Claim: The city’s proposed changes to emergency services infrastructure will result in higher home insurance rates
The city’s push to consolidate rural fire stations throughout Greater Sudbury has sparked public concern that home insurance rates will spike.
The proposed plan would see the number of fire stations drop from 23 to 14, meaning various properties will be positioned farther from fire stations.
Most insurance underwriters require residential properties to be at least eight to 13 kilometres from fire stations in order to be considered protected.
Various numbers have been bandied about by residents when it comes to potential impacts to insurance rates, with some people saying the amount they pay will skyrocket.
Central to the discussion is the fact that understaffed fire stations do little to combat fires — a point Fire Underwriters Survey factored into their findings, which affect insurance rates issued by the approximately 85 per cent of insurance companies in Canada that use their data.
The Dwelling Protection Grade maps the Fire Underwriters Survey provided to the city rank properties as one through five, with one considered “fully protected” and five “unprotected.”
Fully protected areas are coloured turquoise and unprotected areas are red.
There’s a lot of red in the City of Greater Sudbury map, including around some existing fire stations with low volunteerism.
Although classified as “unprotected” according to underwriters, it doesn’t mean Greater Sudbury Fire Services members aren’t responding to calls. It just means they’re likely arriving after a flashover has occurred, and home insurance will be more expensive as a result. ‘Flashover’ is the point in a fire when the surrounding temperature reaches the point when every combustible surface exposed to heat in an enclosed space rapidly and simultaneously ignites.
So, what should property owners know about the Fire Underwriters Survey and how the city’s proposed plan will affect how much they pay for home insurance?
How the Fire Underwriters Survey works
The Fire Underwriters Survey is a national organization that provides data on public fire protection for fire insurance statistical work and underwriting purposes.
It’s up to each insurance company to interpret the underwriters data, which explains why Greater Sudbury residents are reporting different things when it comes to how their home insurance rates will be affected.
In short, the Fire Underwriters Survey helps determine the level of risk for individual properties, company VP Michael Currie told Sudbury.com.
“There’s a really rigorous assessment that’s done of the overall level of protection done by each fire station in each fire protection area,” he said, noting they factor in firefighter training, turnout, equipment, apparatus, fire station proximity and other variables.
“One of the main things that we’d like to see, or that we give the most credit for, is for adequate resources to be available prior to when we’d expect a flashover to occur,” he said.
These “adequate resources” include apparatus 15 years and younger, and a crew of at least four volunteer firefighters consistently responding to calls, year-round. A minimum of 15 firefighters is required on each volunteer fire station’s roster.
An ideal proximity to a fire station is “adjacent,” but they typically recommend a cut-off of eight kilometres away from a fire station, for one- or two-family dwellings. Some insurers with increased appetite for risk have been known to extend it as far as 13 kilometres. For commercial properties, they recommend nothing farther than five kilometers away from a fire station.
“It’s up to insurers to interpret that information,” Currie said.
What’s going on in Greater Sudbury?
In a series of sweeping changes the city has proposed to affect emergency services infrastructure throughout Greater Sudbury, 23 fire stations would be whittled down to 14.
Since insurance companies typically consider homes “unprotected” by fire services if they’re farther than eight kilometres away (or up to approximately 13, depending on the company), fewer fire stations means higher insurance rates for many Greater Sudburians.
At least, that’s the message coming from many of those who oppose the proposal.
In some cases, homes within close proximity to existing volunteer fire stations are already considered “unprotected,” so shuttering them would not affect area Dwelling Protection Grades.
This is the case in Beaver Lake, which currently has four volunteers. This is well below the 15-member minimum required for area properties to be considered “protected.” They’ve failed to hit the 15-member minimum since at least as far back as 2012, which is the oldest statistic the City of Greater Sudbury provided Sudbury.com. Only one member on average has been responding to calls from the Beaver Lake station in the past five years.
The Fire Underwriters Survey updates property rankings every five years.
In 2016, they classified Beaver Lake as protected because the nearby Whitefish station had 15 volunteer members, and Beaver Lake was considered a “satellite station” of Whitefish.
“They’re somewhat lenient,” Greater Sudbury Fire Services acting Deputy Chief Craig Lawrence told Sudbury.com, adding that there’s occasionally some leeway in their rankings.
“They’re working with us. ... When we say satellite station, it’s really just a way of getting around the reduction in grading due to not having enough firefighters in that station.”
In the Fire Underwriters Survey 2021 update, Whitefish dropped below 15 volunteer members, at which time it became considered a satellite station of Waters, which had been able to maintain at least 15 members.
When Whitefish dropped below 15 members, Beaver Lake became classified as “unprotected.”
If Beaver Lake were to close today and consolidate services at the Whitefish station, which is the city’s current proposal, the Beaver Lake area’s Dwelling Protection Grades would not be affected, Lawrence said.
In the 2021 Fire Underwriters Survey, various other stations also dropped below the 15-member minimum, including Copper Cliff, Dowling, Val Caron, Hanmer, Garson and Coniston.
The stations have been allowed to maintain their protected status for now, Lawrence said, so the city has an opportunity to boost volunteer numbers to the desired level. This is part of the leeway the Fire Underwriters Survey affords municipalities.
