MOULTRIE -- The volunteer fire association is putting together a five-year plan with the ultimate goal of achieving an Insurance Service Organization (ISO) rating of 4, which would translate into lower insurance rates for homeowners.

The ISO rating improvement Colquitt County Volunteer Fire Association President Billy Glass had hoped for this year may not be realized until 2004. The VFA is aiming to lower the county's rating from a 6/9 (meaning parts of the county are not within five miles of a fire department) to a 4/9, Glass said.

"County residents are benefiting big time from the fire departments, not only from the view point of protection but also the savings on insurance," he said.

Two years ago, county homeowners saved more than $1 million in insurance premiums -- a savings of 20 to 25 percent. The upcoming rating, if achieved, would whittle down premiums another 6 percent or so, Glass said.

"We could probably go to a 4 rating in the county, but after that it's going to be pretty tough," he said. To get a better rating, he said, the county would have to spend millions making every bridge in the county meet weight limits.

Since January, the VFA has been working heavily on improving the rating without great expense. For instance, every department is now on the same paper trail, Glass said -- same forms, same reports.

"It's these little things that stops you from getting a 4 or a 5 ISO rating for the county," he explained.

Training was an area Colquitt County came up short on four years ago, but now man-hour training has doubled, Glass said, because every station now has a training officer at the station level when it did not previously.

And training could improve with the VFA's consideration of a contract with the City of Moultrie, which might contribute to a better ISO. Instead of employing a VFA coordinator, the volunteer force and the city would share a secretary, a public education officer and a training officer.

The focus of a training officer for the entire association, in particular, would contribute to the rating, Glass said.

Proper display of house numbers improves emergency response times, thus improving the ISO rating. Right now, only half of county residences have house numbers in plain sight, Glass said.

One improvement in the last couple of years that contributes to a more favorable rating at minimal cost to the VFA is the number of available dry hydrants -- designated water sources, such as ponds, from which firefighters can pull water. At the last ISO ratings change, Colquitt County had 52 dry hydrants at its disposal. The number is now almost 70, but Glass is shooting for 120, he said.

The force, about 155 strong, has leveled off in the last seven or so years. About half are trained as first responders. One-quarter also work as emergency medical technicians.

The VFA has 15 fire departments, the newest of which is Rocky Ford Volunteer Fire Department (VFD). Mapping for Rocky Ford and another new department, West Side VFD, is in progress now.

Though he recognizes that the communities of Reedy Creek on the east side of Colquitt County and Poplar Arbor on the west side of the county need fire protection coverage, the priority right now is to get the three departments that were added in the last four years equipped and as capable as the rest of the association, Glass said.

The county gave the association every penny it asked for, but the VFA budget for the upcoming fiscal year is $395,300 -- $20,000 less than the current year.

A couple of years ago, the county agreed to supply the volunteers a new engine each year, but this year Glass got the go-ahead to lease-purchase five 2003 engines for about $700,000, saving the county about $10,000 per truck, he said. This would mean that 10 departments would benefit from the new trucks since VFA engines are passed down the line. But it would also mean that the VFA would not get any new engines for the next five years.

As it stands, several of the departments are driving some pretty old vehicles. Rocky Ford, the newest department, drives a 1964 engine. After the purchase, the oldest engine would be about 1972, Glass said.

"That's one area that we really needed to step up our pace," he said.

The VFA opens bids at the end of the month, Glass said. The departments of Berlin, Ellenton, Norman Park, Funston and Bay will all get new engines.

Three years ago, the VFA asked the county to buy an air compressor to fill firefighters' breathing apparatus. The volunteers had been relying on the city's good graces to use its compressor up until last year when three departments received federal grants to purchase one compressor each. This year, Livingston Bridge Volunteer Fire Department received $43,000 in federal money, including another compressor.

"We know we're going to have four in the county now, when we were hoping for one," Glass said.

On average, it takes about $10,000 annually to adequately run a department, he said. Five thousand of that comes from the county. The rest comes from community support.

"The fire departments are very thankful to the communities and to everyone that supports them," Glass said. "Colquitt County is very, very blessed to have the fire departments that they have."

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