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Can’t Touch This: The Dos and Don’ts of Emergency Services/Repairs

July 13, 2022

Although emergency services/repairs are performed to mitigate a loss, they can destroy essential evidence if not properly conducted. This can hinder the ability to confirm or deny an insurance claim. Therefore, specific Dos and Don’ts must be followed in all claim types.

The DOs of emergency services/repairs: Fires and explosions

1. Always give specific and explicit instructions to contractors.

These instructions exist to maintain the integrity of the incident scene and ensure that evidence is secured. Examples of such instructions include:

  • Secure the scene – The security of fire scenes is important for both the forensic investigation and follow-up work done by adjusters and other personnel. Unauthorized access to the scene could lead to contamination. Moreover, leaving the fire scene unsecured could hinder the progress of our investigation. Therefore, you must ensure that access to the scene is completely restricted.
  • Secure debris piles by covering them with tarps – When fire services overhaul a fire scene, the debris is shoveled from the scene. Contractors tend to clean this debris very quickly, resulting in the loss of crucial evidence.

Figure 1: Debris covered with tarps.

As shown in figure 1, covering the debris with tarps enables the protection of evidence. It also allows forensic investigators to examine the evidence on site.

  • Do not alter the electrical distribution panels – Electricians typically replace the panel with a temporary one soon after a fire. The original electric panel contains crucial information and cannot be evaluated when the panel has been replaced, resulting in a loss of evidence. As such, it is important to secure these items.

Figure 2: An example of a replacement electrical panel.

By giving explicit instructions, you ensure that the electrical system within a house is not altered before the examination.

2. Secure the evidence appropriately

Evidence is anything removed from a fire scene that needs to be examined. If it has to be removed from the scene before the arrival of an investigator, ensure that it is logged and the custody is outlined. As this evidence could end up in court, it must be handled with utmost importance.

If items are moved to another facility for storage, provide clear instructions on how this evidence must be packaged, moved, stored, and fully identified. Items can be irreparably damaged if they are not stored appropriately. Further, a chain of custody issue could result if the evidence is not secured appropriately.

Figure 3: What was left of a refrigerator after being inappropriately stored in a snowbank.

Figure 3 shows evidence that was poorly stored after a major loss. This appliance was probably damaged during the incident. However, it was of no use because it was stored inappropriately.

3. Get a forensic expert involved as soon as possible

As soon as it has been determined that a forensic expert is needed, get them to the site. This will help to identify and secure evidence, get a property examined promptly, and prevent the deterioration of evidence.

Figure 4: An illustration of the relationship between time, negotiating power, risk of compromised evidence, and subrogation potential.

Not preserving evidence increases the risk of being compromised, and compromised evidence decreases your negotiating power. So, make sure evidence is treated and secured appropriately and quickly to commence the subrogation process.

The DON’Ts of emergency services/repairs: Fires and explosions

1. Don’t delay the initial discussion with your insured

Don’t miss an opportunity to get pure and candid facts about the incident. The initial conversation with the insured is not a formal interview; it is a discussion you have onsite and on the date of the event. It is designed to elicit very specific information that will help you and the investigator during an examination of the scene. This conversation should last no longer than two or three minutes.

Questions that can be asked very quickly are:

  • What did you see?
  • What did you do?
  • What did you do next?

Having this discussion in a conversational setting, and without taking notes, puts the insured at ease. These questions can also be used to uncover the observations of the first responders and witnesses. In addition, the answers provided by the insured and the way they are presented could help you determine if the fire was accidental or by design. You can then pass the information from these questions on to the investigator.

2. Don’t alter the fire scene

Cleaning out the fire scene can make it impossible to determine the cause of a fire. If all the debris is gone, then the fuel and ignition source for the fire are also lost. Consequently, investigators are left with no information to determine the cause.

3. Don’t send us your notice of loss with prejudiced information

The information we need concerning your loss is the location and the type of fire. This will allow us to get the right expert to you as quickly as possible to investigate your loss. As such, it is vital to avoid giving us your opinion on the potential cause of the fire. Only provide us with information regarding the location and type of the fire.

Treat every file like it will end up in litigation. If the file contains opinions of others in the notice of loss and subsequently becomes discoverable during litigation, it could negatively impact the process. Therefore, it is essential only to give us basic information to allow us to complete our investigation.

