By John Schaffner

Every year the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department is rated by a little-known New Jersey-based agency, the Insurance Services Office (ISO), and for decades Atlanta has achieved a rating of 2 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the best rating.

Atlanta’s high rating has helped keep homeowner insurance premiums among the lowest in the region. But that rating could be headed for a change, and that change could bring higher insurance premiums.

The reason: There is a problem with Atlanta’s high rating, according to Georgia Insurance and Fire Safety Commissioner John Oxendine. ISO officials have not done an on-site inspection of Atlanta since 1974, the year Maynard Jackson became the city’s first African-American mayor.

What the company has done to arrive at Atlanta’s high ratings is simply use “historical claims experience” based on actual fire losses in Atlanta.

“It is really unheard of to go this long” without a site inspection, Oxendine said. So this month he asked ISO to check out the quality of the Atlanta department’s staffing, communications equipment and fire hydrants.

Meanwhile, the Atlanta population continues to rise, and the Fire Rescue Department is making service cuts — many caused by shortfalls in last year’s city budget and an expected shortage of $50 million or more this year in the general fund, which pays for fire services.

In addition to citywide furloughs and pay cuts, the city on Christmas Day is shutting down Fire Station 23 on Howell Mill Road near I-75 for at least six months. In July, the city closed Station 7 near The Mall at West End. On top of all that, the Fire Rescue Department is facing brownouts at certain truck and engine companies when staffing levels drop below the necessary limit on any shift.

Oxendine has been assured by ISO that the agency will do a site inspection in the near future, which has some worrying that the traditional high ranking Atlanta has enjoyed will be lowered, raising homeowner and business owner insurance premiums.

The fire ratings and potential impact on future insurance rates was one of the major topics of interest to representatives of Buckhead neighborhoods at the Dec. 11 meeting of the new Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, at which Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran was the main speaker. It came up as part of his presentation on the impact of the city’s budget cuts on Fire-Rescue Department operations and staffing.