The rating comes from the national Insurance Services Office. Its ratings may be used to help set property insurance rates for homes and businesses. Cities may also use their ratings as an economic development tool to attract new businesses.
Fire Chief Michael Thomson told City Council on Sept. 14 that ISO personnel evaluated his department in May. The independent review provides a rating from 1 to 10, with 1 being the highest. The rating reflects “a community’s overall capability to prevent and suppress structure fires,” according to the company’s website.
When Highland Village was last reviewed in 2005, it received an ISO score of 2. Thomson told the council he expects an ISO rating of 3/3x this year. The split rating is because some properties are more than 1,000 feet from a fire hydrant. The chief told the council that additional data has been submitted to the ISO, which could change the city’s score to a 3.
Thomson said he has enough personnel to staff one fire engine and one ambulance at a time. He cited a recent example when his crew was participating at a McAuliffe Elementary School pep rally. Firefighters had to interrupt the event to respond to a vehicle fire, the chief said.
"We do not have the staffing adequately to respond to those larger, more complex incidents,” Thomson told the council.
Calls for service have increased about 20% between fiscal years 2005-06 and 2019-20, according to city statistics. The fire department saw a nearly 6.3% decline in total calls between fiscal years 2018-19 and 2019-20 due in part to the pandemic, according to city budget documents. But calls for service are back up.
“We’ve seen a 23% increase in our calls this year and a 37% increase in our overlapping calls,” Thomson told council.
Overlapping calls occur when the department is out on a call when it receives a new call for service.
To obtain a higher rating, the ISO recommends the fire department add 12 employees to staff a second fire engine, Thomson said. The cost is about $1 million a year, according to discussions.
“That is a huge pill to swallow,” Mayor Charlotte Wilcox said.
In 2005, when the department was last evaluated, it had part-timers and volunteers available to staff a second fire truck, Thomson said. That is no longer the case.
Since 2016, the Highland Village Fire Department has had 22 full-time employees. In addition to the fire chief, the department has an assistant chief, a deputy chief and an administrative coordinator. The other 18 are split into three shifts to respond to calls. Each shift has a captain, a driver and four firefighters. Each shift works 48 hours on and 96 hours off, according to city documents.
“If we have a house fire in Highland Village, our department by itself can’t save that house,” Council Member Daniel Jaworski said at the meeting. “We’re going to have to have help.”
At the time of the fire chief’s presentation, the city’s FY 2021-22 budget was in the final stages of approval. No fire personnel were added with the budget’s Sept. 21 approval.
Fire Department staffing levels have come up in the past, Sept. 14 discussions showed.
According to a statement issued by the city, it will consider “the ISO recommendations, along with other factors including future development and available funding” during the budget process in the coming years.
“Highland Village is approaching substantial build-out, and the focus is to continue the high level of service expected by Highland Village residents with an emphasis on fiscal responsibility to ensure sustainability,” according to the statement.
Thomson cited information from the Texas Department of Insurance, which estimates residential insurance rates could potentially go up about 8.8% due to the city’s lower rating. Commercial rates could go up about 2%, estimates showed. He said it could be one to three years before residents and businesses see any impact in their insurance premiums.
“Homeowners may wish to contact their insurance companies to determine if there is an impact with the new rating on their annual premiums,” according to the city’s statement.
Nearly 15% of the 39,200 fire departments reviewed nationwide have an ISO rating of 3 or above, according to data on the ISO website. In Texas, almost 24% of fire departments have an ISO rating of 3 or above.
“The Highland Village Fire Department is an excellent department with top-tier response times and strong mutual aid agreements with area departments,” according to the city’s statement. “An ISO rating of 3 is a good rating.”
Mutual-aid agreements allow nearby cities to help each other during emergencies, but those departments are busy as well, Thomson said. Bringing in fire crews from other cities also increases response times in Highland Village by an average of six to nine minutes, he said.
Flower Mound currently has a split ISO rating of 2/2x. Based on its ISO review in March, Flower Mound’s rating will increase to a 1/1x on Dec. 1, according to the town’s website.
Lewisville has an ISO rating of 2. Chief Mark McNeal said the Lewisville Fire Department is being reviewed in December. He said he is hoping his department will advance to an ISO rating of 1.
Thomson said he believes Highland Village will be the only city in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the last 20 years to go down in its ISO rating. The city has also added more homes and more businesses since the last review.
“We haven’t grown as much as we maybe should have to keep up with the growth and demand in our community,” Thomson said.