Insurance rates will balloon unless station is manned

Published on Thu, Jan 23, 2003 by Meg Olson

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Insurance rates will balloon unless station is manned

By Meg Olson

Representatives from the city and North Whatcom Fire and Rescue Services (NWFRS) met with state fire insurance raters to work out how to turn back the clock on the recently downgraded rating for many Semiahmoo homes.

�We got a lot of information,� said NWFRS division chief Jim Rutherford after a January 21 meeting in Seattle. �In a nutshell there�s a difference between a rating and a grading. Blaine�s rating is still a six but there can be buildings within that that can be graded something worse.�

In the case of Semiahmoo homes it was their distance from an active fire station that landed them with a rating of 10 � the lowest on the scale. While Blaine city council only found out about the downgrade last week, it happened last year.

As the national Insurance Services Organization (ISO) implemented computer mapping systems identifying each building in a fire protection zone and coordinating it with distance from a fire station and hydrants, those homes no longer automatically fell under the Blaine rating. The Semiahmoo fire station, unmanned since 2000 due to a lack of local volunteers, no longer counted and response from the Birch Bay station was too far. �Officially the station was not recognized anymore since 2002 when we implemented our geographic information system (GIS) database,� said Jeff Zechlin of the Washington Surveying and Rating Bureau (WSRB) which sets ISO ratings for the state. While previously it was up to individual agents to determine how hydrant location and fire station distance would play into how they insured a property, they now have a computer program that sets the risk level. �The agent doesn�t have any leeway,� Zechlin said.

The city and NWFRS only found out about the changes when concerned homeowners started calling them as they found their insurers would either no longer insure them or would only do so at much higher rates. �We do not make it a policy,� Zechlin said when asked if they had informed local authorities in 2002. �I did not tell them explicitly. I went on the information they gave to me.� Zechlin said he had called NWFRS and asked whether the station was manned, and was told it was not.

Local insurance agent Glenn Fleming said he was shocked the Semiahmoo homes had been given the lowest fire protection rating they could get. �It�s ridiculous. In the last 24 years I haven�t quoted three policies in a 10 area and they were out by Mount Baker,� he said.

Fleming said homeowners wouldn�t lose the ability to insure their homes, but they could face an impact in for how much and by whom they are insured when it comes time to renew. �An ISO 10 simply means there�s a deficit of protection, therefore the premium is going to be higher,� he said. �It probably won�t preclude the home from being insured if it�s in good shape.�

He said the insurance industry was becoming more conservative in how they assess risk and many major companies were tightening rules. �One of the underwriting rules I�ve stumbled upon is Farmers Insurance won�t insure anyone more than five miles from an active station,� he said, adding many other major insurance companies are following the same rule. That means homeowners in an area with an ISO 10 rating will only have access to more marginal policies. �You don�t want to hear the premiums and the coverage is meager,� he said. �Lloyds of London might insure you but it will cost an arm and a leg.�

If insurance is available for a home in an area rated 10, Fleming calculated it would cost more than twice what the price of insurance is in an area rated 6. �Most of the people I know are going to have a fit when they see their premiums increase,� he said.

Rutherford said a Thursday meeting at the Blaine Community Center would present the information they had learned from the WSRB about what it would take to get Semiahmoo back under the city�s rating. �It�s a difficult thing to deal with from our perspective but there are some things we�re going to take a look at,� he said. Blaine city manager Gary Tomsic said the likely solution would be to man and equip the station, but the problem is no one who lives in the area has volunteered as a firefighter. �I�m sure it�s going to cost some money to do it,� he said.

Fleming said there was no choice. �Somebody�s going to have to man that station one way or another,� he said. He suggested a separate tax assessment in the Semiahmoo area to pay for professional firefighters if local residents would or could not make up the base of a volunteer response.

Zechlin said as changes were implemented they would lead to changes in the Semiahmoo rating. �They have some ideas of what to do to regain credit for that station and what they have proposed sounds viable,� he said.

At 7 p.m. at the community center on January 23, the city and NWFRS will host a joint meeting to present those ideas and answer questions from the public at the Blaine Community Center.

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