Westhaven resident Allan Woodworth recently got a letter from his insurance company, Allstate, informing him that they were terminating his homeowner's policy. Outraged, he called his local agent, who explained that his property has been classified as a level-10 fire risk, the highest possible ranking. The ratings, he was told, are calculated by a national advisory corporation called Insurance Services Office (ISO), and there was little he could do change his.
"They said they could write me a lesser policy for double the cost," Woodworth recalled. "They said this was happening to other residents in my area and I could file an appeal, but no one ever wins."
Undeterred, Woodworth decided to get to the bottom of this. He couldn't for the life of him figure out why his house was suddenly deemed so dangerous. There's a fire hydrant across the street and another less than 500 feet up the road, he said. Plus his home is within three miles of both the Westhaven Volunteer Fire Department and the Cal Fire station in Trinidad, which operates 24/7/365 thanks to a contract with the county and property tax assessments on area residents. To Woodworth it just didn't add up.
Over the next few weeks he spent hours on the phone and writing letters. He contacted the chiefs of his local fire departments, corporate representatives for Allstate, a public relations rep at ISO (after multiple attempts, he said) and even the office of the state insurance commissioner. Yet no one has been able to provide a simple, straightforward answer to the riddle. One thing he did learn, though, is that he's not alone. Local fire departments have been fielding calls for months from residents in the same boat as Woodworth.
Paul Rosenblatt, chief of the Westhaven Volunteer Fire Department, told the Journal that the rate hikes can be traced back to the large fires in Southern California over the past decade. Insurance companies sustained major losses after the widespread infernos of 2003, 2007 and 2008. "That's when we started getting some real scrutiny," Rosenblatt said.
ISO, the agency that evaluates fire risk on behalf of insurance companies, has considered Westhaven a 10 for more than five years, so Rosenblatt figures the rate hikes are the result of insurance companies tightening their belts by paying stricter attention to ISO's numbers. And that's a problem. "Most of Humboldt County is going to be paying astronomical rates because of the way ISO rates rural fire departments," he said.
The system is designed to evaluate municipal fire departments and makes no allowances for the more nuanced approach taken in rural communities, Rosenblatt said. In Westhaven, for example, Cal Fire and WVFD are dispatched simultaneously in the event of a structure fire, yet ISO bases its analysis solely on a "primary" responder for each region -- Cal Fire, in Westhaven's case. "Something's wrong with the system if the state of California [as represented by Cal Fire] is rated as a 10," Rosenblatt said incredulously. "A 24-hour-a-day manned fire station is rated as a 10? The state fire department? Are you kidding me? Something's wrong with the system."
That system -- at least ISO's portion of it -- is fairly complex. In an e-mailed response to inquiries by the Journal, an ISO spokesperson explained that the company's fire protection ratings are determined as follows: 50 percent is based on evaluation of the fire department (including its equipment, staffing levels, training and geographic location), 40 percent on water supply (available pressure and volume, condition and location of hydrants, etc.) and 10 percent on emergency communications (911 telephone systems, operator supervision, etc.).
Yet the intricacies of ISO's system remain opaque, and its findings are sometimes based on bad information, according to Fortuna Volunteer Fire Department Chief Lon Wilburn. In the course of reevaluating that city's rating, Wilburn said, ISO somehow missed many of the fire hydrants, causing a number of homes to be mistakenly identified as level-10 risks. Wilburn has been communicating with the company and hopes to get the confusion cleared up in the next few weeks. But he remains flummoxed by the methodology. "They [recently] made another change in their rating system, and they have yet to give us a good explanation for that change," Wilburn said.
Frustration over ISO's ratings -- and the resulting insurance rate hikes, which are not limited to Allstate -- appears to be widespread. Cal Fire Battalion Chief Tom Nix said the Trinidad station has received roughly 30 calls from resentful residents, as have department chiefs across the North Coast, from Ferndale to Kneeland, Briceland to Salyer. "I don't know if [insurance companies] are pulling out of high-risk areas or what the deal is," Nix said.
According to Bill Mellander, an Allstate spokesman in Sacramento, many California customers saw rate changes this year as a result of a statewide ISO audit of fire protection services. "Any time ISO re-audits, people's rates are going to change," Mellander said. "Some will go up, some will go down." He added that anyone who believes they've been rated improperly should speak to their local agent. When told that Westhaven's fire suppression rating has remained unchanged for five years yet rates still went up for many residents, Mellander said he'd look into it and get back to us. Unfortunately, his follow-up call did not come in by press time.
One local fire chief believes he knows what's motivating all the rate hikes. Tim Olsen, the raspy-voiced chief of the Briceland Volunteer Fire Department, said that for one thing, Chief Rosenblatt is right: Most of the insurance claims in recent years stemmed from large fires in Southern California, where wildlands and urban housing interface. ISO's system for evaluating truly rural districts like those in Humboldt County simply doesn't reflect the true risk of structure damage, he said. His arguments with ISO have not been fruitful, but he's not about to quit.
"I intend to pursue this," Olsen said. "I've had it with ’em. I don't think it's just [and] I don't think it's right."
But as he sees it, ISO is merely one contagion of a larger disease, a systemic infection that's threatening the very fabric of our country. "Corporate America is marching over all the small people ... " he said. "They're gonna tap us dry. We're gonna become a banana republic in about three years. That's the way I see it. People are sitting on their asses and they're not standing up. ... We live in a failed state."
Allan Woodworth is standing up. Or he's trying to, anyway. He's still researching and reaching out, hoping someone can explain why his rates went through the roof. In the meantime, he had to take what he could get -- a lesser policy for nearly double the cost.