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Do’s and Don’ts of Handling a New Fire Claim

September 23, 2023 | By: Ryan Norton

Imagine waking up one fateful day only to discover that a devastating fire has turned your world upside down, reducing everything you cherish to ashes. It’s a nightmarish scenario no one wishes to experience, yet it occurs more frequently than most realize. Beyond the immediate peril of raging flames, the aftermath can be equally harrowing. Astonishingly, structural fires alone result in annual losses exceeding $1 billion. This staggering statistic underscores the importance of understanding how to manage a fire insurance claim adeptly. In the unfortunate event that you find yourself facing such a situation, preparedness and knowledge are your greatest allies.

When it comes to managing fire insurance claims, there’s no margin for guesswork or mistakes. It’s a process that demands precision, expertise and a comprehensive understanding of all its intricacies. Structural fires often leave homeowners and business owners grappling with insurance policies and the daunting task of reconstruction. Meanwhile, automotive fires present their own distinct set of challenges, often leaving car owners in a state of disbelief.

In this in-depth guide, we’ll delve into the do’s and don’ts of fire insurance claims, offering you invaluable insights on the actions to take and the pitfalls to steer clear of when navigating the aftermath of a fire.

The Investigation Process

The investigation process followed is as outlined in the NFPA 921, which is the guide for fire and explosion investigators:

  1. Receiving the Assignment: The first step of the process is to receive the assignments and clarify what roles you will play in the process. For example, whether or not you will be expected to determine the origin, cause and responsibility of a fire or another loss, produce a report, prepare for criminal or civil litigation, etc.
  2. Preparing for the Investigation: Once the assignment has been received and the expectations have been set, the investigator will then begin gathering as much information from the client and the insured as possible so they can plan the investigation. Pre-planning at this stage can greatly increase the efficiency and chances for your successful investigation. You may also need to look for tools, equipment, and personnel needed to make the initial scene investigation (and any subsequent examination) go more smoothly.
  3. Conducting the Investigation: Next is conducting the actual investigation. We will not go into depth in this section as the investigation could go through many variables and possible directions. It might be a simple one-trip scene examination, or it might include seizing evidence or using the knowledge from one of the engineers or a specialist. It could include a preliminary investigation followed by a multi-party examination.
  4. Collecting and Preserving Evidence: During the collecting and preserving of evidence, valuable physical evidence should be recognized, documented properly, collected and preserved for further testing or for courtroom presentation.
  5. Analyzing the Incident: Next, the investigator will need to analyze the data collected using the scientific method’s principles. Depending on the scope of one’s assignment, the hypothesis should be developed and testing explaining some or all of the following:
    – Origin of the fire
    – Ignition sequence
    – How the fire spread
    – Cause of the fire
    – Damage
    – Responsibility for the incidents
    Once all of that data has been analyzed, your investigator will begin working on conclusions.
  1. Conclusions: This is the final hypothesis drawn as a result of testing all the hypotheses. The conclusion they come up with may include a level of certainty.
    The level of certainty describes how strongly someone believes in the conclusions. The two levels of certainty most commonly used are probable, which means it is more likely true than not; the likelihood of the hypotheses is greater than 50 percent. This means it’s feasible but can’t be declared probable. If two or more hypotheses are equally likely, then the level of certainty must be possible.
    In the past, the 921 had broken fire causes down into four different classes: accidental, natural, incendiary, and undetermined. Changes in the classification have been made in the latest version of the 921, and fire is no longer classified in this way. So now, all fires can still be deemed undetermined. The other causes are simply a breakdown of the events that led to the fire, including the ignition source and first fuel ignited and the circumstances that led to the fire.

The Do’s of Handling a New Fire and Explosion Claim

1. Always Give Specific and Explicit Instructions to Contractors

Things you want to keep in mind when giving the instructions are:

Board up or fence up the scene

First, you should make sure that the scene is boarded up and secured. The security of fire scenes is important not only for the owners to go in but also for any follow-up work that may be done by adjusters or other personnel. Unauthorized access into the scene could be problematic, not only for a random person getting access but also for the homeowner. You don’t want them entering the fire scene for safety reasons, especially if they haven’t been interviewed, since it may affect the interview. Having them look at the fire scene post-fire before we can get a statement may affect how they remember the event that took place.

Secure debris piles by covering them with tarps

Leaving the fire scene unsecured could cause problems with the investigation and negatively impact the development of any hypotheses. Contrary to popular belief, yellow barrier tape doesn’t really keep people from entering the fire scene. It’s best to be secure and ensure that access to that scene is restricted.

