Should My Community Participate in FEMA’s Community Rating System (CRS)?

February 21, 2019

Flooding impacts more individuals in the United States than any other hazard. As a result, many municipalities rely on flood insurance to address the risk posed by flooding to their communities. If you’re interested in the Community Rating System (CRS), it’s more than likely that you know that most of the flood insurance in the U.S. is provided by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which is in turn administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). NFIP policies are federally backed and flood insurance is required for all properties with a mortgage in high-risk flood zones. The importance of flood insurance and its role in shaping local-level resilience is huge and the landscape is changing quickly. As part of this change, communities are increasingly seeking creative and thoughtful ways to address both the physical and economic effects of flooding. One way this is being done is through the CRS. In the 1990s, FEMA created the CRS as a way to link community-level mitigation and adaptation work with the rising cost of flood insurance in those communities.

What is CRS?

Essentially: The Community Rating System (CRS) is a voluntary program administered by FEMA that rewards communities engaging in flood mitigation activities with annual flood insurance discounts for insured properties within their jurisdiction. These discounts range from 5% to 45%.

What that means: The CRS is a unique bridge that allows municipalities to alleviate the financial burden of flood insurance while simultaneously engaging in mitigation activities. Municipalities (and sometimes counties) participate in the CRS by doing mitigation work and documenting their efforts. This documentation is evaluated on a yearly cycle with a more in-depth audit held every 3 to 5 years. If you think about CRS as a game, it works like this: your community gets credits for activities and, generally, the more difficult the activity the more credits you receive. You start at the lowest class (Class 10) and each time you accrue 500 more credits, you move up a class. Each class corresponds to a 5% discount on flood insurance premiums for qualifying policies within your municipality. Class 10 equates to a 0% discount, Class 9 equals 5%, Class 8 equals 10%, etc… Currently, there is only one Class 1 community so getting to the higher classes is usually pretty difficult. CRS activities range from public outreach, to adopting regulatory standards, to inspecting dams.

What was that, again?

The world of CRS can be confusing, especially for newcomers. We’ve met experts in the field who still have a hard time tracking the program. As of April 2019 over 1600 communities were participating in the program, but since starting Forerunner we’ve consistently encountered planners, floodplain managers, and city officials who are interested in joining the program but don’t necessarily know where to start.

Which communities are in the CRS?

You can check out FEMA’s CRS Appendix F for the breakdown. CRS communities are spread across the country, they’re not just coastal or riverine. About half of all current CRS communities are Class 7 (15% discount) or Class 8 (10% discount):

Number of CRS Communities By Class

They also range in size — one misunderstanding that we’ve encountered is that smaller communities won’t see a benefit in participating in the CRS. This isn’t necessarily true, we’ve encountered quite a few small communities who have reached Class 5 (a big deal!) and who are pretty happy with their participation. In fact, FEMA publishes a guide specifically for small communities.

Why participate in the CRS?

We’ve spoken with a lot of CRS coordinators and we’ve heard a few compelling reasons why municipalities invest time and energy in participating in the Community Rating System. Here are some of our favorites:

Your tax base will be more financially resilient. For residents who are already paying for flood insurance, your participation in the CRS will make their premiums more affordable. This can make a huge difference for your residents and can have a real impact on their ability to recover or adapt after a large-scale hazard event. Take Monmouth County for example. The average CRS Class for participating Monmouth County communities is 6, which equates to a 20% discount on flood insurance. For those 16 CRS communities, this translated into a combined total annual flood insurance premium savings of over $2.25 million in 2018.

You’ll have a structured roadmap for engaging in mitigation activities. Many of the activities credited by the Community Rating System, like public outreach and open space preservation, provide an overall mitigation benefit. Investing in the CRS is one way of building resilience for your municipality.

Your community will thank you. It’s unfashionable to acknowledge but also true — your residents will be direct beneficiaries of your CRS work and they will appreciate the savings they receive. For this reason, the CRS is often a relatively easy political sell.

Chances are, if you’re considering the CRS, you’re already doing things to get credit. You might be a Class 8 or 7 community already. CRS activities include providing flood map information to residents, maintaining a database of Elevation Certificates, maintaining drainage systems, and utilizing a flood threat recognition system. If you’re doing any of these things, participating in the CRS might not be a heavy lift.

Why don’t all communities participate?

It can take a while to get started. There are a few steps to getting started with CRS (see below) and, depending on several factors, it might take some time to apply and enter the program. Some of the community officials we’ve spoken to have cited this lag as a deterrent for participation.

You might face some barriers to advancing past certain classes down the line. To achieve certain CRS classes, you’ll have to fulfill specific criteria. For example, to be a Class 6 CRS community, you will have to have at least a 5/5 classification under the Building Code Effectiveness Grading Schedule. Class 4 and Class 1 also have specific qualification criteria.

It will require ongoing work from you or someone in your city government. Your community will have to designate a CRS Coordinator to participate in the program. Most of the time, this responsibility is given to an existing full-time employee. A 2018 Wetlands Watch study found that CRS Coordinators in Virginia spent a median amount of 13% of their overall time on CRS work. To offset this workload, some communities hire CRS consultants to coordinate annual recertifications. Alternatively, we offer a software solution to alleviate some of the CRS workload pressure.

Where do I go if I want to learn more?

Your local CRS User Group would be a great place to start learning more about the program. CRS Resources has a handy list of existing user groups. Each one gathers CRS coordinators and affiliates regularly to share resources and knowledge. Most of these groups welcome newcomers!

It might also be useful to get to know your regional CRS Specialist, part of their job is to help you understand the program. The CRS is administered on behalf of FEMA by a company called ISO. You can find your ISO/CRS Specialist from this list.

If you’re a self-learner, there are a plethora of online resources that can aid you in your journey. You should probably start with the CRS Coordinator’s Manual but it can get confusing pretty quickly. Other resources include our CRS Guide and the ASFPM + CSO-written Green Guide. FEMA’s Quick Check Guide can also help orient you.

How do I get started?

If you’ve decided that you want to participate in the Community Rating System (CRS), there are a few steps to getting off the ground:

  1. You’ll need to prove you’re in good standing with the NFIP. To do this you can check with your NFIP State Coordinator. Sometimes you’ll need to complete a Community Assistance Visit (CAV) as part of this process.
  2. Send a Letter of Intent to FEMA stating that your community intends to apply for CRS. The Quick Check Guide that we listed above also contains a sample letter. After FEMA determines that you’re in good standing, you’ll be contacted by your CRS Specialist for a verification visit. This visit will kick off your CRS onboarding process. It can be a bit intimidating but your CRS Specialist will have a detailed process for walking you through everything.
  3. Designate your CRS Coordinator. Someone in your community will need to act as your CRS Coordinator. We’ve seen CRS Coordinators from a variety of backgrounds and in a variety of departments (from planning, to emergency management, to public works). It’s important that your CRS Coordinator is comfortable with the added workload (remember, 13%!) and is willing to work regularly on the CRS.
  4. Get ready for your verification visit. To prepare for a verification visit, you’ll want to put together lists of permits issued in the SFHA and also any Elevation Certificates you might have. The CRS Resources website has a ton of templates for this. You should also use your CRS Specialist as a resource for getting ready for the visit!

Hopefully, this is enough to get you moving! Reach out to us at support@withforerunner.com or (917) 397–2912 if you have any questions. We’re more than happy to chat about how we can start you on a path to keeping your residents safe while saving them a little money along the way.

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