A comprehensive report analyzing Easton’s Fire and EMS systems recommends actions the Easton Fire Department could take to improve its current Insurance Services Office, or ISO rating, which might be contributing to rising homeowner insurance rates in upper Easton.
According to the 142-page report presented to the Board of Selectmen on Jan. 17, Easton received ISO Public Protection Classification ratings of Class 5 and Class 9 based on its last ISO review conducted in 2011. The ISO rating scale is from one to 10, with Class 1 generally being a superior fire protection score and Class 10 generally being below the minimum criteria. Fire departments across the country receive an ISO score based on several factors that evaluate a department’s staffing levels and equipment, communications systems, and availability of a water source to put out a fire.
The Class 5 rating is for the portion of Easton where some 1,200 residents live within five miles of a fire station and 1,000 feet of a fire hydrant or permanent water supply. “Easton’s rating of Class 5 puts it near the median of Connecticut fire departments, with just as many communities having a lower rating and a higher rating,” according to the report.
The Class 9 rating is for the upper portion of Easton where 1,400 residents live that is within five miles from a fire station but do not have a sustainable firefighting water supply within 1,000 feet. Many of these residents rely on cisterns and dry hydrants, non-pressurized pipe systems that allow fire fighters to siphon water from nearby ponds, lakes and swimming pools during an emergency. The water then gets pumped up to a higher pressure and out onto the fire or into another truck.
Town officials suspect homeowners living near dry hydrants whose insurer relies on ISO ratings may have seen an increase in their insurance rates. The Insurance Services Office often sees a lack of water mains and pressurized fire hydrants as a potential impairment to putting out a fire.
“This has been on the radar for some time,” said First Selectman David Bindelglass. “I’ve heard more and more from homeowners about rising insurance rates.”
Overall, the report outlines recommendations the town can make ranging from building a fire station in the north end of town, to increasing staffing levels and upgrading its radio communication system. Any of these changes might improve the department’s ISO score during the next rating period according to the report.
The reports also recommended the town request an ISO evaluation because there might have been changes to the community and the department since the last evaluation in 2011 which could result a better rating.
Exactly how to address the lack of pressurized hydrants in the upper portion of Easton still needs to be determined. One solution, according to the report, is to reach an agreement with Monroe and Redding to bring in their tanker trucks during an emergency.
Fire Chief Robert Klem believes purchasing a water tanker truck that carries 4,000 gallons of water could help the department in this area. “Let’s bring the water to the site,” he said.
Klem questioned whether building more cisterns or fixing or maintaining the ponds connected to dry hydrants is cost-effective in the long run.
Currently, eight ponds connected to dry hydrants in upper Easton where the fire department siphons water are out of service. The aging ponds need to be regularly maintained and dredged otherwise they become too clogged with debris and tree limbs to be a source of water for extinguishing fires.
The fire department sought a $75,000 federal Rural Water Supply Project grant to maintain the ponds, but the bulk of the money would have gone to maintaining one pond, said Klem.
“We spoke to a multitude of companies, and were quoted $40 to $50 thousand a pond to do the work right,” he said. “They would have to go in with a machine to scoop out the pond, dredge it and cut down trees.”
The fire department has remained proactive in exploring ways to refurbish the dry hydrants.
The Board of Finance approved giving the department $89,551 in American Recovery Plan Act funds to refurbish dry hydrants in town and to purchase an automatic CPR device.
But there is also the issue of the increased effects of climate change and more extreme weather patterns contributing to the problem.
“Last summer we went through a major drought and most of our ponds were dry. We wouldn’t have gotten water out of them. If we had a tanker that would have solved the problem,” said Klem. “Do we continue to spend money maintaining these ponds or do we buy a tanker truck that will last 15 to 20 years?”
Bindelglass agrees that continuing to rely on dry hydrants is not a long term solution.
“To rely on dry hydrants for the long term is not a good strategy,” he said, adding that the ISO classifications take a holistic approach to fire department operations, which means addressing additional recommendations besides the water source issue could also improve the rating.
“We need to fix the things in the report and get the ISO inspectors back,” Bindelglass said. “Maybe fixing the little things can change the overall rating and hopefully lower insurance costs for many of our homes.”