Fire stations. Training. Equipment. Testing.

ISO grades fire departments' capabilities in community fire protection

By Larry Maynard, Community Hazard Mitigation Training Coordinator, ISO

ISO's Fire Suppression Rating Schedule (FSRS) is the manual we use in reviewing the firefighting capabilities of individual communities. The schedule measures the major elements of a community's fire suppression system and develops a numerical grading, the Public Protection Classification (PPCTM). We assign a PPC from 1 to 10, with Class 1 representing the best public protection and Class 10 indicating no recognized protection.

A community's PPC depends on its fire department, water supply, and emergency communications systems. In the last two issues of OnLocation, we looked at water supply and communication infrastructure. In this issue, we'll be addressing the fire department.

How many fire engines does a community need to provide adequate protection? Does the fire department need a ladder truck? How high does the ladder need to reach? What kind of training do firefighters need and how many hours? Are there enough firefighters? ISO answers all those questions and many more during the fire department evaluation component of an ISO PPC survey.

PPC grading

Fifty of the 100 points in the FSRS are based on the fire department. The three items that receive the largest amount of credit are:

  • company personnel — 15 percent
  • engine companies — 10 percent
  • training — 9 percent

An adequate number of well-trained firefighters with enough well-equipped and tested fire engines should control most fires.

The remaining items in the FSRS are:

  • reserve engines — 1 percent
  • pump capacity — 5 percent
  • ladder service — 5 percent
  • reserve ladder service — 1 percent
  • distribution of companies — 4 percent

ISO PPC Grading

Many of the requirements in the FSRS are based on the size, construction, occupancy, internal protection, and height of the buildings in the community. A large wood-frame building will need a greater commitment of fire suppression resources than a smaller fire-resistive building. Buildings with occupancies with a high fire load, such as upholstery, wood and paper products, furniture, and certain plastics and chemicals, will also require a larger effort to control a fire.

Apparatus and equipment

When an ISO PPC field representative begins a community survey, one of the first areas reviewed is the building inventory. ISO uses data from its property information database and on-site surveys to develop needed fire flows. The needed fire flows determine the amount of water needed to suppress fires at specific locations, how many fire engines a community needs, and how large the pumps should be. The heights of the buildings indicate whether a fire department needs one or more ladder trucks and, if needed, how high the ladders should reach.

ISO PPC Class 1

The FSRS has a list of equipment needed on engines and ladders. It also explains how much and what size fire hose the engines should carry. We compare the lists with what's actually on the apparatus and tally the points. Items such as fire nozzles, ground ladders, breathing apparatus, ventilation and salvage equipment, hand lights, adapters, and a host of other equipment are all needed for firefighters to do an efficient and effective job.

Testing

Testing of apparatus and hose is critical, both as a high-value item in the FSRS and as a safety issue. If a ladder were to fail during a fireground operation, serious injuries or death could occur. A burst hose can strike a firefighter, again resulting in injuries. If the engine becomes disabled at the scene, firefighters inside the structure could lose their water supply and be put into a dangerous situation.

Not only can injuries occur in the event of failures, but a disruption in the firefighting effort can cause a small fire to get out of control and engulf additional structures. For those reasons, ISO and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) strongly encourage fire departments to test their apparatus and fire hose to current NFPA standards.

Training

The training portion of the FSRS covers a variety of training types. Training is critical for safe, productive, and coordinated emergency activities. For full credit, firefighters need more than 20 hours of structure fire training each month. There's no credit for CPR and first aid, rescue, and other emergency medical training; work sessions; and fund-raising events. The training must be hands-on and stress the strategy and tactics needed for fire control.

Fire departments can participate in structure fire training both at a fire training center and at fire stations. If a training center isn't available, a department can substitute by using local streets and buildings. A training center should have a drill tower for ladder and rope work and advancing hose lines, a fire building where firefighters can fight live fires, and enough area to allow firefighters to conduct other types of drills. A complete fire training library, audiovisual equipment, and training props should also be available.

ISO reviews officer training, new-driver and refresher training, hazardous material training, and recruit training. We also evaluate the prefire planning activities of the fire department. The majority of buildings should have a current prefire plan available in case of an incident. An incident commander needs to know how to shut off the utilities, whether there are any dangerous or flammable substances stored in the building, how many occupants there are at different times of the day, and if there are areas where a firefighter could become disoriented. A prefire plan should include all those elements.

Distribution of companies

Distribution of companies looks at areas of the community located more than 1.5 miles from an engine company or 2.5 miles from a ladder service company. If those areas exceed certain percentages, a fire department may need additional engine and ladder locations.

Company personnel

The last major item in the evaluation is company personnel. Here we review the number of personnel needed compared with the number available. Are career firefighters at the fire station full-time, or do volunteer firefighters respond to the fire station from home or work? Volunteers receive less credit than career firefighters because of their availability and response times. As the number of volunteers in the United States drops, more fire departments are becoming combination departments — a mix of career firefighters and volunteers. If volunteer firefighters bunk or sleep at the fire station periodically and there's a schedule guaranteeing attendance, ISO can credit those volunteers as on-duty firefighters, and they can receive FSRS credit.

The fire department needs complete, accurate, and up-to-date records to receive full credit for many areas of the fire department survey, particularly training and testing of apparatus and hose. ISO can deduct as much as 20 percent if records aren't available. The fire department needs records if it's going to evaluate its past performance and plan for the future.

The ISO fire department survey is a comprehensive, in-depth review of the fire suppression capabilities of a community. Fifty percent of a community's overall PPC rating is based on the fire department — including apparatus, equipment, training, and personnel. With half of their score on the line, communities — with ISO's encouragement — should strive to improve their fire protection efforts. Community and fire officials recognize PPC as the gold standard for measuring public fire suppression. By working together with ISO, communities can maintain and improve their firefighting capabilities.