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Improved firefighting capabilities could lead to insurance reductions

This watertower on Lakeland Drive Northeast, a pump station on County Road 5 and reservoir near Swansson Field all improve the effectiveness of Willmar's firefighting system. City residents could see their insurance premiums decrease after the Insurance Services Office of Chicago recently raised Willmar's fire rating. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

Commercial, industrial and residential property owners could possibly see their insurance premiums fall after a survey by a company that studies fire departments nationwide found Willmar Fire Department's fire-suppression capabilities have improved.

The survey by Insurance Services Office of Chicago, which rates fire departments on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 the best, raised Willmar Fire Department's rating from a Class 4 to a Class 3. Willmar's improved rating resulted from better fire department recordkeeping, improvements to the municipal water system including hydrant maintenance, increased staffing at the Kandiyohi County Law Enforcement Center's dispatch, and installation of fire sprinkler systems at high-hazard buildings.

Fire Department Chief Marv Calvin said the improved rating is a substantial event for the Fire Department. He thanked his department and other city and county entities.

"It's been a lot of work that went into this to get this done,'' said Calvin.

"There are very few departments in the nation that actually have a better rating than what Willmar has. There are no departments in the state of Minnesota that have a higher rating than what Willmar has.''

He said Insurance Services Office compares all fire departments in the country.

"It's an equalization tool (to) evaluate fire departments with their peers and every city is evaluated. It's not some cities are evaluated and some aren't. Every city in the nation is evaluated by ISO,'' said Calvin.

The classification change may result in reduced property insurance premiums because Insurance Services Office is the leading supplier of data for the property and casualty insurance industry. Most insurers use their classifications for calculating premiums for residential, commercial and industrial property, the company says.

According to Mike Waters, Insurance Services Office vice president of risk decision services, the link between effective, public, fire-mitigation capabilities and lower insured property loss is unquestioned. He said insurance loss statistics demonstrate the relationship between better fire protection as measured by Insurance Services Office and lower fire losses.

"(Our) statistics show that, per $1,000 of insured property, communities with the worst (classification) have fire losses two or more times as high as communities with the best rating,'' he said.

Calvin encourages property owners to ask insurance companies if they know Willmar's rating has improved.

Half of the improved rating results are based on Fire Department improvements and 10 percent are based on fire alarm and communication facilities.

The remaining 40 percent is based on municipal water supply capabilities. Bart Murphy, Municipal Utilities water department superintendent, says the system has been extensively updated since 1995.

Those improvements include drilling of five new wells, construction of a 750,000-gallon water tower on Lakeland Drive Northeast, adding a 16-inch water main and pump station in 2003 to serve the northern part of the city, and construction of a new pump station along County Road 5 North in 2008 to serve the Ridgewater College area.

Murphy said the $2.4 million improvements added reliability and capacity. All came out of a 1998 distribution and storage study.

"Almost all of the improvements were in that study, and we set them in order of importance and started picking them off one by one,'' Murphy said.

But he said the projects added to the benefit of the Insurance Services Office study.

"Marv came into a situation where he had the experience from other places to know what needed to be improved to affect this rating, and I think that was a big part of his vision when he came in here,'' said Murphy. "He saw what needed to be done and he started doing it and over time it's paid off here in this result.''