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Sunday, May. 04, 2014

Insurance rating ranks Lenexa Fire Department the best in metro area

Special to The Star

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Lenexa’s fire department is not only the best in the metro area, it’s the best in the state, according to an insurance rating.

In July Lenexa will become the only Class 1 community in Kansas based on the Insurance Services Office rating for the quality and effectiveness of municipal fire departments. The ranking looks at a department’s equipment, staffing, distribution, 911 call system and water supply, as well as internal operations including governance and finance. Most insurance companies use the ISO ratings to set premiums.

The Lenexa Fire Department has been working for a better ISO ranking for some time, said Deputy Fire Chief Lonny Owen.

Lenexa became an internationally accredited fire department in 2002 and has been the highest-rated fire department in the state since reaching Class 2 a few years ago. Olathe, Overland Park and Johnson County Consolidated Fire District No. 2, together with about 49 other departments in Kansas, are rated as Class 3 communities. Most of the 1,210 departments in Kansas that the ISO ranks are either class 6 or 9. Johnson County Fire District 2, a separate department from the consolidated district, ranges from Class 3 to 10 depending on the station because they cover the mostly rural southern portion of Johnson County and Miami County.

In January the state adopted new ISO ratings guidelines that factored in partnerships with other departments, fire prevention programs and public education. With the new ISO guidelines, other stations in the metro area could see a bump in their rating.

Lenexa has five stations with a total of 84 firefighters, five fire trucks and two medical units. When a call comes in to Lenexa, the first unit will be on the scene within six minutes and 39 seconds 90 percent of the time, with the rest of the units arriving within 10 minutes. Stations have real-time displays of street congestion so drivers can plot the quickest point to an emergency, Owens said. And on the way there, a device inside the truck can switch red lights to green.

But it’s not all about the number of firefighters and speed. Departments like Lenexa place fire stations most strategically. Administrators continually study the types and frequency of emergencies to determine which stations need resources. Like any organization, fire departments must conduct business efficiently, and ISO ratings factor into governing policies and finances.

“It forces us to look at how effective we are,” Owens said. “We want to provide the best and most reliable service.”

One of the major factors in an ISO rating is the availability of water, which is handled in Lenexa by WaterOne. The independent water utility operates 17,000 hydrants and about 2,600 miles of pipe — enough to stretch from New York to Los Angeles. Lenexa and other fire departments rely on WaterOne’s system when battling a structure fire. Along with serving over 400,000 people in the metro area, the company inspects hydrants and other equipment routinely, said WaterOne communications coordinator Mandy Cawby.

“Our standards were crucial for Lenexa to reach their rating,” Cawby said.

Another key aspect to a high ISO rating is an automated response system. All fire and medical calls in Johnson County are dispatched through the Johnson County Emergency Communications Center. That center and fire departments use an automatic aid system that immediately dispatches the closest unit. When when police dispatchers receive a fire or medical call they immediately transfer the call to the communications center, a process that takes about three seconds, said the center’s deputy director, Ellen Werincke.

A system that pinpoints the emergency either based on a landline address or what the caller says automatically dispatches the nearest unit. So if a call comes in from Olathe, but a Lenexa fire station is closer, the Lenexa station will respond first.

Last year the communications center dispatched about 55,000 calls, of which just under 500 were structure fires at a house or other building, Werincke said. About 97 percent of those calls were dispatched within 60 seconds or less. Owens said the communications center is crucial to the success of his and the other Johnson County departments.

“When we bring people here from across the country they’re amazed,” he said.

Lenexa’s rating will also help other departments in the metro area. Olathe’s fire department is always studying other cities, looking for the best practices and ways to improve, Olathe Fire Capt. Mike Hall said. The departments in Johnson County work together to help improve each other’s service.

“If someone needs help in Johnson County they’re here to help us and we’re here to help them,” he said

For residents, not only does the Class 1 ranking mean Lenexa’s department is top notch, it could also mean lower insurance premiums. Some insurance companies base coverage cost on the total fire damage in a ZIP code, but most use the ISO ratings. In Overland Park, Fire Chief Bryan Dehner is interested in whether or not businesses and residents in Lenexa see savings from the city’s new rating. Departments often invest millions of dollars in new equipment and other resources.

“Then we can say the benefits to the community are greater,” Dehner said.

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