Chouteau had a tense board of trustees meeting concerning fire department staffing and the Insurance Services Office rating.
Chouteau Fire Chief Ted Key used a marker board, handouts and newspaper clippings in a presentation to explain ISO.
ISO is an assessment used in the pricing of homeowners insurance rates. The assessment depends 50 percent on the fire department, 40 percent on water supply and 10 percent on fire alarms. At the end of an in depth evaluation, each town is given a score from one to 10, with one being the best.
The board’s discussion focused primarily on the fire department’s role in the ISO rating process.
Engine three, tanker two and squad 40 are all pieces of equipment used by the Chouteau Fire Department.
“We’ve got this engine the town has been paying insurance on for the longest time. We haven’t used it in who knows how long,” said Mayor Jerry Floyd, referring to a fire engine, grass rigs and the tanker.
Key explained that having a reserve engine is an advantage in ISO ratings, but stipulated that if the board terminated the insurance the department would sell the engine. He said that the rating is also based on pumping capacity and because Chouteau does not require larger buildings to install sprinkler systems, the department could need the third tanker to uphold the required capacity.
After much discussion on who made the decision to get rid of the equipment, Key said he was under the impression from the mayor that he needed to empty the building storing the equipment. He said his understanding was the mayor wanted the building for the library.
Board member Cecil Lane asked what the insurance costs. No one present at the meeting knew the amount. The city secretary, however, said it is a fleet rate, so canceling the policy on the equipment would not change the amount much or save the city money.
Board member Brenda Cunningham said she would be more comfortable tabling the issue until the board is sure any action is necessary. Her motion was approved.
Key said the meat of the issue is a lack of understanding of ISO.
The town of Chouteau has a current ISO rating of 5. Key said a walk-through was just conducted by an ISO representative who said if Chouteau was scored at this time, it would fall to a 10.
Key turned to a handout from the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture and Rural Fire Defense Program.
It said the average home in the Chouteau area is valued at $85,000. If the town of Chouteau drops to a 10 in ISO, the average homeowner insurance premium would increase $705 per home
Key said with roughly 990 utility customers, the increase would cost the town of Chouteau as a whole $697,950.
On the other hand, if Chouteau can maintain the current rating, or improves even slightly, it could result in a savings of $1.2 million per year.
“We aren’t going to fall from a five to a 10, that’s the worst case scenario. Realistically, what are the chances of that happening?” said Lane.
Key explained because the ISO rating is done roughly every 10 years, the rating reflects the level of performance 10 years ago, not today. While it seems like a sudden drop, it has been a gradual devolution since the rating goes unchecked for so long.
Key said the likeliness of dropping to a 10 is entirely possible if issues such as manpower are not resolved. He said that is not solely his opinion. The ISO representative voiced the concerns.
As Lane was still doubtful, Key said he could discuss it personally with the ISO representative should he desire to do so.
“I sure will,” said Lane.
Key said manpower is a part of the problem. As far as ISO ratings are concerned, one paid firefighter is equal to three volunteer firefighters.
Earlier in the meeting, trustees accepted the resignation of assistant fire chief Keith Brandon due to medical retirement, effective April 30.
Key said volunteers are getting harder and harder to come by. He said that 90 percent of fire departments nationwide are having trouble recruiting firefighters.
Floyd suggested placing newspaper ads as recruitment tools, but Key was skeptical that would have any effect. Lane asked about incentive programs or other forms of motivation.
Key discussed a previous incentive that would have offered more compensation which was denied by the board.
Key said other towns have recruited utility workers as volunteers.
“We used to have volunteers that would stay overnight, but when rumors started to fly that the board was saying the guys should volunteer for eight-hour shifts during the day as well, they all stopped. They got the impression the board thought they were lazy and should devote more time,” said Key.
Discussion then turned to what Key said is the heart of the matter, negativity between the board and the fire department.
“Fire departments are all about brotherhood. People join largely for the camaraderie. In the research I did I found interpersonal relationships are 95 percent of the recruiting incentive,” said Key. “We need to be 100 percent transparent with each other and get things out in the open.”
Key said he has heard gossip the council believes the firefighter association talks badly about the council, so he provided copies of the meeting minutes for the council to read.
“That’s your fire department. It’s up to you to man it,” said Floyd.
“Well it’s also my job to defend it from this negative stuff,” said Key.
Floyd said he had probably spoken too hastily on multiple occasions.
“You’re saying this council is responsible for all this negative. But we’ve given you everything you’ve asked for,” said Floyd.
Key then provided the board with newspaper articles in which he warned the board of a manpower issue and voiced his needs.
Floyd reiterated the idea of putting ads out, which Key said is not enough.
“OK, but bashing us won’t help either,” said Cunningham.
“We, as a council, don't hear all of this. I know we’re not supposed to talk about executive session but know that there were votes for you. There may be someone against you, but it’s not accurate to make a blanket statement that the board is against you,” said board member David Morgan, who had remained silent until this point. “If the mayor says stuff to you, tell us. Chances are we don’t know it’s happening.”
“The mayor is one vote, he doesn’t represent all of us. Come to us and let us explain before things get to
this point,” said Cunningham. “Don’t let the mayor come and tell you he’s firing someone or hiring someone or changing something.”
Key acknowledged that was precisely what had been happening.
“Well, don’t let him,” said Cunningham.
“I apologize if I made anyone feel like a bad person individually, that was not my intention. I’m just trying to clear the air,” said Key, who then proposed the idea of a fire commissioner.
Someone could fill the role of fire commissioner, he said, to act as a liaison between the fire department and the board to avoid communication issues or misunderstandings. If the board had questions about the department, it would have a person within the board to turn to for answers. That person would have an understanding of both groups and could help in mediation and decision making.
Key asked the board to consider putting the fire commissioner on a future agenda, should the board favor the idea.
“If a fire commissioner would help communication, I think it would be great. I think (councilman) Randy (Grossman) would be a great man for the job,” said Morgan.
Key highlighted his plan to boost manpower which includes increasing paid staffing during the day, appreciating volunteers who offer to stay overnight, using all media outlets possible as well as face-to-face interaction to recruit.
“Mostly, we need to put all of this negative tension behind us,” said Key.
Having heard enough, a Chouteau resident spoke out.
“It’s about time for everyone to bury the hatchet,” he said. “Every time I come to these meetings, someone is mad at someone. We all live in this community together, we need to learn to get along.”