TREASURE ISLAND — Fire insurance rates for residents and businesses here and in neighboring Madeira Beach could triple unless the cities move quickly to strengthen their fire departments.
The problem is the cities do not have enough firefighters to meet national ISO (Insurance Service Office) rating requirements.
The cost of fire insurance is based on those rates.
Currently, both cities have a "4 out of 10" fire rating in a system where lower ratings are better.
Those ratings will increase to a "10" unless the cities act.
"We are in a bind," City Manager Reid Silverboard told the Treasure Island City Commission on Tuesday.
ISO requires that fire departments respond to all fires with a minimum of four firefighters.
In half of all fire calls during the past year, Treasure Island fire trucks carried only three firefighters, largely because of sick leave, vacations, school or military leave.
And because of city rules that also require four firefighters at a scene, no one is allowed to enter a burning building until other fire departments arrive.
"Last month we had a fire on the fourth floor of a five-story building. Fortunately we had four people on the truck," Treasure Island Fire Chief Charlie Fant said.
At other fires, the county's mutual aid system that requires neighboring fire departments to jointly respond to most fires is not sufficient for the ISO, which rates each fire department as a single entity.
"They will not recognize us as a fire department unless we beef up our staffing," Fant said. "What we don't want to do is tell the ISO we are not going to comply and be the one and only black eye in Pinellas County."
How Treasure Island will do that is still to be determined. Among the options: spending at least an extra $130,000 in the coming year for additional overtime and/or staffing or reaching a formal agreement with neighboring Madeira Beach that would effectively combine the two departments.
Neither Treasure Island nor Madeira Beach has budgeted for increased staffing and the money would have to be taken either from reserves or by cutting other city expenses.
Madeira Beach City Manager W.D. Higginbotham Jr. said his city maintained its rating by promising the ISO it would reach an agreement with Treasure Island.
"Our inspector said our rating would be immediately changed unless we did something," Higginbotham said. "I wasn't going to expose my city to a 10 rating."
He said he spoke with Silverboard to propose the two cities formally contract to respond to each other's fire calls.
Higginbotham said such an agreement would effectively create a two-station department like those operated by the cities of Seminole or St. Pete Beach, where each city has two stations operating within 5 miles of each other.
Seminole meets the four firefighter requirement by manning each station truck with two firefighters, according to Higginbotham.
"We would function as a single fire department like in larger cities, but administratively and financially we would still be separate departments," Higginbotham said.
By entering into such an agreement, there would be no additional cost to taxpayers in either city.
"It would be transparent to residents to both cities," Higginbotham said.
Silverboard told his commissioners he favors such an idea, but said it could take some time to work out the details.
Meanwhile, Silverboard said he will have to increase staffing on the city's fire truck through the use of overtime. He did not know whether the firefighters' union would have an issue with that.
Silverboard plans to send a letter to the ISO next week pledging that his city will meet the ISO four-firefighter requirement.