Trial by Fire
When a fire broke out at FirstOnSite's Chatham branch, the restoration company’s own disaster plan was put to the test
Christo is a project administrator at FirstOnSite Restoration in Chatham, Ont., so she’s used to dealing with other people’s catastrophes. Whether it’s a client’s flooded basement or a tree through the roof of a business, Christo has experienced it all. But on this particular day, she had to deal with a completely unexpected disaster: a fire at FirstOnSite’s own office.
Though surprising, the fire at FirstOnSite offered the restoration company an opportunity to demonstrate what it does best: manage disasters. When the fire broke out, FirstOnSite had an effective plan in place that allowed the company to quickly deal with the problem and get back to business-as-usual.
Nearly five years ago, several regional disaster companies united to form FirstOnSite Restoration. Each of these companies originally had its own disaster management plan and way of responding to claims—something that clearly needed to be updated in order for the business to work effectively. “We have a huge team, and a whole bunch of different ideas. So you have to streamline those, so that it’s the same across the country,” says Chuck Phoenix, FirstOnSite’s business development manager for the Western Ontario Region. Today, FirstOnSite has more than 40 locations across Canada, all of which deal with disasters the same way.
The Chatham office, which is situated in the climatologically volatile Windsor corridor, responds to a significant amount of water damage claims due to weather events, but it also handles restoration work after windstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, and sometimes even trauma clean up. Tim Scott, the Chatham branch manager, says his team of nine employees does “as much business as the phone rings.”
The branch is divided into two service areas, the office and the warehouse. The warehouse houses the company’s restoration equipment, including dehumidifiers, air movers, air scrubbers, and floor rescue mats. It’s also home to damaged customer belongings that are waiting to be cleaned and restored items waiting to be returned. On any given day, the warehouse could hold customers’ couches ruined by flooded basements or mattresses spoiled by sewer backups.
When Christo entered the office that Friday morning, she noticed a distinct burnt plastic smell. She immediately called the building’s upstairs tenants, Magic Maid, to inquire if they could smell the odour too; they could.
And then the fire alarm sounded.
Christo ran through the office to the warehouse to see if she could spot any smoke. It was at the very back of the 8,000 sq ft warehouse that Christo saw the fire. “It seemed like the flames were probably about six feet high,” she recalls. “When I saw the fire I ran out back through the front office and I let the people upstairs know that it was an actual fire and that everybody had to get out.”
When all of the building’s occupants were safely outside and the fire department was notified, Christo called her superiors: branch manager, Scott, and district general manager (DGM), Marc Lalonde. Scott arrived on the scene by 7:45 a.m. “My first reaction was to make sure everybody was okay,” he says. But he quickly had to deal with the event itself. The fire was extinguished 45 minutes after it was discovered, but the thick smoke had caused extensive damage and Scott’s team was left without an office to work in. By 9am, Scott was on the phone with all of the Ontario DGMs, the business development team, as well as the communications department to discuss what steps were needed to get the business operational as quickly as possible. “My first focus was to make sure that we were able to be up and running as soon as our phone lines were back up,” he says.
Restoring the Restoration Company
Scott and his team contacted the London and Kitchener offices, as well as FirstOnSite’s head office in Mississauga, to notify them of the fire. Customer calls were immediately redirected to the London office to ensure there was no business interruption and the customer contents that were stored in the warehouse, many of which were damaged by the smoke, were shipped to the Kitchener office for cleaning.
Phoenix, who also participated in Scott’s initial conference call, spent the day contacting the region’s adjusters. “We wanted to let them know that we had a small issue in our Chatham branch, but that issue was not deterring that branch from continuing its day-to-day operations,” he explained. A project assistant from FirstOnSite’s Guelph office contacted all of the insureds to inform them their belongings were being shipped for cleaning. Phoenix also contacted the adjusters who were handling these insureds’ files to inform them the customer contents would be shipped for cleaning and returned to the Chatham office when they were restored.
