Fire station closure could increase insurance costs, put citizens at risk

Published 4:54 pm Friday, August 2, 2019

The Selma Fire Department (SFD) has been weathering a tumultuous time for the last several months – a lack of manpower and resources and the resignation of former Chief Toney Stephens – but the most concerning issue has been the closure of a station in the Cedar Park area known as the Woodrow Fire Station.

In multiple meetings of the Selma City Council and its committees, SFD Acting Chief Chris Graham listed the reasoning for the closure as a result of the aforementioned woes, but the consequences of the closure could have far-reaching effects on citizens.

According to Bob Frazer of Frazer Insurance, the most notable impact could arise as a result of not having fire inspectors readily available to weigh in on the causes of a blaze.

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“When a Selma resident has a fire issue and it is not able to be investigated, it is listed as an unknown cause,” Frazer said. “This is adverse for the policy holder and makes a significant difference in their premium.”

To be sure, earlier moves made by the SFD likely had a positive impact on policy holders in the Queen City, Frazer said – a couple of years ago Selma went from a Protection Class 4 to a Protection Class 2, narrowly missing becoming a Protection Class 1 city.

Frazer guesses that the bump helped residents in terms of Homeowners Insurance to the tune of a roughly 5-percent decrease in cost but, if the city’s protection class drops as a result of a station closure or any of the other problems facing the department, policy holders could see that modest discount eliminated.

“Fire protection, such as a nearby fire station or proximity to a fire hydrant, may impact your home owner’s insurance,” said Jerry Workman, Deputy Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Insurance. “Some companies use a rating provided by ISO as part of their underwriting criteria. When fire service is compromised, such as losing a fire station, the rating may increase and cause your insurance premium to increase. The impact varies by company.”

The Insurance Services Office (ISO) establishes the rating for fire departments and the communities they serve using the following criteria, according to the ISO’s Fire Suppression Rating Schedule:

• 50 percent of the rating is based on the quality of a local fire department based on staffing levels, training levels and fire station proximity;

• 40 percent of the rating is based on the availability of water supply, including the prevalence of fire hydrants and the amount of water available for extinguishing fires;

• 10 percent of the rating is based on the quality of the area’s emergency communications system;

• An additional 5.5 percent of the rating is based on community outreach, including fire safety and prevention courses;

• Any area more than five driving miles from the nearest fire station is automatically rated a 10, the worst rating possible.

The Woodrow Fire Station rests in Selma City Councilwoman Angela Benjamin’s ward and sits on the edge of the city, with only a street separating it from the city of Valley Grande.

Benjamin remembers the last fire that firefighters from the Woodrow Station responded to, an enormous blaze that raged through a nearby apartment complex and affected the lives of at least seven residents.

Benjamin said that firefighters from the Woodrow Station responded, as did officers from the Broad Street and East Selma stations, and many had to leave and come back to fight the inferno before it was finally brought to heel.

“It took all three of those stations to conquer that fire,” Benjamin said.

For her part, the councilwoman believes the Woodrow Station, which closed due to a shortage of manpower, should have remained open due to its strategic placement on the city’s border and the Broad Street Station, which she says is surrounded by other stations, should have been on the chopping block.

Further, Benjamin argues that the fire department should have been more persistent in recruiting new firefighters.

“There should have been some active recruitment being done,” Benjamin said. “We all knew that a lot of firefighters were coming to the time of retirement. They should have been proactive on the front end rather than reactive.”

But recruitment is an objective that has proved difficult for the department – not only does it pay significantly less than nearby communities such as Prattville, which pays its firefighters nearly $10,000 a year more than firefighters in Selma, but Benjamin theorizes that many potential recruits are scared away by the rocky state of employment in the city.

“The thing about that recruitment piece…you have the executive officer of the city laying people off, so you don’t know if you’re going to walk into that or not,” Benjamin said.

Beyond that, and the belief that some “restructuring” could have been done to put the three fire investigators employed by the department into a more active position, Benjamin said the impact on the community has been negligible, with only a handful of people raising alarms, because few realize the threat until it’s too late.

“It’s not going to really hit you in your face until you have that fire that nobody can get to,” Benjamin said. “It’s that part of public safety you can’t really gauge until you have a fire that nobody can respond to.”

Despite not knowing when the Woodrow Station might reopen, Benjamin is optimistic that the department is taking steps to remedy some of its ongoing struggles.

“It’s my hope that somewhere, right now, they’re recruiting fire officers,” Benjamin said. “I hope that is happening – it has not been told to [the council] that it’s happening, but I hope it is.”