High-risk areas battle Class 10 fire stigma
Aug 15, 2011
The following article was published in the Winter Haven News Chief on August 15, 2011:
High risk areas battle Class 10 fire stigma
By Chase Purdy
For reasons beyond his control, Ralph Moore lives in exile.
It’s been that way for four decades; a life off the grid on the shores of Lake Buffum, 11 miles east of Fort Meade. There, in a rural enclave enveloped by orange groves, Moore and his neighbors live quiet lives punctuated by the fear of sudden demise.
A lightning strike. The smell of smoke. An overzealous sunbeam. Any threat of fire brings them to their front yards, their last line of defense.
This is a fact of life for Moore and his lot, who for years have lived in a location the Insurance Services Office, or ISO, has deemed a “Class 10” area. More than five miles from a fire station, these people live in a neighborhood ordained as “high risk,” a term that translates to heightened fire insurance premiums or no insurance altogether.
And on June 1, unbeknownst to them, about 3,000 more Polk County residents entered the same limbo — silent victims of a long overdue ISO resurvey that classified five more communities as Class 10 spots.
Long considered middle-of-the-road neighborhoods by fire protection standards, Alturas, Grape Hammock, Camp Lester, Harry’s Harbor, Nalcrest and Fedhaven were singed by the rating agency. Polk County fire officials estimate the five communities make up about 1 percent of the county population, bringing the total number of county buildings in Class 10 areas to 8 percent.
“We’re the creatures God forgot, over here,” Moore said. “This southeast part of the county is forgotten.”
If fire officials had their way, a fully manned fire station would sit at every street corner, said Deputy Chief Mike Linkins. But reality reflects a starker situation, one in which a cash-strapped department stresses about strategically built stations and increases in fire rates.
Linkins said ISO informed his office in 2007 of the need to complete a re-survey of the county and gave the department “a good solid year” to prepare. The deputy chief said his boss, Chief David Cash, met privately with a friend, a Lake Wales insurance agent, to collect worst-case-scenario data for how premiums would be affected should ratings decrease.
They found that homeowners in Class 10 areas stood to pay $700 to $800 more each year to insure older homes, and at least $150 extra for newer buildings.
“When they go to renew their policy, they might find that their current agent won’t even write it,” Linkins said.
Local agents echoed the deputy chief’s estimations. A Polk County AllState agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said his company stopped insuring homes in Florida because of hurricane damage risks. Potential fire risks won’t lure them back.
Gary Garland, owner of Garland Insurance in Lakeland, said the chances he’ll write a policy for residents in a Class 10 area are slim.
“I don’t even want to insure it,” Garland said. “See, a 10 means no fire hydrant within 1,000 feet and no fire station within five miles.”
Should Moore’s house burst into flames, he estimated it would take surrounding departments 15 minutes, at least, to respond. To complicate the matter, the nearby Babson Park Volunteer Fire Department announced last week its intention to stop fighting fires unless county fire officials loosen their training standards.
As longtime dwellers of a low-rated community, Moore and his neighbors offered a perspective those in nearby Alturas might find helpful. Because of a past injury, Moore uses a golf cart to roll down his neighborhood’s dirt roads. He pointed at the houses along the roadside, some expansive, others modest.
“I feel sure that if we had a fire, I’d have to get a lawyer to help me get anything,” he said. “Some don’t even carry insurance because it’s so blooming high.”
According to his yearly statements, Moore pays close to $1,200 a year. Down the road, Sonny Simpson, 80, refuses to pay.
“It was just under $2,000 and had jumped to about $3,000,” Simpson said of his insurance bill. “It’s just too much. You just have to make sure you don’t go off and leave the stove on. All it takes is just one spark.”
Frustrated by the rating decrease, Linkins and his colleagues described the difficulties of providing adequate coverage to every citizen in a sprawling, rural county. The department’s relationship with ISO doesn’t help, he said.
“Here we are dealing with an organization that’s not a government agency, we don’t have a seat on the board of directors, and they’re making policy changes that affect our business,” he said.
“Who’s ‘they’? I want to find out who ‘they’ is,” Assistant Chief Rick Parnell added.
In this case, “they” don’t make themselves available, directly, to reporters. The ISO calculates risk and ratings for more than 45,000 communities across the United States.
“To serve our clients, we draw upon our vast experience in data management and security and our expertise in predictive modeling,” the ISO website states. “We analyze data and present information in formats our customers can use.”
Its customers include many insurance companies that use that data to set their premiums.
The group defers queries about specific community evaluations to “the respective fire chiefs of those communities.”
If a homeowner doesn’t like the premium they get, Florida Office of Insurance Regulation spokesman Jack McDermott offered one piece of advice.
“Shop and compare,” McDermott said, “is the big thing to do here.”
The issue arose at a July Finance Committee meeting for Polk County commissioners. Having voiced concern about her constituents’ rising premiums, Commissioner Mellany Bell questioned whether raising the county fire rate for people living in Class 10 areas was fair.
“Everybody deserves the same level of service if they pay the same amount of money,” Bell said. “These people can’t get insurance anymore, and these homes are nice homes.”
But Commissioner Sam Johnson cast an opposing view, one that sharply divided their priorities.
“No offense, but when you move out into the woods or out in the country, you risk that,” Johnson said.
Moore said he lived in Polk County before the government instituted a fire rate, and when it did, he paid $28. Now he’s set to pay $160 a year. He claimed nothing changed for him, yet he pays more money. Fire officials said they empathize with people such as Moore, but argued service has improved over the years with the modernization of technology.
“They ought to take care of us like everybody else,” Moore said. “For a lot of people, this is all they got.”