The survey is next expected to be updated in 2026, so it remains to be seen whether these stations will allow area properties to maintain their “protected” status.
So far, volunteer numbers have continued to dwindle.
“We’re working hard at recruitment,” Lawrence said, describing recruitment as their “No. 1” challenge regardless of what becomes of the proposed changes to fire services infrastructure. “We’re looking at everything. Everything is at play. We need volunteers.”
Meanwhile, he said that any positive changes to Greater Sudbury Fire Services will be reported to the Fire Underwriters Survey prior to 2026 to help boost Dwelling Protection Grades.
Are the proposed changes a sign of defeat?
Some residents at recent public consultation meetings with the city have been left with a feeling the city has given up on recruiting volunteers in certain areas of Greater Sudbury.
“It’s been a starvation of the volunteer firefighters,” Beaver Lake resident Linda Heron told Sudbury.com.
“It’s been going on too long, to have three major reports looking for how they can close stations -- that’s basically what it’s been, it’s all been about closing these rural stations.”
If the Beaver Lake station were to grow from its current volunteer base of four to the 15 required by the Fire Underwriters Survey, area properties would again be considered protected, which would have a positive impact on insurance rates.
Heron, whose house is 2.5 kilometres away from the Beaver Lake station and 17 kilometres away from the Whitefish station it’s slated to amalgamate at, would be among those to see their insurance rates affected.
As it stands, she said her home insurance is slated to jump from $1,803 annually to $4,408 due to the area’s “unprotected” status.
It’s unclear why the company didn’t already consider the area unprotected, Lawrence said, since low volunteerism has rendered the Beaver Lake station redundant to insurers since 2021.
“It depends on the company,” he said, adding that he has heard varying reports from people, with another resident saying their rates have already gone up to reflect their unprotected status..
By keeping Whitefish open and consolidating resources there, Heron said the city is picking winners and losers, and Beaver Lake is on the losing side.
“How many people are going to buy a home where it’s not protected by a fire service?” she asked. “Who knows, we may have to sell this place in a few years, but our property values will plummet.”
Ideal fire services a worthwhile investment
“Less and less people want to volunteer. It’s unclear exactly why,” Currie said. “A lot of these volunteer fire services, which had been stable for decades, there’s just a decrease in interest in volunteering for a fire department.
“Dwindling numbers in this volunteer base, which is the fabric of our emergency response, should be very concerning and we should be creating systems to try to address this by making it more financially incentivized for people to volunteer for volunteer fire departments.”
Incentives, he said, should come “at every level of government.”
The drop in volunteerism has resulted in many areas across Canada receiving less fire protection, which has resulted in property owners paying more for insurance.
There’s an important connection here, Currie said, noting people are either paying to get proper fire protection or, or they’re paying inflated insurance rates.
“We always want to encourage the development of better levels of protections,” he said.
Although his view of Greater Sudbury is from a distance, Currie said the relocation and/or consolidation of fire stations affects every single property in their vicinity.
Dwelling Protection Grades emanate from fire stations. Moving a station five kilometres east will benefit properties at the east and negatively impact those to the west.
“If you’re in one of the buildings that gets better service, you probably love it,” he said. “If you’re in one of the buildings that gets poorer service, you probably hate it.”
This, with the added complication that several fire stations are already unrecognized due to the city’s failure to achieve minimum staffing requirements (and more likely to join them by 2026), is what public outrage has centred on during recent public consultation meetings.
A lot of speculation is going on
“It’s very hard to give a hard and firm answer about what the impact will be,” Insurance Bureau of Canada director of consumer and industry relations director Anne Marie Thomas told Sudbury.com of proposed changes to Greater Sudbury emergency services infrastructure.
“Each insurance company is different,” she added. “There’s a range. ... Not all insurance companies have the same rules, and not all have the same rates.”
Although not all companies use the Fire Underwriters Survey’s Dwelling Protection Grade rankings, the general requirement for residential properties to be considered protected by fire services is a proximity of eight to 13 kilometers from an operational fire station.
“There are so many factors that go into building what a home insurance premium is,” Thomas said, adding that Greater Sudbury residents would be wise to connect with their insurance companies to find out the potential implications of what the city has proposed.
“People should do it now, before these decisions are made, because maybe it will impact significantly, and that may have a bearing,” she said. “If you can actually show the numbers, that may strengthen the residents’ position. ... Without having hard and fast numbers to present to council, it’s just speculation.”
It’s also wise to shop around, she said, noting that some insurers take on greater risk than others. Plus, their definition of what constitutes risk can differ.
As for the insurers that take on greater risk?
“It would be a safe assumption that would cost more.”
Verdict: Any changes to fire services can affect insurance rates. Complicating matters in Greater Sudbury is that low volunteerism at some stations has already rendered certain areas “unprotected,” according to certain underwriters’ criteria. Property owners won’t know the potential impact to their insurance rates unless they connect with their insurance company and shop around.
Fact Check Friday has been created as part of an ongoing effort by Sudbury.com to clarify information being shared with the public. Topics for future Fact Check Fridays can be emailed to reporter Tyler Clarke at [email protected] with “Fact Check Friday” as the subject.