HUACHUCA CITY — In January 2018, the Town of Huachuca City contracted with Whetstone Fire District for fire protection services.
When Whetstone Fire entered into the contract, Huachuca City’s ISO (Insurance Services Office) rating was a 10, which is equivalent to no fire protection, said Whetstone Fire Chief Peter Bidon.
“An ISO score is a rating that determines how well a local fire department can protect a community,” Bidon explained.
ISO evaluates fire departments through an extensive process that examines a number of factors, including firefighter training, equipment testing, water availability and pressure, community outreach and much more.
Ratings calculate how well-equipped fire departments are when it comes to providing fire protection. Fire departments maintain extensive, evidence-based records that document all training, equipment testing, personnel certifications, risk reduction procedures and much more, based on an extensive list of requirements ISO uses when evaluating a fire department. A community’s ISO score is often used by insurance companies to help set homeowners’ insurance rates.
The ISO rating scale ranges from 1 to 10. The lower the number, the better the score. A rating of 1 is the best possible score, while a 10 means the fire department does not meet minimum fire protection requirements set by ISO.
In comparison to Huachuca City’s ISO score, Whetstone Fire District has a ranking of four, which Bidon says is good for a rural fire department with limited resources.
Now that Whetstone Fire has been working to improve fire services in Huachuca City for more than a year, some residents are questioning why the town’s score is still a 10.
Bidon recent spoke with the Herald/Review about the town’s poor ISO rating and the steps Whetstone Fire is taking to improve its fire services and ISO rating.
Herald/Review: Why is Huachuca City’s ISO rating still a 10?
Chief Peter Bidon: It’s because you can’t turn this around overnight. There were a lot of things that were not being done correctly for a number of years at the (Huachuca City) fire department, and the current score reflects that. ISO does not do evaluations every year, so we’re waiting to be re-evaluated. Since we’ve started there, we’ve made significant progress, and when ISO conducts its next evaluation, the town’s ISO rating will show some improvements.
Prior to entering into our contract with the town of Huachuca City in 2018, Whetstone Fire had established a memorandum of understanding with the town to help with firefighter training and record keeping, which are a big part of what ISO looks at when conducting evaluations. We also helped Huachuca City maintain training records, which they did not have in the past.
The fire department itself had no accountability for their records, their personnel or their certifications. In fact, at that time there was no real testing process in place to get into the fire department. All of these are key elements that ISO examines.
ISO also looks at your community risk reduction programs, water supply, mapping system, deployment analysis, hose testing records and pump testing records. You’re showing them that your equipment works. And then there’s your training.
Fire departments have to be able to show records that go back three years documenting all training and testing procedures. Other than the training records we helped the fire department start, we were unable to find records at Huachuca City, which is another big part of the evaluation process.
Whetstone Fire District Firefighters are required to train every day at a minimum of three hours a day. They do two hours of fire training and one hour of physical fitness.
We do two weekends a month where everyone comes in for a big monthly training. And there are extensive records kept documenting all of this. These records are maintained in a book showing that the requirements are being met for ISO.
We expect to go through an ISO evaluation this year, and when they come in to look at us, Huachuca City is going to have two years’ worth of records instead of three. I understand that the town wants to see a big improvement in the score now, but the fact that we do not have three years’ worth of records will have an impact on the score.
HR: What is being done to help Huachuca City’s ISO score?
PB: Some of the things we had to accomplish for the ISO is to establish pump testing records, hose testing records, training records and certifications for firefighters. At Whetstone Fire we had already provided our firefighters with certifications, so that part of the process was easy for us.
Dispatching services are also evaluated. At one time Whetstone Fire dispatched through Huachuca City, and we didn’t even make one dispatch point. They had one dispatcher who was the 9-11 call taker and dispatcher for police and fire. When ISO evaluates dispatching services there are 10 maximum points. At the time we were contracted with Huachuca City, we received .7 on our dispatching score.
We are now dispatched by the City of Sierra Vista, through SEACOM (Southeastern Arizona Communications Center), which is an excellent service. Since we made that change, we went from .7 to 7.9 points, a dramatic difference. We’re going to see an improvement in Huachuca City’s dispatch score when ISO does its evaluation here.
When we started with Huachuca City, for the most part, they were an all-volunteer fire department with two or four firefighters on call. They were paid by a stipend and the station wasn’t always staffed.
Sometime around 2017, people started staying at the station. Prior to that, the guys would take vehicles and go home and would respond to EMS (Emergency Medical Services) calls. EMS were the only stipend employees. Now that the fire station has all Whetstone Fire District employees, there are no more volunteers and stipend employees. All employees are paid.
By having the two stations staffed 24-7 — one in Whetstone and one in Huachuca City — our firefighters are safer because we have more firefighters on duty and another truck running right away, which represents another improvement in the town’s fire services.
HR: Given the challenges, why did Whetstone decide to take on the contact with Huachuca City?
PB: When we started doing automatic aid with Huachuca City and their previous fire chief a few years ago, it was to provide a service that was more synergistic versus being separated and worrying about who’s crossing whose boundary line. When individuals get into the public safety field, they want what’s best for the community as a whole.
While we have been working to correct a number of challenges, the town is strong when it comes to its water department and hydrants. That is going to be a huge advantage for Huachuca City when it’s time for the next ISO evaluation. (Public Works Supervisor) Jim Halterman, works in the water department and keeps good records of the town’s water supply, which will be a benefit when we’re evaluated.
HR: Now Whetstone Fire District and Huachuca City are working as one entity, what messages do you have for residents in your fire service area?
PB: There’s been a misconception based on misinformation passed on about the fire station in Huachuca City not been staffed 24 hours. This is not an accurate statement. The Huachuca City fire station, like the Whetstone fire station, is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In addition, there are two employees on duty at Huachuca City and four at the Whetstone station at night. You also have myself and another chief officer responding to calls, so that brings the total of employees to eight.
I would also like to let people know about our coverage are. We provide service that extends from the San Pedro River on Highway 82 to the Santa Cruz County line from east to west and from the Border Patrol checkpoint on Highway 90 to the Sierra Vista City limits from north to south.
People have also questioned how the Huachuca City ISO rating will impact Whetstone Fire District, and want to know what can be done to become a class one fire department. Whetstone has an ISO rating of four, which is good for a rural fire department.
The chances of Whetstone Fire becoming a class one department are slim to none. We don’t have the staffing, equipment, or resources to do what is needed to meet those requirements. Now that we are contracted with Huachuca City, we operate as Whetstone Fire District , with a station in Huachuca City. However, Huachuca City’s ISO rating will not impact Whetstone’s. Both fire stations are evaluated independently of each other.
While it’s been challenging, we’re pleased with the progress that we’re seeing in Huachuca City, and hope to continue improving.