Two hundred or so Ocean Shores homeowners may see their fire insurance rates increase dramatically over the next year.
The situation involves the city’s unmanned second fire station, about 1.2 miles west of Damon Point on Marine View Drive, and the difficulty in attracting and retaining volunteer firefighters in a small town where the average age is in the high 50s.
At a city council meeting this week, Fire Chief Mike Thurier explained that the Washington State Rating Bureau, which assesses a community’s firefighting capacity to that insurers can set rates according to the risk, notified him in a letter dated April 12, from Fire Protection Analyst Eric Cunningham, that the “current Protection Classification (PC) for Ocean Shores is Protection Class 5.” That is based on the last rating audit, performed in 2016.
However, the south fire station “is not currently meeting minimum criteria to retain the PC rating of the community. Six volunteer firefighters living within five road miles of the station are required to meet minimum criteria. Properties within five road miles of only this station will have their PC rating changed to a PC 9A rating if this issue is not resolved.”
Thurier noted that the issue could also be resolved with the assignment of two paid professional firefighters to the south station. The problem, he explained, is that it was built essentially as a garage, with no living quarters for firefighters.
The chief said his informal, drive-around survey showed around 200 homes in the affected area.
He said he checked with local home insurance professionals on the possible impact on premiums, and found examples of huge increases: A $430,000 primary residence that currently paid $1,133 would jump by $811, ain increase of 72%. A $235,000 “secondary residence” now paying $862 would see an increase of $936, up 109%.
The chief said keeping enough volunteers, especially ones living within five miles of the south station, was extremely difficult due to a mix of age, increasingly high levels of training required, and the tendency of those who do become trained volunteers to seek paid work, either here or elsewhere. He noted that “we hired five of our own (volunteers) in the past four years.” He also said the problem is occurring across the country, not just regionally or locally.
Thurier told the council that he estimated building housing and otherwise setting up the south station for full-time occupancy would cost in the area of $350,000. He said it would take three new full-time firefighter hires to achieve a bare minimum staffing level of three in the main station (just south of the downtown area on Pt. Brown Avenue) and two in the south station.
In the letter, Cunningham wrote, “If we have not heard from you within 30 days from the date of this letter that you wish to provide additional information, meet to discuss this issue or propose a Protection Class improvement plan, we will publish the Protection Class changes detailed above.”
Thurier said he has already sought, and been denied, additional time due to the financial uncertainty created by the COVID-19 crisis. Council member Susan Conniry noted that, in her experience, premium rate increases are generally applied when coverage is renewed, not all at once when a new rating is applied.
Council members discussed various aspects of the situation, but ultimately reached a consensus that, until the crisis eases and the city can get a clearer look at just how much its revenues are going down, it cannot begin to formulate a plan to somehow add fire department staffing.