The DOs of emergency services/repairs: Automotive losses

1. Secure the vehicle and its surroundings

Figure 5: An example of a well-secured scene.

The scene of a vehicle fire includes the vehicle and its surroundings. Do not move or rearrange anything in the scene. The scene and the overall site should be kept as a unit. The surrounding areas show additional information, providing combustion level of fire damage, wind direction, and other subtle information that helps us put things together.

Figure 6: The scene of a garage fire.

Vehicle fires in a garage make it challenging to determine the initiation site and the area resulting from the fire spread. All that information is available only when the scene is left intact. For example, moving the vehicle to the driveway could destroy crucial evidence.

The fuel load of a vehicle differs from that of a structure fire. It still relies on the basic fire principles of ignition, fuel load, and a sequence of events. However, how it is contained, propagates, and communicates with other components is different.

Figure 7: The scene of a garage fire caused by an extension cord used for vehicle restoration.

Had the vehicle in figure 7 been removed, the information that led to our determination of the cause would have been lost with it. The opportunity to understand the actual cause and ignition mechanism would have been lost.

Fire scenes that are not limited to an enclosure

The broad definition of “vehicle” covers anything with wheels. Therefore, the fire scene or loss location is not only limited to the enclosure of a building.

Figure 8: A tractor that was at a loss location.

An enormous amount of value and information is available at the loss location. Even poor-quality photographs and videos provide valuable environmentally-specific information. For instance, if a photo or video shows smoke going straight up, we can determine that there was minimal wind influencing the burn patterns and consumption during the incident.

Photos provide a relative position of where the fire initiates, even if captured in the later stages of the fire. They also enable us to recreate a fire timeline to the point of discovery.

Figure 9: The opposite side of the tractor.

The opposite side of the tractor in figure 9 tells an entirely different tale. The tires are consumed much more in the center portion between the two axles. This indicates the loss location. If the tractor were flat bedded and rolled out of the site, the tires would have been rotated, and all that information would have been lost. Positional information allows us to determine burn patterns and fire damage.

Figure 10: A different view of the loss location.

In the above loss location, the scorch patterns and heat damage extend to the crop on the field. These patterns provide information on wind direction during the fire. We can also get an indication of how strong the wind was blowing during the incident. This allows investigators to backstep through the timeline, fire patterns, and consumption to reach the area of fire origin. Further, we can deduce how the fire progressed from that area of origin and moved through the combustible materials.

As vehicles are on wheels, they only sometimes get examined at the loss location. As such, photographs or videos taken at the loss location or shortly after discovery become incredibly valuable. Another unique feature of vehicles is that they are not necessarily stationary at a loss location. Different conditions represent the different statuses of circuits and the subsystems that form these vehicles. This provides additional information that we can extract to create a fire timeline.

2. Beware of spoliation of evidence!

Do not eliminate the possibility of other parties’ involvement, which is especially widespread in vehicle fires. A vehicle, such as a highway truck, could consist of multiple assemblies from different manufacturers, resulting in the involvement of numerous parties during a claim.

Potential involved parties include:
  • Chassis manufacturers
  • Engine manufacturers
  • Manufacturers or bodybuilders if there are any cargo areas, snowplows, or other additional equipment on the vehicle.
  • Added equipment manufacturers
  • Distributors or leasing companies
  • Maintenance companies
  • The end-user

If you realize that another party may be involved in a claim, ASTM standard 1188 stipulates that you must stop, preserve the evidence, and invite the other parties to attend.

Figure 11: An example of a multi-party claim in a depot.

The incident bus can be seen in the background in figure 11. Many parties go into putting together a vehicle of this nature and complexity. Approximately 20 people signed in on the attendee list for this examination.

3. Take photos of the electrical breaker as soon as possible.

An electrical breaker captures the progression of the fire. In NFPA 921, this is referred to as arc mapping. It provides valuable information to create an overall picture of the loss.

Figure 12: An electric breaker.

The original panel in figure 12 is a relatively new installation. However, some older houses have breakers that allow one to see if there have been any renovations or different wiring styles.

Figure 13: A close-up of an electrical panel.

While photos of electrical breakers provide subtle nuances, they are key elements in fire investigations. They tell us the status of the breakers, whether they were on or off, tripped, or involved in the fire. Furthermore, they allow us to see the style and size of the breakers used.

