Volunteer Fire Generic

After Hurricane Michael destroyed the Columbia Volunteer Fire Department station, Chief Clint Wright admitted he had anxiety when the Insurance Service Office evaluated the department recently.

Great volunteerism and the implementation of a new record-keeping system before the storm spoke volumes more than the lack of a permanent facility, though. The department recently learned its ISO rating will soon drop from a Class 6 to a Class 4 – not only signaling that residents there enjoy better response in emergencies, but will also receive lower home insurance premiums.

Columbia joins other eastern Houston County departments that registered better ISO ratings in the last evaluation. Gordon dropped from a Class 6 to Class 5, while Cottonwood registered a Class 4 rating after maintaining a Class 5 rating from the last evaluation.

Wright said the ISO office worked with his department to ensure its efforts were recognized despite the lack of a permanent facility. Currently the fire department operates out of the police department building while the VFD raises funds for a new facility.

“It did play a factor, but I was able to show the (ISO official) some blueprints,” Wright said. “They worked with us. Even though our fire station got destroyed by the hurricane, nothing has changed with our services.”

The strides the department made before Hurricane Michael struck on Oct. 10, 2018, apparently made more of an impact on the rating. In January 2018, the department implemented a new record-keeping system that registered everything from equipment tests to training hours.

The system so thoroughly documented everything the ISO needs for determining scores that Wright presented the official with a hard copy and a thumb drive of all the necessary files when the official arrived for the inspection.

“It’s all well-organized. It eliminated a lot of headache,” Wright said.

Wright also noted some younger people have joined the department in recent years and expressed an interest in receiving higher levels of training.

“We’ve been blessed with some younger guys, who are great,” he said. “They are young and eager to work.”

In Cottonwood, Chief Randy Hall also touted the impact of the commitment of volunteers – and other residents – to the lower score. As an example, the Town of Cottonwood recently upgraded the water system, which improved the performance of the town’s fire hydrants.

“When the ISO does its audit, it’s an audit of the communications system. The county helps with that,” he said. “It’s an audit of the water flow, and that’s the town’s responsibility. It’s an audit of the training, and you’ve got to have volunteers.”

Hall said many of Cottonwood’s firefighters work two jobs and still have time to train for and respond to emergencies at all hours of the day. That is why the department celebrated the news of the new ISO rating, which takes effect on Oct. 1.

“There were a lot of smiles on a lot of faces,” Hall said.

The eastern side of the county lacks the number of established water systems that the western side does, but partnerships have really limited the impact that has had recently, said Justin McCallister, Gordon VFD Chief. The departments have worked to establish a water shuttle service – complete with a few tanks in various locations on that side of the county.

“That’s one thing (Houston County) Commissioner (Doug) Sinquefield has been helping us with,” McCallister said.

One western Houston County volunteer fire department also recently gained a better score as Taylor lowered its rating from Class 5 to Class 4. Taylor VFD Chief Wayne Peterman, like several of the chiefs, credited the establishments of automatic-aid agreements between neighboring departments as a major reason for the new score.

Chris Judah, Dothan-Houston County Emergency Management Agency director, said the county’s VFDs respond to more than 7,500 calls year while working with small budgets and volunteers’ time constraints. He expressed gratitude for each department’s efforts.

“They all do a great job at protecting and preserving people and property,” Judah said.

Follow Jeremy Wise on Twitter @DEgovbeat

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