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Fire Restoration was my introduction to the disaster restoration industry way back in the early 2000’s when I began to work for Champion Cleaning Systems, Inc. Up until that point, I had never experienced a fire and neither had anyone that I had personally known. It never even occurred to me that the damage could be restored depending on the severity of the fire and what was affected. I couldn’t fathom where to even begin in order to correct such a catastrophe.
It took a couple of years to get the hang of it, mainly because the regularity of receiving fire restoration jobs was far lower than how many water restoration jobs we would have at any given time. But I became adept at knowing what was necessary in order to do the job from start to finish in a productive and profitable way.
Much of the journey seemed to be trial and error at times. The industry saw changes that necessitated adaptability. New cleaning techniques were implemented and different equipment, like an ultrasonic machine, was tested. New technology to assist with content manipulation and restoration also became available.
Now that I’m able to reflect on the years of experience, there are some things I learned along the way that I want to share. If you are thinking about starting a disaster restoration business and want to add fire restoration to your list of services, having some insight on what to expect will certainly help you to prepare or decide whether this is an aspect that fits your vision. If you already have a company and provide this service, perhaps there is something here that you can help improve how you handle fire restoration jobs.
Fire Restoration is a Long Process
There are so many additional factors that go into restoring a fire damage as opposed to a water damage. As a matter of fact, restoring a fire damage could also include water mitigation due to firefighting efforts or affected water sources within the property as a result of the fire.
As a restorer, there is balancing act of coordination with companies and municipalities to complete the job in an orderly manner. It’s noteworthy to mention that the actual structural and contents cleaning process is the most labor intensive and should not be rushed by any reputable and professional disaster restoration company.
Restoring fires can require a significant investment of time and it may take a while before you receive all of the revenue but it can yield profitable results.
Education Makes A Difference
There’s a saying I came up with to always keep in the forefront of my mind for every job: “The key to efficiency is proficiency.” Instead of just being trained to do a job in a mindless way, you can wholly understand the process and be far more productive and thorough.
It helps to know about how the fire is classified and what type of Particle of Incomplete Combustion (PIC) is produced based on the material that has been burned because this will help you decide the best way to clean and restore or whether demolition or discard is more appropriate. You shouldn’t have to learn the hard way that the lead crystal glass you’re trying to pack from the top shelf of the bar is in danger of shattering right in your hands when you touch it or that you’re getting less money because you forgot to count both sides of an opening and neglected to reflect it in your estimate.
Even minor mistakes can cost you time and money. Being educated by an a IICRC course from an approved educator such as IICRC FSRT or IICRC OCT (both of which are available at Reets Drying Academy), will help to avoid this. And the certification is certainly a bonus to help land jobs over other companies that are not trained or certified in industry standard practices.
When looking at training, don’t just focus on the location of the facility. Accessibility is important, but finding training that will focus on systems, procedures and your company’s profitability is just as, if no more important. Look at the facility’s reputation, the reviews and learn about he instructor. What is their specialty? Are they up-to-date with the most current industry information? A flight and a hotel can easily be recouped in the the class focuses on technical information in conjunction with a business mindset.
Psychology Plays a Part
It doesn’t take long for you to realize that using the word “loss” to describe a fire damage and its restoration encompasses more than just the disaster itself and processing a claim. It can also mirror the devastation experienced by the homeowners when their life is dramatically affected. This is even when you assure them that you can return their property and belongings to a pre-loss condition.
While every homeowner is different, many will go through a grieving process from seeing their home destroyed or altered by the effects of fire. This can happen even if no one perished in the fire. They may express this grief in a variety of ways. Because you are there during the restoration, you should be prepared to sometimes put on a hat that’s not all business as you help to navigate them to the end of the restoration project.
Expect delays in production, especially in regards to decisions that must be made concerning contents since they can have sentiment attached to them. Having a clear plan of action after assessment will help things to go a more smoothly by establishing proper expectations.
That same psychology can also come into play when facing invisible odors. After you have gone through the principles of deodorization (remove the source, clean the contamination, recreate the conditions of penetration and seal, if necessary), you may not sense an odor. But, that doesn’t mean the homeowner won’t. You must take care of this issue throughout the entire job, not just at the end. Find ways to help the homeowner’s psyche by addressing their concerns up front and continuously.
Proper Chain of Custody Will Save You Trouble Later
Sure, it may not be a legal investigation but you should document it like it’s one. In the beginning, you may be so focused on just getting to the property, staking claim on the job and starting production that you may not be quite as detailed in your documentation as you should be. Taking the time to do this will prevent many headaches further down the road in the process.
Chain of Custody is paramount when it comes to content handling management. Each part of the process needs to be documented in detail, from the packing and removal, storage, cleaning, restoring and return. Whenever the contents are going to be touched, there needs to be a record of it because inevitably, there will be inquiry about the handling.
This will be from either the insurance company you are working with or the homeowner. The claims adjuster isn’t going to pay you for actions you can’t prove were performed. The homeowner can lose trust in your ability to complete the restoration process just by not being able to locate or tell them the status of items you’ve removed their home that they request before the project is complete. The effect of this can be experienced when you are trying to receive payment for the job but there is an unwillingness to sign off until those issues are addressed.
