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Insurance evaulation positive for fire department

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Gwinnett's fire department has made great strides in the past 15 years. But despite a jump in score, a recent Insurance Services Office evaluation determined homeowners premiums would not be affected.

After receiving just enough for a rating of 4 in 1996, the county department's score was less than two points away from reaching the next threshold, a Class 3, which would have dropped homeowners insurance premium rates by $30 to $40 a year.

"We're very pleased to have maintained and improved within our score," Fire Chief Bill Myers said, adding that advancements in training and equipment available helped with the increased score.

While the county did catch a break on now being able to count people who arrive to a fire scene on an ambulance -- who are certified firefighters -- in the personnel measurement, the department would have made the Class 3 ranking but for a disparity in the county's world-class water system.

Since firefighters use water to put out fires, the availability of water and inspection of fire hydrants is part of the measure. The water department did so well, though, the fire department was penalized for not being able to use all the water the county can produce.

"It does seem odd to be penalized for having such an advanced system," Myers said.

The third category up for evaluation -- the county's 911 system -- received a perfect 10, based on superior technology, equipment, personnel and training.

According to the fire chief, the biggest hurdle to advancing the ISO rating for the suburban county is that standards are based on the traditional city block, not the local geography.

For Gwinnett to receive a Class 1 certification, he said, the county would have to have 85 fire engine companies -- two-and-a-half times the current 30.

"It really is ridiculous to consider we would need 85 engines to fully cover Gwinnett County," Myers said, although he made a pitch for the adding of two stations and relocation of one to better cover the need in the northern Lawrenceville area.

The county already owns land for the three stations -- one at the entrance to Georgia Gwinnett College, another near CoolRay Field and a third in front of the police academy, and money has been set aside for construction in recent sales tax measures.

"In addition to addressing response times, we're addressing special circumstances," with those additions Myers said.

But with the downturn in the economy, Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said officials are struggling to find funds to staff the three stations 24 hours a day.

"The operating cost is the biggest factor," she said, adding that officials are looking at ways to move the projects forward. "We're looking at it."