We were a client at that point. It wasn’t our building, it was just another claim for FirstOnSite.”
Meanwhile, a mobile “ready office” unit was delivered to the site. “There were electricians on board, plumbers, we had everybody on board to get us operational,” said Scott. “It was pretty amazing that our electrician was able to get our re-inspection and get the power put on the same day. We paid a premium, but we were up and running with hydro to the temporary office right away.” FirstOnSite’s ready offices are designed as temporary office space and come equipped with wifi. Project managers have tablet computers that are loaded with the company’s proprietary software. The software can manage existing jobs and receive new claims, so once the temporary office was set up, Scott’s team had everything they needed to get back to work. In fact, they responded to three claims on the day of the fire.
Disaster Plan in Practice
FirstOnSite deals with disasters every day, so when it had to respond to its own event, the restoration company could rely on the expertise of its project managers to determine the appropriate action. “We have a very formal written disaster plan. It is essentially a giant resource toolkit that relies entirely on those initial assessments and the expertise of the leadership to make the correct assessment and determine that action plan,” explains Margo Malowney, director of marketing at FirstOnSite. “The plan itself is a moving target.”
In the case of the Chatham fire, FirstOnSite responded as it would to any other event. “We were a client at that point. It wasn’t our building, it was just another claim for FirstOnSite,” says Phoenix. The first priority was getting the business back on track. A mobile catastrophe unit equipped with all the hardware needed to run the day-to-day operations was deployed to the scene, additional workers from other local branches were sent to begin cleaning the site and the customer contents were shipped off for restoration. “We didn’t miss a beat,” says Scott. “It was just another day at the office dealing with a fire.” Some things were different, however. “I had less emotion dealing with our own fire than I do with clients’ fires,” explains Scott. When a client is distraught, he says, a restorer has to do more than just clean up the mess; they also have to ensure the clients are coping. “This time, it was more business…. The emotions were basically right out of it.”
Whether FirstOnSite is responding to a fire at the Chatham branch office or a flood in Thunder Bay, the first step in its disaster management plan is for the local branch to host a conference call to assess the extent of the damage. On the call are the local branch managers, the district general managers, as well as the business development teams and communication departments. Depending on the scale of the disaster, FirstOnSite could draw resources from its offices all across Canada to respond to the catastrophe.
Because each event is different, the goal of the conference call is to determine next steps specific to that disaster. “We need to know how many people we need to mobilize, what exactly we need to mobilize in the way of equipment and project managers,” explains Phoenix. Each team is assigned different priorities. The communication team sets out to inform the public that FirstOnSite is dealing with the situation; the business development group contacts the adjusters to inform them of the situation and the DGMs coordinate personnel and equipment.
The FirstOnSite Chatham team is still without their office, but the mobile unit is parked just a few feet from the burned building, so “nothing’s really changed,” says Christo. Scott and his team are waiting for estimates to be approved by the adjusters and then the restoration can begin. The smoke caused a significant amount of damage and all 3,000 sq ft of office space will have to be gutted and rebuilt. Any customers whose contents were irreparably damaged in the fire, if there were any, will be reimbursed through FirstOnSite’s contents insurance.
Despite the losses, everyone at FirstOnSite agrees it could have been much worse. “When we had this fire, if we didn’t have a plan in place to react to the situation immediately, calmly and with the expertise that we have, there would have been a whole bunch of panic, and obviously we would have not been able to service the community like we service them day-to-day,” says Phoenix. And though he admits that working in a smaller, mobile office is not ideal, Scott says his team is making do. “This is what we do. When we go into CAT mode in different parts of the region or across Canada, we’re used to working in these conditions. We do what we have to do to make sure that we’re taking care of our clients.”
For Christo, the fire has given her a new perspective on what her clients go through. “I’ve never had a house fire,” she says. “But this is my home away from home, so I have a better understanding of the devastation when everything is uprooted and taken from you.”
Copyright 2013 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the January 2013 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine.