A preliminary ruling from an organization that provides information to the insurance industry would drop the rating of city of Billings' firefighting capabilities two points on a 10-point scale.
Fire insurance rates for homeowners and businesses could go up based on the new rating, but Fire Chief Paul Dextras said he has already made progress in persuading the Insurance Service Office to raise the city's rating.
Dextras said a representative of the ISO, which is based Jersey City, N.J., came to Billings several months ago to conduct an evaluation. Since then, Dextras has been making adjustments to the Fire Department and working to provide the ISO with more information.
"The nice thing about the ISO is, when they come in for a short time, they realize they don't understand everything about a fire department," Dextras said.
The ISO generally revises its ratings every 10 years, but Dextras said it has been 12 years since the last evaluation, when Billings was rated 3. On the 10-point scale, the best rating is 1. In the preliminary rating ISO gave the city, that would drop two levels to 5.
Based on his discussions with the ISO, Dextras said he is reasonably certain the rating will be raised to a 4. Getting to 3, he said, would require substantial increases in staffing, equipment and the number of fire stations.
The city of Billings actually was given two ratings in the preliminary report — a 5 for the city proper and a 9 for those areas of the county to which the department provides coverage, known as the Billings Urban Fire Service Area.
"It looks real possible that the city is going to qualify for a 4-9 rating," Dextras said. The final rating will be determined in August, he said.
Dextras said the ISO will probably give the city a better rating based on his assurances that the department will significantly improve its training program, with more emphasis on fire suppression. Other steps will involve the reallocation of equipment between fire stations and providing the ISO with more information about the cross-staffing of firefighters on multiple pieces of equipment.
Dan Cotrell, president of the local firefighters union, said the ISO rating "paints a pretty clear picture: we need more fire stations and more staffing. ... It's pretty sad that we just didn't keep up with the times."
Joe Sands, a member of the union's executive committee, faulted the City Council and administrators for building a new fire station on the West End but then failing to staff it fully.
He was referring to a 2007 decision to rescind six hiring offers and eliminate one deputy chief position in order to pay for a judgment in case filed over back wages by 116 current and former firefighters. With various benefits added in, the cost of the judgment came to $4.8 million.
Sands said Great Falls, which slipped from a 3 rating to a 4 in the latest ISO evaluation, is operating just like Billings: "They take their budget shortages out on public safety."
Dextras said it would be better if those seven positions could have been preserved, but they probably wouldn't have been enough to improve the city's ISO rating.
He said the ratings are based on the quality of a city's 911 communications, 10 percent; its water distribution system, 40 percent; and its fire department, 50 percent.
He said it was unclear how the rating would affect insurance rates, since rates are based on so many variables. In 2003, when a private consultant did a staffing study for the Fire Department, it said in its final report that fire premiums would be essentially unchanged whether a city's ISO fire rating was 3, 4 or 5.
At the time that study was done, Dextras said, the city had six fire stations and 97 firefighters in the suppression division. It now has seven stations and 105 firefighters. The trouble is, he said, the city has also annexed subdivisions like Briarwood, on Blue Creek Road, and the Rehberg Ranch Estates, on top of the Rims.
Both are considerable distances from the nearest fire stations, which affects the city's ISO rating, he said.