Next, you want to make sure to secure the debris piles by covering them with tarps. One issue you come across is piles of debris that end up outside the house. Often, fire services that attend the fire have overhauled the scene, and the debris is shovelled out and ends up on the front lawn, back lawn, or driveway. Unfortunately, in most cases, debris is very quickly cleaned up by contractors or restorations. Only after examining the fire scene and contacting the contractors do you realize that the evidence has been removed from the scene and disposed of. Covering the debris on the outside with tarps allows that evidence is out there to be protected and secure. It also allows it to be examined on-site as fast as possible.

Preserve the electrical panel

The next item of concern is the electrical distribution panel. You’ll want to be very clear to contractors or restoration companies not to alter the electrical panel. More often than not, one of the first things the electrician does is remove the panel and put in a temporary one.

The original panel that was in the house had a lot of information. It was evidence, and the removal and distribution of that panel and the installation of a temporary one or a new panel with temporary breakers have now removed any evidence that could be needed. There’s no way the system can be checked, and there’s no way we can evaluate the electrical system based on the panel. It’s very important for these items to be protected. So, while giving instructions, make sure that the electrical panel is left in place and that the electrical system within the house is not altered prior to the scene examination.

Electrical breakers are witnesses at the scene that can help clarify information. The best bet is to take photos of the electrical panel as soon as possible. It captures a moment in time as the status and progression of the fire, and it provides valuable information that we can use to help sort and rearrange all the bits and pieces of the puzzle to create an overall picture.

Also, as you can see just by the general style and arrangement, the panel in the photo above is a relatively new installation. However, in some older houses, you can tell if there have been any renovations or if there are different styles of layering, such as aluminum, etc., which can be helpful in investigation.

Again, taking photos of the electrical panel provides us with key elements. Not only do they tell us the status of the breakers, whether they’re on or off or tripped, and whether they were involved in the fire, but it also gives us the opportunity to look and see what style of breaker they are or whether they had the appropriate size and rating for that particular circuit. If the power does need to be shut off, switch off the main electrical supply, not individual switches. Meet them in their post-fire state. That’s the best way to stay safe, and it still provides us with the evidence that we need.

This is an example of an electrical panel that was cut out of a basement after a fire and then thrown in the garbage before we had a chance to even look at it. No photos were taken of it before it was moved, and in the process of being cut out and removed from the scene, many of the breakers have disintegrated.

2. Secure Evidence Appropriately

A second do on our list today is to secure evidence and make sure that it’s secured appropriately. Anything to remove from a fire scene that needs to be examined is evidence. Treat it with the importance it deserves, as it could end up in court. This evidence has to be removed from the scene prior to the arrival of an investigator. It’s important to make sure that it’s logged and the custody of it is outlined. If items are removed and taken to another facility for storage, ensure you include instructions on handling it. You want to be clear on what this evidence is, what it is to be done with it, how it’s to be moved, and how it’s to be packaged as well as stored. Another thing to consider is to make sure that this evidence can be stored long-term in case this file takes years to conclude.

Log chain of custody

This is the information that you want to include with your chain of custody:

  • Date and location of the incident
  • Description of the sample or parts
  • Manufacturer’s name
  • Model and or serial number
  • Have all the attending parties review and sign the documents
  • Attach a photograph, if possible
  • Retain a copy for your records

Store items appropriately

Make sure anything that is removed from any facilities is treated as evidence. Ensure it is stored appropriately and all of it is done in a timely matter. Also, make sure not to bag up the evidence and leave it unsecured, with no proof of how it was collected or where it was found. This is considered a spoliation of evidence, and it puts your chances of segregation at risk. You can always call a forensic expert for guidance if you are ever in doubt.

3. Get a Forensic Expert Involved ASAP

Next on our list is to get your forensic expert involved as soon as you can. As soon as it’s been determined that a forensic expert is needed, get them to the site, get them notified, and get the investigation going. This will help get the scene processed, identify evidence, secure evidence, and get it properly examined in a timely manner to prevent any deterioration. The more time that evidence is not preserved, the more it increases the risk of being compromised. Compromised evidence decreases your chance of finding a cause. So ensure that evidence is treated appropriately and secured — appropriately and quickly.

The Don’ts of Handling a New Fire and Explosion Claim

The first thing on our list today is don’t delay having an initial discussion with your insurer. Here are a few questions that can be asked very quickly. These questions are designed to get specific information that will help the investigators during their scene examination. There are only three questions, and the conversation should last no longer than two or three minutes. These questions are:

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

These questions are found to be very good at eliciting specific information and are used for the fire service, the observations of their first responding firefighters, as well as police and many witnesses. They don’t seem to be very in-depth questions, but what they do is actually form specific functions. If the fire you are dealing with is accidental, then information supplied by the homeowner or insured will be very direct as to what they saw and what they did.

