For the past several months St. George’s firefighters have been intensively training for an Olympic-like competition. Can they provide enough water from the town’s various ponds to be able to respond within 15 minutes of a call with a flow of at least 250 gallons a minute and sustain that flow for at least two hours? If they can, they qualify for bronze. If test results from a drill held October 12 show that they exceed those minimums, they might even win silver or gold.
The aim, according to Fire Chief Tim Polky, is to improve the department’s ability to fight fires effectively. And if the firefighters can demonstrate that they qualify for a medal, everyone in St. George could see a decrease in the cost of their homeowner’s insurance.
“We’ve been working on this for several years,” Polky notes, sounding a bit like a coach for a little-known, disadvantaged team that has been training hard to earn a spot on the awards podium against steep odds.
There will be, of course, no actual medals involved. The measure of the firefighters’ success will be the rating the department receives from the Insurance Services Office (ISO), a company which supplies the insurance industry with information about property/casualty insurance risk. But the analogy with an underdog team training for a medal isn’t all that far afield.
“It is very difficult for fire departments in rural communities to meet the higher end of the ISO standards,” Polky explains. “Our biggest problem is water supply. We don’t have the water delivery infrastructure cities have—like water mains and pressurized fire hydrants. The ISO has a 10-point scale, with 10 being the lowest score—basically that would be a place with no firefighting capability at all. Our current rating is nine.”
There are several steps involved in changing the ISO rating. For one thing, says Polky, the ponds the department uses to supply water to its tankers need to be certified that they will have enough water whatever the conditions—whether there’s been a drought, for example, or whether they are covered with ice. And they must have a permament dry hydrant located near an all-weather road so tanker crews can access the water quickly any time of year.
“We hired an engineer to test our ponds,” Polky says. “To be certified, they have to reliably contain at least 30,000 gallons of water. So far 10 sources have passed.”
Another element needed to change the ISO rating is access to enough firefighting personnel. “One factor the ISO measures is how many firefighters show up at calls over a period of years—and how fast do they show up,” Polky explains, adding, “We’ve realized we can’t do it by ourselves anymore. While we have had a good mutual aid system in Knox County, which has allowed us to get additional help from other towns when we ask for it, what the ISO wants to see is that we have an automatic alarm system.”
The automatic system, Polky says, would guarantee that every participating town would be alerted immediately when a call comes in. “The automatic alarm system means more calls,” Polky notes, “but that can also provide more interest for volunteer and call firefighters [who get paid per call they answer]. My view is more calls, more interest, a better fire department. People don’t want to come to the station and watch the trucks rust.”
Training together is crucial, which is why the October 12 drill involved firefighters from So. Thomaston, Thomaston, Owls Head, Warren and Cushing—about 30 to 40 people in all. And training within the St. George fire department is also an ISO must. The requirement is for a minimum of 20 hours for each firefighter annually.
But time commitment to training—which is the same for volunteer and call firefighters as it is for career firefighters—may be one reason St. George is currently low on new firefighter recruits. “We especially need younger people because most of the people we have who are trained for interior work are getting older. But we have to compete with the recreational opportunities people have,” Polky says. After a reflective pause he adds, “When I was young we didn’t have a lot of money for recreation so belonging to the fire department was part of our entertainment.”
Asked what his best recruitment pitch might be, Polky’s response is immediate. “Most of us in the department stay with it because we don’t know when it will be our house that is burning. Helping your neighbors is the big pitch. It is very satisfying.”
Satisfying, too, will be the improvement in the fire department’s ISO rating once it has met or exceeded the ISO standards for a rating better than a nine. “We are shooting for a six or five rating,” Polky says, sounding determined. “We will do it. This has been one of my goals for the past 10 years.”—JW