in the county.
ISO ratings take into consideration several factors regarding the level of fire protection for a designated area. The lower the rating, the better the insurance premiums and benefits.
"I help people achieve better ISO scoring," he said. "I train fire departments to do better paperwork and work with other departments to be more efficient."
When county leaders were not inspired by a proposal by the City of Statesboro to increase it's share of paying the Statesboro Fire Department budget from 25 to 43 percent, Starling was asked for advice.
Currently, Statesboro firefighters serve citizens within a five-mile radius of the Statesboro city limits, and in return, the county pays 25 percent of its budget, But county officials voted Thursday to end the agreement and form a county fire department instead.
Starling said the move will benefit county residents and dovetail into the county's already existing plans to improve its fire services, which currently consist of eight volunteer departments.
Lower ISO, lower insurance costs
Lower ISO rates mean lower insurance costs for residents. Many different things factor into what decides an ISO rating, he said. "Insurance agents' hands are tied by ISO rates."
"We hired Skip to improve t he eight volunteer departments," Wynn said. Then Couch asked Starling to "analyze the city proposal to see if we were getting our money's worth."
With a county-wide fire department, consisting of the current eight volunteer stations, several small unmanned substations positioned strategically around the county, and three stations within the five-mile radius of Statesboro's city limits, ISO ratings will go down and there will be other benefits, such as an EMS substation located at the two new county fire locations - which will possibly be located near the Bulloch County Sheriff's Department and near the industrial park on the southern side of Statesboro.
The third county fire station would be adjacent to the current EMS station on West Grady Street, he said. "That's not increasing our EMS service there- we already have that," Wynn said.
The volunteer fire departments won't be affected in any way by the move to a county fire department, except for the improvements Starling has already initiated such as paperwork improvements and testing procedures.
The new county fire chief, when hired, will oversee these departments and will be able to handle further testing and procedures that volunteers, who have other "regular" jobs, don't have time to handle, Starling said.
The ISO rating reductions have the potential to "affect people's insurance by cutting it in half," he said.
Currently, fire coverage by the city regarding the five-mile radius outside city limits means the city and county share staff and equipment. Forming a county department will provide staff dedicated to the county residents alone, Couch said.
And having more staff available will help with ISO ratings as well, Starling said.
The new county fire stations will be manned by two paid personnel 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Couch said.
"The paid firefighters will have additional duties in the county that the volunteers can't do," Wynn said. "And the new county fire chief will fill in the gaps" and the move to a county fire department as a whole will help the remote areas of the county that have an ISO rating of 10- the highest, Starling said.
So will substations located around the county that will be unmanned, but ready for volunteers or other firefighters to use the equipment when needed, he said.
People currently in areas not covered by a fire district may not be paying fire taxes right now, but will when the county fire department forms. Couch said. But, they will get better service and lower ISO ratings, resulting in lower insurance costs, he said.
Not a new idea
The city's proposal for an increase just fueled the fire when it came to the county taking a step towards its long-time goal.
"This was going to happen eventually," Wynn said. But the city's proposal, made at the time it was presented, " just put it on the front burner."
Starling said he hopes to achieve getting all county residents an ISO of four to six . "There has never been a better time to do this than now," he said.
The money that would have been paid to the city can be used to construct new county fire facilities. Nevil said Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax money can also be used for equipment.
And with a county department in addition to the existing eight volunteer fire stations, "we are lowering ISO by better standards, better paperwork, studies, hose and pump tests," Starling said. "We've been working almost a year on this."
"We didn't start this (after the city's proposal)," Nevil said. "We were doing our own thing to improve service throughout the county."
And having a countywide fire department fits into that plan, he said.
"What you should see is they'll have a stronger city department and a stronger county department," Starling said.