Let’s also consider that this fire may be by design. This may have been the creation of an illusion of an accidental event. If that’s the case, in preparation for this fire and the story, this individual created a story around this event and rehearsed a story, but typically, stories are rehearsed from the beginning to the end. If you ask an open-ended question such as “What do you think happens?” you’re going to get the story that’s been contrived and has been rehearsed from start to finish. These questions are designed to interrupt that process.

These questions are designed to go right to the middle of that story. So, it will do two things: one, it’s going to disrupt the thinking pattern of the person who has developed the story, and it will create a problem for them to try and fast forward in their minds through the sequence that they’re going to try to tell you in order to get to that answer. You’re more likely to get an honest answer or one closer to the truth than the contrived one.

So you are just disrupting the potential of somebody not telling the truth, and you’re creating a roadblock for them to go ahead and tell you a whole story which has been contrived. Again, if this is somebody who’s a legitimate victim of an accidental event, this will help them explain what happened to you in a very brief scenario. You can take that information and pass it on to the investigator.

So when you ask, “What did you see?” you’re asking what they saw and whether they knew what was going on and what they had to deal with. When you ask, “What did you do?” they will go on to tell you if they actually tried to intervene with this fire, if they tried to put it out, if they tried to open doors and windows to get the smoke out only to advance the fire spread.

This is important information. When you ask, “What did you do next?” you can get any additional bits of information that they may have done, any secondary acts they may have done before the emergency was completed. Treat this interview like a discussion and make the individual feel as comfortable as possible in order to get the most information.

2 Don’t Alter the Fire Scene

Next, don’t alter the fire scene. As you can see in this photograph, this is a fire in a closet. By the time the investigator arrived on site, this area was completely cleaned out. Not only is the section of the floor gone, but all the debris is gone, which means that the fuel for this fire is gone. More importantly, the ignition source for this fire is gone. Leave the fire scene as is, don’t clean it up. Let the investigators see it as it was found at the conclusion of the event. Let them evaluate all the evidence and the information from that scene.

3. Don’t Send Your Notice of Loss with Biased Information

The next don’t on the list is not to send information that is based on opinion. The information that is needed with regard to your loss, the location of the fire and the type of fire can’t be an opinion. For example, whether it is a bedroom fire or a kitchen fire, that information is crucial for the investigators. This will allow you to get the right expert on the case as quickly as possible to investigate and advance this loss.

You need to treat every file as if it’s going to end up in litigation. By putting your opinion or someone else’s opinion on that notice of loss that could end up being part of the file, it could end up being discoverable. So it’s important to just give the basic information that is needed by the investigators and treat every file as if it’s going to end up in litigation. Don’t put anything in writing that you don’t want the judge to read.

Automotive Losses

1. Secure the vehicle and its surroundings

Now, let’s talk a little bit about automotive losses and some of the unique features of vehicle fires and their interaction and combination with structure fires. The first do on the list is securing the scene for a vehicle fire, which includes the vehicle and its surroundings. Don’t move anything or rearrange anything. Just leave the site and scene as is and take photos of everything in the envelope surrounding the vehicle.

For example, a vehicle in a garage should be sealed off and don’t let work crews go into this area. If it’s outdoors, don’t move it if possible. Leave it as is and contact an expert as soon as possible. If it’s outdoors and needs to be moved, then instruct first responders or contractors. Take as many photos and videos of the loss, location and the event.

If it’s indoors, secure the room or the garage as one large fire scene. Treat the entire area as extremely valuable evidence. Items surrounding the vehicle, such as extension cords or block years, form a part of that fire scene. These need to be left in their original position and not simply collected and put in a garbage bag.

One of the biggest issues with vehicle fires in a garage is determining whether the fire starts in the vehicle or the fire started in the garage. Which is the initiation site, and which is the result of the fire spread? All of that information is still available, and it’s all in there. Resist the urge to drag the vehicle out of the garage and examine it in the driveway. Leave it where it is so that all that information remains available.

For instance, in this picture, the cause of the fire was neither the building nor the car. It was because of an extension cord that was used as one of the tools for the restoration of this vehicle. So if this vehicle gets dragged out and all that information goes out with it, then the opportunity to understand the actual cause and ignition mechanism is lost.

