Firefighters rated highly

Department's safety rating among best in state

By Cait Purinton - The Topeka Capital-Journal - www.cjonline.com

The seven full-time firefighters and about 25 volunteers at the Mission Township Fire Department have achieved a safety rating rarely earned by departments predominately made up of volunteers.

The Mission Township department recently was assigned a classification of 3 by the Insurance Services Office Inc., which rates fire departments throughout the United States on a scale of 1 to 10.

A rating of 1 represents exemplary fire protection, and a rating of 10 means less than minimum recognized protection, according to information from ISO.

"It shows the general public that this is a progressive fire department that is moving forward, and it's doing it with limited resources compared to a fully paid department," said Mission Township Fire Chief Ken Hamilton.

Mission Township -- which generally is bordered by the Topeka city limits on the east, S.W. Hodges Road on the west, S.W. 61st on the south and the Kansas River on the north -- received a rating of 5 in 1996, the last time the department was evaluated. Hamilton said the rating improvement may help draw more businesses to the township.

ISO, based in Jersey City, N.J., also provides Public Protection Classifications to fire departments to help insurance companies establish fire insurance premiums for residential and commercial properties.

Training officer Lt. John Failor oversees the Confidence Course as firefighters suit up and others begin the exercise. The mobile facility is housed on a semitrailer and is used by stations across the state. The Mission Fire Department is the first mostly volunteer department in the state to earn a rating of 3 from the Insurance Services Office.

John Washburn, fire and casualty policy examiner with the Kansas Insurance Department, said every time a fire department improves its ISO rating, businesses in the district save money.

"For the majority of people in Mission Township, it will not have a direct benefit, but it may bring more business and industrial property into their area simply because they have a better insurance class rating," he said. "And that will save a substantial amount of money for commercial properties."

Washburn said two rural fire departments in Kansas have 4 ratings, but Mission Township was the first mostly volunteer department in the state to have a 3 rating.

Part-time duty officer Mike Razo helps put away air cylinders after completing the Confidence Course. Volunteers such as Razo spend roughly 20 hours a week at the station and are called on during emergencies.

"They're very deserving of it," said Washburn, who also is the Auburn fire chief. "They have worked very hard to get that."

He said 40 fire departments nationwide have a 1 rating. In Kansas, no departments have 1 ratings and only Leavenworth, Lawrence and Merriam have 2 ratings, Washburn said.

ISO examines three categories when determining a classification -- 10 percent is based on how well the department receives and dispatches fire alarms; 50 percent is based on the number of engine companies and amount of water needed to combat a fire; and 40 percent is based on the department's water supply.

Washburn said rural fire departments in Shawnee County are in split classes, meaning the fire districts are divided into two ISO ratings based on the proximity of fire hydrants.

Hamilton said the Mission department has been buying and replacing equipment and increasing training for the past several years.

"The type of equipment we have bought and the type of large-diameter hose we have gone to, the ability to deliver large streams if needed -- those issues are the key points for us," Hamilton said.

Mission Township also has "auto-aid" agreements with the fire departments in Auburn, Topeka-Tecumseh and Dover, which significantly contributed to Mission Township's rating, Washburn said. Through the agreements, tanker trucks and personnel from all three departments respond when Mission Township firefighters are called to a structure fire.

Washburn said as a result of the auto-aid agreements, there is always adequate water supply in rural areas of the county.

"You really have benefited everybody," he said. "The homeowner may not save money directly, but they will have a lot less losses because of better firefighting capabilities."

For more information about ISO, log on to www.iso.com and www.isomitigation.com.