It’s so much easier today than a couple of decades ago to thoroughly document contents. Many content restoration programs are available to choose from that are capable of allowing you to record, download and share using a handheld electronic device. This information can then be easily retrieved and when the homeowner asks you about the silver set , you can pull it up in the database and see the box number, whether it was cleaned and restored and the current location. Remember though, good software is only one piece of good processes, not a replacement. So have a documented chain-of-custody in your Standard Operating Procedures.
Don’t Waste Time on Non-Salvageable Items
Another money and time waster in fire restoration can be non-salvageable items. If you don’t have a plan, it can be a bit overwhelming when looking at a vast sea of contents in a home. When you understand what items can be reasonably restored and which ones will cost you more to try to restore than to replace or what items are a physical detriment to the homeowner, decisions can be made more quickly.
This piggy-backs off of the education lesson (Lesson 2). If you know the effect of PIC on materials and more importantly, people, you know in an instant that you are writing off plastic kitchen containers instead of trying to clean them.
It can be a sensitive subject to tell the homeowner that some of their belongings cannot be salvaged. It needs to be discussed with them in the very beginning of the process so that it will not be a surprise when you recommend that they claim certain items. There will be times they may insist on having an item that you have recommended against salvaging. In those cases, for the sake of both parties, you may want to consider getting more than just a verbal agreement.
Don’t Neglect Proper PPE
It makes sense to wear certain PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) when entering a property that has been damaged by fire. It only takes a few minutes inside without a mask before your lungs alert you to put one on. However, permanent or life-threatening damage may already be done. What type of respirator is necessary for that particular job? You don’t want to step on anything that can puncture your feet or get your socks wet, so you wear the appropriate footwear. What constitutes as appropriate footwear? You likely wear gloves because your hands will get filthy while handling things. But what gloves should you wear? These are all important questions that can’t be decided until the project is inspected by a competent person in your company or a qualified person, like an industrial hygienist or indoor environmental professional. Then, according to OSHA 1910.132d, a hazard assessment much be completed that determines what PPE is necessary based the hazards present or likely to be present in the project.
But maybe you think you’re a tough cookie and don’t need any equipment. If so, consider what the National Cancer Institute has to say about soot or (PIC): “Soot is a byproduct of the incomplete burning of organic (carbon-containing) materials, such as wood, fuel oil, plastics, and household refuse. The fine black or brown powder that makes up soot may contain a number of carcinogens, including arsenic, cadmium, and chromium. People may be exposed to soot by inhalation, ingestion, or absorption through the skin.” Knowing the risks should be motivation enough to use PPE even if you are entering the premises for a brief amount of time. Even if the fire has been out and you’re just going to estimate the job.
PPE should also be worn when contents have been removed to an alternate site and the cleaning process is underway. A degreaser with a high PH is strong enough to take the paint off your car and that’s even when it’s diluted. Imagine what it can do to your hands or how toxic it can be if absorbed into the skin. Walking into an ozone chamber while the ozone machine is active has the ability strip you of olfactory senses. Proper precautions for the sake of health and safety should be followed.
Take Plenty of Pictures
There’s no such thing as taking too many pictures during a fire restoration job. It’s important to have a record of everything. The pictures should be varied. Different angles of the same room or the same item can be taken. Model and serial numbers can be captured in addition to recording it during content handling. Pre-existing damaged items should have close-ups to add to the detailed description of the damage. The pictures should also be as clear as possible.
You can always delete pictures that you don’t end up needing but there’s nothing worse than realizing you don’t have proof of an action you have taken during the process; or of the condition of a belonging that is currently in your company’s possession. Even if it doesn’t seem relevant at the moment, take pictures like the paparazzi because in this instance, less is not more. Also, be aware of new technology when it comes to documenting home or contents damaged from fire. 3D cameras, such as Matterport and Docusketch, are priceless when it comes to documenting a home or contents damaged from fire. Software like Companycam can also be helpful. Once again, though, good processes can’t be substituted.
Use Third Party Restoration Contractors From the Start
You might be tempted to move all of the contents off site and then figure things out from there just so you can empty the house in a short amount of time. You’ve paid employees by the hour for the counting and packing an entire house full of sooty and odor ridden clothes that cannot be processed at your facility so now you have transport them to another location for a different company to clean. That company has to do its own inventory in addition to the work and you will be charged for their time and can feel your profits dwindling.
Once you assess the job and have a scope of work, you will save time and money by contracting specialty restorers for certain aspects. A clothing restoration, furniture restoration or art restoration company will give you an estimate and then dispatch their own crew to inventory, remove and restore those items for the agreed upon price. You will be given a copy of the inventory and can check on the status of the items by reaching out to the company. This will help you concentrate on productively removing contents from the house or commercial building that will be cleaned at your facility without adding days to the project.
Or, if you don’t want to be held liable for these items as the general contractor, you can request the adjuster send third party subcontractors on their own. Then you can focus on your specialty, possibly doing everything you can, then stabilizing the environment until the other parties are contacted have concluded their work.
Each job can have a unique set of circumstances but having some basic tips such as the preceding will help you to be prepared.
Chloe Hudson is a freelance Content Creator based in Georgia. She worked for Champion Cleaning Systems, Inc. and has over 20 years of experience in the disaster restoration industry. She has certification in water, fire and mold restoration and has been involved in most aspects of the industry including being a technician, controlling content manipulation inventory, management, estimating, accounting and reception.