A vehicle could basically be defined as anything with wheels on it; therefore, a fire loss location could really be anywhere; it is not limited to an enclosure or building. This particular tractor shown in the image below has an enormous amount of value and information that’s available at its location. It is important to collect as much physical evidence of the incident as possible.

Even if your pictures and videos are shaky, they may still be very valuable for the investigation. Investigators always look for environmentally specific information, such as if they see that smoke is going straight up, they can tell there’s not much wind influencing the fire patterns and consumption. It also gives a relative position of the flow or where the fire initiates. Even if they catch the fire in later stages, it gives them an opportunity to backstep and recreate a fire timeline, at least to the point of discovery.

The opposite side of this tractor tells an entirely different tale. Tires are consumed much more. Again, this is at the last location. If this tractor is flat bedded and rolled out of here, those tires would have been rotated, and all that information would have been lost. All this positional information is valuable in terms of the fire patterns and fire damage because the fuel load in vehicles is a little bit different, not the same as structure fires.

One of the other unique properties of this particular lost location is since it’s at the last location, we get the fire patterns and the heat damage to the crop on the field that tells us exactly what way the wind is blowing. Without relying on General Environment Canada data, you get the idea exactly where the wind is blowing at the time of the fire. At this location, we also get an indication of how strong it’s blowing and through the fire patterns and consumption, you can get back to the area of origin and how this fire has progressed.

2. Spoliation of Evidence

Beware of the spoliation of evidence; don’t eliminate the possibility of other parties’ involvements. This is especially particular or widespread when it comes to vehicles. The definition of vehicles is a very broad umbrella definition that includes anything from go-karts to buses to heavy equipment. It’s entirely possible that a vehicle, especially a transport truck, was made up of multiple assemblies from different manufacturers and different people involved.

Potential parties that can be involved:

  • Chassis Manufacturer
  • Engine Manufacturer
  • Up-Fit Manufacturer/Body Builder
  • All Added Equipment
  • Distributor/Leasing Company
  • Maintenance Company
  • User

In the case of transport trucks, you may also have a trailer and the contents loaded in that trailer. If that just happens to be backed up towards the building, then you have got eight or nine potentially involved parties. It’s entirely possible that you’ll start working through and examining the sites or the contents and the items, and you make it to a junction where the standards are very clear that you will require a multi-party examination. Once you get to that junction where it’s possible that somebody else is involved, you have to stop, preserve the evidence, secure that evidence and invite the other parties to attend.

This is a multi-party examination on a bus. You can see the bus in the background. There are a lot of hands that go into putting together a vehicle of this nature and complexity. At this examination, there are approximately 20 people who signed in on the attendee list. Everyone had to go through things together carefully and meticulously, investigating the cause of the loss.

Some Hypothetical Scenarios and What You Should Consider in Such Cases

Scenario 1:

The insured wants their preferred contractor to complete restoration work.

What you should consider:

Is their preferred contractor on board with your restoration plan?
Has there been adequate communication between the appropriate parties?
Is the plan on a budget?
Does this contractor have experience with fire or water losses?
Do they have adequate licenses and/or insurance?

Scenario 2:

The insured wants to alter the scene after a fire or water loss to make the property more suitable for living, leasing, etc.

What you should consider:

What areas can be altered without risking evidence spoliation?
Can the insured be escorted safely within the property to retrieve belongings?
What items need to be seized or documented prior to them altering the scene?
Can you change the examination date so it can be completed prior to the alterations being completed?

Scenario 3:

You received a fire claim where the vehicle has already been towed to a yard which is unsecured.

What you should consider:

Has the vehicle been tarped? If not, ask if it can be.
Was any debris found around the vehicle swept into the cab or truck bed?
Is the vehicle currently incurring storage fees? If so, see if it can be moved to a lot where you have a contract in place.
Does the two-truck drive have any pertinent information that you should know?

Scenario 4

The evidence which needs to be seized for a fire or water loss cannot be seized immediately due to its size, weight, location, etc.

What you should consider:

Can components be seized without the risk of spoliation?
Can the investigator document and prepare the evidence to be moved before getting the restoration contractor to move and store it?
Is the evidence secure if it is being left unattended until it can be seized?
If the evidence is moved and stored elsewhere, is it secure?

Ryan Norton, Fire & Explosion Investigator

Ryan is a Certified Fire and Explosions Investigator. He has over 10 years of professional experience and currently holds the rank of Lieutenant with Lumsden Fire Department. He has conducted over 200 fire investigations and has assisted in multiple major crimes investigations with the RCMP as well as multiple fatal fire investigations.