Public Safety

New Fire Assessment Could Mean Lower Insurance Rates

Potrero Sign in aftermath of Border Fire

The San Diego County Fire Authority has reached a milestone.

An independent fire rating agency informed the Board of Supervisors Tuesday that the County Fire Authority’s capabilities when it comes to fighting structural fires now rank in the top 10 percent nationally. The new assessment could lead to lowered insurance rates for property owners in the County Fire Authority’s vast service area.

The new assessment marks a major achievement for the County Fire Authority, just eight years after the agency first set out to transform and boost fire and emergency service levels in the rural backcountry, following the devastating 2003 and 2007 firestorms.

The company, known as the Insurance Service Office (ISO), assesses the capabilities of fire agencies across the country. After a comprehensive, months-long process, a company official said Tuesday that ISO recently issued the County Fire Authority a Public Protection Classification, or rating, of 3/3x, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 representing an exemplary fire suppression program and 10 indicating the program does not meet minimum criteria. Of the more than 48,000 jurisdictions ISO has evaluated across the country, only 4,607 have received a rating of 3 or better. The new classification takes effect Jan. 1, 2017.

Insurance companies use these ratings to set premiums, so the better ratings may mean lower insurance rates for some property owners in County Fire Authority coverage area.

“The new ISO evaluation results are further validation of the continuous commitment shown by the County and this Board of Supervisors to improve fire and emergency service levels in the rural backcountry,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Ron Roberts. “Public safety is our top priority, and it’s also an added benefit if our efforts can help residents and businesses get a break on their insurance rates.”

Board of Supervisors Vice Chair Dianne Jacob called the achievement “a really big deal.” “It’s a red-letter day,” she said. “It’s the culmination of many, many years of work.”

Jacob applauded how far the County has come in terms of building fire resources, and also what she hopes the new assessments will do for property owners’ pocketbooks.

Supervisor Bill Horn also recognized the tremendous amount of work that went into achieving the new ratings.

“This is the first time I’ve seen this rate go down,” Horn said, describing the new rate as a “dividend” to every citizen of the County, because wildfires have struck both rural parts of the County and also cities.

The County Fire Authority’s service area covers 1,500 square miles of San Diego County, including the communities of Palomar Mountain, Santa Ysabel, Warner Springs, Ocotillo Wells, Pine Valley, Jamul, Boulevard, Jacumba and more.

County officials plan to notify affected property owners through the mail. Property owners are encouraged to contact their insurance companies to find out how the new classification may affect their policy.

The County formed the Fire Authority in 2008. In the years since, the agency has reorganized fire services in its service area, bringing 18 largely volunteer run departments into one agency, jointly operated with the CAL FIRE San Diego Unit. The agency includes a large number of career firefighters and has a high level of training for volunteer reserves. The Fire Authority has strategically upgraded fire stations to include Advanced Life Support Paramedic engines.

Overall, the County has spent more than $350 million on wildland fire and emergency preparedness since 2003. This includes adding a third firefighting and rescue helicopter and signing an agreement with the City of San Diego to deploy its night-flying firefighting helicopters as needed. The Fire Authority has also upgraded and standardized all fire apparatus, including replacing nearly all structural firefighting engines, adding nine new wildland patrol engines, and three new water tenders. The Fire Authority also built a new fire station in Boulevard and has made improvements at other fire stations.

Before the Fire Authority was created, the previously independent fire agencies located in the backcountry were independently evaluated by ISO and received ratings of between 4/9 and 9/10.

ISO works across the country with insurance companies, communities, fire departments, insurance regulators and others to assess risk. ISO staff gathers information about municipal fire suppression efforts, and then comes up with classifications using a uniform set of criteria. These are then used by insurance companies to establish premiums for homeowners and commercial fire insurance.

The ratings are based on a number of factors including an agency’s emergency communications capabilities, firefighting training levels, apparatus and equipment and staffing, as well as community water supply.

The milestone comes at a critical time, as the region is entering a peak fire season with an above average potential for large fires, County Fire Authority and CAL FIRE San Diego Unit Chief Tony Mecham told the Board Tuesday. The state continues to experience a prolonged drought and is seeing unprecedented levels of tree die-offs. Fuel moisture levels are lower than they have ever been locally, and Mecham said they could dip still further.

To prepare for peak fire season, County officials are urging residents to take precautions including creating 100 feet of defensible space around their homes. Defensible space is an area within 100 feet of a structure that is free of dry and dead brush, helping increase the likelihood that the home will survive a wildfire event and also provide a safer place for firefighters operate when defending the structures from wildfires.

Authorities suggest doing all yard work that requires a gas or electrical motor before 10 a.m., and not in the heat of day or when the wind is blowing, to prevent fires.

Property owners can take other key steps to prepare for emergencies including: being ready to evacuate in 15 minutes, creating an emergency plan with your family, registering for the region’s mass notification system, AlertSanDiego, to get potentially life-saving messages on your cell phone during emergencies and downloading the County’s no cost SD Emergency app for information before, during and after disasters.

For even more tips on how to prepare you and your family in your property visit ReadySanDiego.org or in Spanish at ListoSanDiego.org.

Michele Clock is a group communications officer with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact