Brattleboro Fire Dept. braces for inspection

Company rates fire departments for use in insurance premium calculations; a better rating could mean savings for property owners

BRATTLEBORO — The fire department has spent the last few weeks preparing for an audit from the Insurance Services Office (ISO), and property owners will save on their insurance premiums if the department improves its status.

Fire Chief Michael Bucossi called the ISO visit “a big deal” - and a source of a little anxiety and a lot of excitement.

The ISO - a subsidiary of Verisk Analytics - provides statistical and actuarial information to clients, mostly insurance companies.

The company's Public Protection Classification program rates a fire department's service to its community on a scale of 1 (best) to 10 (worst). Insurance companies then use the classification as one of many factors when building a policy for a property owner.

According to ISO, communities with a better PPC rating tend to pay lower premiums. When the town last underwent an ISO audit in 2014, the department received a classification of 3.

According to Bucossi, the program scrutinizes performance markers such as response time, staffing levels, equipment, the municipal hydrant system, training, fire-prevention programs, and public education and outreach.

“From my perspective, it's great because we can help save homeowners money,” Bucossi said.

New communication equipment at Central Dispatch is one item Bucossi hopes will tip the scales in the department's favor.

At the March 23 Representative Annual Town Meeting, the body authorized $33,000 for a new digital alarm receiver there, part of the town phasing out its hard-wired municipal alarm system in favor of a wireless system, Bucossi said.

He described the digital receiver as “the brains” of the new wireless system, which he expects will also save the department money by lowering maintenance costs.

Right now the town maintains 322 alarm boxes - installed in buildings and at street level - and approximately 30 miles of fire-alarm cable.

Bucossi also expects the department's fire prevention and outreach programs will help the ISO score.

He said that the department responded to fewer fires last year than in previous years.

“Those numbers are in direct correlation to our fire-prevention programs,” he said.

More people have installed early-detection fire and carbon-monoxide detectors in their buildings, Bucossi continued - “which is good.”

The department also started an “adopt-a-school” program that was two years in the making.

Each of the department's three shifts has adopted one of the town's elementary schools. Members of that shift spend time interacting with children and sharing activities like eating lunch, reading stories, or playing at recess, Bucossi explained.

The program gives firefighters time to discuss safety issues and answer kids' questions, yes, but it also helps kids become comfortable with “the uniform,” he added.

“So if something happens, the kids aren't afraid to come to us,” he said.

This comfort level is important, because most children's instincts when facing danger is to hide, according to Bucossi. They've also been taught to avoid strangers.

“We don't want to be that stranger,” he said.

A record number of calls

In 2018, firefighters responded to a record 2,550 calls, which have increased by 44 percent since 2002, when the number was 1,769.

“I think that we continue to try to take on more and more and find different ways to serve the community,” he said.

That said, Bucossi has seen an uptick in the number of calls related to opiate overdoses. Last year, the department responded to 109 such calls, including five fatalities.

These types of calls have “taken a definite toll on the guys,” Bucossi said.

He estimates firefighters are called on an average of once per week to perform CPR on someone who has overdosed.

Over the last three years the number of opiate-related calls has “exploded on us,” he said.

Bucossi said that another response issue which has “ramped up” over the last five to six years: active-shooter scenarios.

“It just takes us into a different direction” as a department, he said.

Bucossi said that the department created a school-crisis- response plan approximately six years ago. It updates this plan annually.

Preparing for such incidents or other acts of violence has also changed department training, he added.

Last year, in response to safety concerns he had for his firefighters, Bucossi purchased eight ballistic vests with donations of funds from two local businesses, C.E. Bradley Laboratories Inc. and Champion Overhead Door.

Bucossi said the donations made the acquisitions possible because its unusual for a fire department to receive grant money for ballistic vests.

“When I started, the fire department put out fires,” he said. “It's just a different world now.”

In his annual report, Bucossi noted that he recently read an article in a trade magazine that asked: Is the term “fire prevention” outdated, and should the term instead be “community risk reduction”?

Bucossi wrote in response, “The primary responsibility of BFD is to proactively protect the citizens of the community, and this includes many other activities in addition to fire prevention.”

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