The DOs of emergency services/repairs: Structural losses

1. Do it right the first time.

Structural repairs to the roof or exterior walls involve the building envelope. When the building envelope is involved, you must ensure that it gets fixed properly to avoid subsequent calls. A repair that introduces a building envelope defect can cause severe damage in the future. Types of claims where you might encounter this include weight of snow, hail damage, fire damage, and vehicle impact.

Simple things like poor vapour barrier repair in vehicle impact cases can lead to significant condensation issues, resulting in more costly repairs. As such, it is crucial to properly do all repairs or replacements the first time.

Figure 14: A poorly renovated attic that developed mold as a result of condensation during winter.

2. Request drawings and renovation history.

Figure 15: An example of a building plan.

This information can be very valuable to investigators. Having detailed information about the building helps with the investigation and reduces the costs of technical services. It is becoming more common for homeowners to have copies of the drawings in older buildings. Asking for those drawings can help us identify where any renovations have taken place. It can also reduce the time we spend on-site because we will not have to measure every little detail.

Knowing the renovation history is also crucial because people often inadvertently damage their homes when they renovate. Knowing that history beforehand will help us identify conditions on site that are either preexisting or unrelated to the loss.

3. Make the building warm and dry, and quickly.

Most people do not consider the possible damaging effect of water after a fire, especially in the wintertime. Water from flooding, a burst pipe, or firefighting can damage foundations, especially if it freezes. Therefore, rapidly removing it can be the difference between replacing a few wet finishes or a costly structural repair.

Figure 16: An example of a flooded structure.

The foundation work is the most expensive part of the building, which also takes a long time to do. As such, it is important to get the place heated and protect the foundation from heaving in water release events during winter.

Figure 17: An illustration of I-joists and LVL beams made of engineered lumber.

Engineered lumber is moisture-sensitive, especially OSB and I-joists. To engineer lumber, small bits of wood are glued together to make a bigger component. This engineered lumber is much more sensitive than traditional lumber. Therefore, structural components like OSB, I-joists, and LVL beams are moisture-sensitive.

LVL beams swell up permanently when they get too wet, and that permanent swelling can damage structural connections. Getting them dry could be the difference between replacing an entire floor or just replacing some damaged finishes. Similarly, I-joists can be irreparably damaged when they get saturated with water. They will need to be replaced if they are not immediately dried after firefighting.

DON’Ts of emergency services/repairs: Structural losses

1. Don’t disturb badly damaged structures.

A structure may be severely damaged and remain to stand, meaning safety needs to be prioritized after each loss. In many cases with badly burned roofs, the recommendation is to demolish the roof and make sure it does not collapse on anyone. We can erect a false work structure if that is not an option. If it is too badly burned, you cannot nail on pieces of wood to try and reinforce the structure.

2. Don’t core into concrete without determining what’s underneath.

Figure 18: A severe example of coring without determining what is beneath the concrete.

Striking underground or embedded lines can result in costly additional damages. In the example in figure 18, flooding undermined a slab. Underneath the slabs were pipes for sewers, water distribution, heating lines, or power lines.

We do not always have the advantage of being able to see an obvious route underneath the slab. Therefore, we must scan it to identify potential hazards and core them.

Figure 19: A technician scanning with a ground-penetrating radar before coring.

Striking an underground or embedded line is very expensive and possibly life-threatening if you hit a power line. Therefore, doing a scan of the ground is only a slight additional cost compared to the cost of doing more extensive repairs after the coring.

Figure 20: An example of what you might find in a slab.20

On the left of figure 20 is a nicely finished floor. However, the right shows very tight coils of the in-floor heating system. Coring into it could lead to highly costly repair to the heating hose and the cleanup of the glycol that would leak.

3. Don’t cut corners.

Engineered products like I-joists, beams and metal plate-connected trusses should be evaluated by an engineer, even if the damage appears negligible. These structural components are designed and manufactured with particular assumptions and conditions in mind. Even damage that looks insignificant could considerably affect those assumptions. Do not risk covering up a defect to save on engineering services. Ensure that it is assessed to keep the place safe.

Secondly, don’t modify an engineered product without an engineer’s approval. Trusses are a popular thing to modify without an engineer. Often, they are cut or modified incorrectly, which can be very damaging to trusses. A bad repair can worsen the problem. So, always get an engineer if any structural components need a repair or shoring.