Waco’s investments in fire safety over the last decade are paying off in a designation that could lower homeowners’ insurance bills.
The Insurance Services Office, or ISO, has recommended the city for its top rating of Class 1 under the Public Protection Classification that insurers use to set fire insurance rates. The city has had an ISO rating of Class 2 since 2009 and was previously a Class 4 on a scale of 1 to 10.
Representatives from the ISO rating agency will recognize the city for its efforts at the Waco City Council, slated for 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Waco Convention Center’s Bosque Theatre. The new rating will take effect March 1, pending approval by the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
Assistant City Manager Bradley Ford said the rating is the result of 10 years of work, and a steady climb toward better response times and good water pressure.
“It’s a proud moment certainly for the fire and water department, and everyone involved,” Ford said.
The review covers fire department operations, equipment and staff, but spans other city departments as well. Ford said 40% of the rating comes from the city’s water system, and depends on water pressure, number of hydrants and the amount of water available.
“It hits on a lot of different groups, dispatch, emergency management, even part of our [Information Technology] department,” Ford said. “It’s a real team win.”
Only 350 of 40,000 rated departments across the U.S. are classified as Class 1, or fewer than 1 percent. Those include 57 Class 1 departments in Texas.
“This is a really significant honor, and something that represents years of investments in our fire and water safety by the council,” Ford said. “It’s a big deal.”
Ford said former fire Chief Bobby Tatum, who retired in 2019, oversaw many of the improvements that went into the new rating. Waco Interim Fire Chief Kevin McGee said the department scored higher in deployment of tactical units, dispatch, training and water supply.
The department added a backup location for dispatch, where dispatchers could relocate if forced to evacuate their first location during an emergency.
“Now, we can receive 911 calls and dispatch them under different contingencies,” McGee said.
New fire station locations change the rating as well by reducing response times in various parts of town. The city built the new Fire Station 5 at 4515 Bagby Ave. in 2019 and is poised to build Fire Station 6 in a new location on North 25th Street. The existing Station 6 is one of the city’s smallest but busiest stations.
“As time goes by, development occurs in areas you might not have anticipated years ago,” McGee said.
Since the last ISO assessment in 2013, the city increased the number of units at each structure fire from three engines and a truck to four engines, a truck and a battalion chief. Each engine is run by a crew of three, with the exception of one four-person team.
Hewitt Fire Captain Eric White said Hewitt sits at a Class 3 rating. To achieve that rating five years ago, the city had to hire additional personnel. He said they’d need even more to climb to a 2 or 1. Currently, five firefighters serve on each shift.
“We have 16 firefighters, including the fire chief,” White said.
George Chase, president of Insurors of Texas, said he has been happy to watch Waco improve from a Class 4 to a 1 over the years.
“It helps the carrier you might be with, and it allows for more competition, because more carriers should be interested,” Chase said.
Chase said commercial insurance rates tend to change less because there are more variables involved. For example, office buildings aren’t as vulnerable to fires as restaurants.
“In Texas, honestly, weather is the biggest factor for insurance rates,” Chase said.
Tommy Ross, owner of Ross Insurance Agency, said the ratings are particularly important to homeowners insurance pricing, and will impact renters insurance as well.
Rural areas served by volunteer fire departments tend to score on the lower end of the scale, and homeowners might pay 40% to 50% more than someone living in a city rated 1 or 2.
Ross said safety improvements in Waco’s ETJ have especially made a difference.
“We’ve seen that as Waco brings in more [fire safety], the more it helps us in our pricing,” Ross said. “It’s all based on response time.”
Ross said the new rating won’t change insurance rates immediately. As policies come up for renewal, insurance companies will take the new rating into consideration.
“Going from a 2 to a 1 isn’t huge, but it should help,” Ross said. “This is great news.”