by Bryan Harding*
How would you deal with a major incident like a fire, flood or catastrophic storm damage in a block you manage? What are your responsibilities and where do these fit within the context of local emergency services and police?
The police will be in control of public safety. Entry to the building will almost certainly be denied pending a professional engineering inspection.
In short, in the event of a major loss it is the police who take control of the site, supported by the emergency services.
If you’re charged with managing the building then your primary role is to ensure you have relevant information about the building readily to hand and that you are kept in the loop of all developments, so that you can readily answer questions raised by the emergency services and anxious residents – who may literally be on the street. It’s a big job.
Your immediate priorities
You will probably have had a call and been on site all night, so residents may look to you for advice on what to do and where to go.
In the short term, most will go to friends and family but others may require alternative accommodation: a community hall or school may be available for a few hours but others may require hotel accommodation.
People are responsible for making their own arrangements, but it’s worth advising them to be reasonable in their choices, and to assure them that some expenses will still be paid even if they are lucky enough to have the local friends and family option.
Does your insurance policy include alternative accommodation expenses? Even so, it is in everyone’s interests to find a more permanent solution as quickly as possible – and no-one wants to be stuck on a sofa for long. In those first hours, however, be aware that you are likely to be on the front line, comforting and advising distressed residents.
You’ll probably have a good idea from the emergency services whether the building will be uninhabitable for an extended period, even if that’s not apparent from the outside.
It’s usual for a residents’ meeting to be arranged within 24-48 hours of the incident – in a church hall or local pub for example – and the sooner you can let residents know when and where the meeting is taking place the better.
This is where contingency planning pays off as you should have quick and easy access to emergency contact numbers for each resident so that you can inform them of the meeting. Do you have an alternative point of contact for each resident other than their landline or mobile, which may have been left behind in their rush to leave the building?
It’s worth checking what the buildings insurance policy allows for with regards to alternative accommodation expenses, and look at how that stacks up against the number of residents and local rental costs.
Deacon policies usually allow for a sum equivalent to 33% of declared value of the building. Some policies only allow 10% – would that be enough for your buildings’ residents?
Remember that occupiers of sub-let flats are not usually covered by the provision of alternative accommodation, and owners of these flats should make their own arrangements for their tenants. They are unlikely to be covered for loss of rent either, and should look for specialist landlord insurance to protect their investment and income in the event of a major loss
Getting the claim underway
Imagine it’s now 9am the morning following the incident. The fire brigade has left the scene and the police, who are in control of the site, are not allowing access. All the residents are safe and warm and you, as the property manager, can draw breath for the first time in hours.
The first thing you do is call the insurer’s claims number. The insurer will immediately appoint a loss adjuster and ask them to attend as a matter of urgency – usually within a few hours of receiving the call.
The loss adjuster will in turn appoint a structural engineer to inspect the site and determine whether or not it is safe to allow access to the site. Their job will be made a lot easier if they have access to documents about the building, floor plans, as built/refurbished/modified drawings, location of services etc. What if it’s a Sunday? Do you have access to the office and this type of information?
By now, it’s likely the media will be on site, although if they start asking questions they should be referred to the emergency services spokesperson. Residents too may be returning the scene anxious for news, even though your colleagues have been phoning them to advise them of a planned residents meeting. Be aware that emotions may be running high, especially if the police are still not permitting access.
It is important to note that the property will have to be made secure. The costs should be covered by your insurance, but you must make suitable arrangements.
The insurer and fire service will of course need to know how the fire started and spread and there will be forensic investigations. This doesn’t mean there’s any presumption of malice, just that it is important to understand – and eliminate – the cause of a fire.
Of course, if neglect is found to be the cause – uninspected, unrepaired, unmaintained equipment in common areas, accumulated combustible storage and waste in stairwells, lack of fire safety checks, inadequate or no fire risk assessment etc., then there may be consequences for the building owners and managers. In a well-managed building this will not be an issue and your next priority will be planning an access strategy, if possible, for residents. Some may even be able to move back in.
Getting back to normal
The needs of residents met and investigations complete, then comes the job of planning and implementing reinstatement works. This is a major undertaking and the schedule of works will comprise major milestones, each of which may comprise multiple actions:
- Arranging emergency temporary solutions e.g. water and wind proof covering for the roof;
- Specifying the works;
- Tendering contracts;
- Estimating the repair period, so displaced residents can plan ahead, but allowing for factors such as bad weather in winter, structural investigation, or discovery of asbestos which can delay the programme, for example.
Throughout all of this the property manager has a major communications role, liaising between insurers and contractors so that you are in a position to keep residents informed of developments.
Not least, as the dust begins to settle, it’s a good idea to sit back and reflect on what could be done better next time. What worked well? Is there room for improvement? What would you do differently next time? Because, while incidents, thankfully, are few and far between they DO happen.
Deacon is part of Gallagher, one of the largest insurance, risk management and consulting groups in the world. In the UK, Gallagher is one of the UK’s largest real estate insurance brokers, with over 70 branch locations nationwide and more than 5,200 employees servicing more than 900,000 customers.
* Bryan Harding ACII CIRM MIIRSM Tech IOSH, is Team Manager at Gallagher Risk Management Solutions.
** Data collected by Deacon 30 June 2020.
The sole purpose of this article is to provide guidance on the issues covered. This article is not intended to give legal advice, and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and/or market practice in this area. We make no claims as to the completeness or accuracy of the information contained herein or in the links which were live at the date of publication. You should not act upon (or should refrain from acting upon) information in this publication without first seeking specific legal and/or specialist advice. Arthur J. Gallagher Insurance Brokers Limited trading as Deacon accepts no liability for any inaccuracy, omission or mistake in this publication, nor will we be responsible for any loss which may be suffered as a result of any person relying on the information contained herein.