6/10/2013

A Guide to Natural Disasters

Five essential field adjuster strategies for surviving the season.

By Ed DeMask

When a natural disaster or catastrophe occurs, the first image that comes to mind for most people is typically that of the first responder on the scene battling the situation, whether it’s a fire, flood, wind, chemical, or other type of destructive force.

The sight of firefighters, police, rescue personnel, National Guard, American Red Cross, and other volunteers is familiar from news coverage or from first-hand experiences. They arrive on the scene prepared to work in a disaster setting to support those in need of rescue, food, shelter, clothing, and other necessities.

But long before we reach the third phase of a catastrophe—when home, commercial, auto, and property owners return on-site to the scene of the devastation—there is a second phase not generally known to the mainstream public. This is when catastrophe (or CAT) field adjusters are surveying the damage on behalf of insurers, third-party independent claims adjusters, and policyholders.

While CAT field adjusters arrive on the scene after the danger has occurred, they are still reaching the location long before it is typically declared “safe” for the general public to return to these areas.

For these reasons, claims managers are wise to have a safety strategy plan in place when sending CAT field adjusters on-site immediately following any type of disaster, whether it’s a hurricane or a massive auto accident involving several vehicles—and everything in between.

“Most times the adjusters going out on a claim are getting there immediately after a disaster or catastrophic event, and while there were first responders at the scene, scoping the location can still be very dangerous,” says Nicole Vinson, a Florida attorney with catastrophe experience. “Every single situation is different. I can tell you that, after Superstorm Sandy, there was so much devastation that these adjusters were going through that it was really important for them to look after their welfare and have a plan in place. One wrong move could have had serious consequences.”

Vinson says that many adjusters who go out on “daily calls,”—like water pipes flooding a home or damage to a business that still is able to partially operate—are thrown into catastrophe situations when needed, and the landscape is completely different.

“Some of these adjusters are put in catastrophe situations, and they become the first adjusters out on the scene,” she says. “For them it’s truly a game changer because it’s dealing with total devastation. They’re given so many assignments that there is often a rush to get things completed. With that rush can come haste.

“While police and fire may have arrived first, they are focused on getting people out to safety; property comes second,” continues Vinson. “The adjuster’s job, however, is to go over the entire property, which means that sometimes they are going where nobody has gone before, even if it’s weeks after the event.”

Having a safety plan for field adjusters has never been more important than it is in the present. Munich Re and the Insurance Information Institute reported that natural disasters or catastrophes cost insurers $58 billion in 2012, almost doubling the average yearly loss for the same category over the last decade.

Superstorm Sandy led the way as the worst storm to hit the northeastern U.S. since 1938. According to The New York Times, Sandy destroyed more than 300,000 housing units in New York and damaged 72,000 buildings in New Jersey and more than 3,000 homes in Connecticut.

Insured losses topped nearly $20 billion (that doesn’t include flood losses), but the effects were even far more reaching with more than 7.5 million power outages and months of follow-up for some owners and property managers; perhaps years for others.

The rest of the country faced floods, droughts, landslides, wildfires, and other areas of catastrophe that all place an emphasis on a field adjuster’s safety readiness. Being prepared for these adjusters is not only a way of doing business, it’s a self-defense policy as well.

Creating a Plan

To create the ideal safety plan, claims managers and field adjusters need to recognize the types of CAT situations they will be handling and working in. Asking a few simple questions will help determine the types of strategies that need to be put into place.

  • What type of geography will be encountered?
  • Are there hazardous materials at the location, even residue after cleanup?
  • Is normal transportation operating in and out of the affected area? If not, how can a report get filed?
  • Is there food and lodging nearby if there is a need to be on-site longer than one day? For how long?

In addition to those questions, field adjusters need to focus on details that will relate specifically to their insureds.

  • Do reports need to be filed on-site, and if so, how can this be done in a power-free location?
  • What type of turnaround does the insured expect, considering the field adjuster is in a post-catastrophe location? Does the information need to be relayed back within hours or days?
  • What is the safest way to capture the data needed from the insured without anyone being put at personal risk?

Thinking ahead and preparing a strategic plan will help field adjusters continue to focus on safety and awareness during these situations.

Safety Strategy #1:
Write the Plan Down

It sounds simple, but it’s necessary and true: have the plan in writing. If you call in sick and have to send out another adjuster, how can you share this information at a moment’s notice if it’s not written down?

Many industries have gone through this situation, and far too many in insurance don’t realize until it’s too late that a written safety plan for field adjuster safety is a vital tool. Be sure to share it with a trusted advisor, such as an attorney, who can gain access to and share the plan both easily and quickly when requested.

Safety Strategy #2:
Be Equipped

As pointed out earlier, every situation is different, so adjusters in the field need to be ready for a different catastrophe scenario every time they arrive at a disaster site. Being equipped with tools, equipment, helmets, and gear and able to do the work properly is not only important but also vital.

Carl Hutchinson, a heavy equipment adjuster based in Southern California, carries typical safety gear like goggles, glasses, steel-toe boots, safety vests, hard hats, gloves, and more. It’s representative of the types of things that every adjuster should carry, he says.

“Sometimes you will be asked to do an inspection of something, and it just had hazardous chemicals washed from it,” says Hutchinson. “You can be kept from examining the equipment if you don’t have the proper attire for safety. Plus, it’s not safe. Anybody in my business should carry and have those basic safety items with them in their car or truck at all times.”

Safety Strategy #3:
Embrace Technology

Hutchinson says he relies heavily on technology to get into a scene, capture the data needed for a claim, and get back out while being able to file it all from his vehicle.

“You have to be in tune with technology as much as possible,” Hutchinson says. “I use my phone as a modem to get my computer online wherever I may be. When I go to a catastrophe, I can pull alongside the road, conduct my inspection, and have a report sent to the  email of whomever is asking for it in a matter of an hour or so, based on the setup of my car.

“I send everything from my car to my cloud storage and then send the [desk] adjuster a quick link, so they can look at the pictures instantly and vividly. I find it to be very helpful to adjusters because they can open everything quickly, and it doesn’t go on to their computer’s hard drive storage.”

Bill Hunt, who focuses on investigations in Southern California, agrees with Hutchinson.

“My car is equipped for everything, because when I get an assignment, I never know what I’ll encounter,” Hunt says. “I always have a GPS, camera, audio recorder, video camera, a change of clothes, you name it. You cannot underestimate the need to have everything with you for every claim you are called to investigate.”

Safety Strategy #4:
Understand the Environment

Greg Lospinoso, a transportation specialist in New Jersey, says that his experience with Superstorm Sandy taught him that knowing the “lay of the land” during a catastrophe situation is critical.

“I heard rumors of adjusters who were trying to get into half-flooded vehicles to read the mileage and the airbags were deploying,” says Lospinoso. “It can be a very dangerous situation. You have to carry a full set of tools, a crowbar, and a good set of wrenches. You need to be able to open the hood of a flooded car and unplug the battery so an airbag won’t deploy. Some engines will automatically shut off the airbags, but since so many of them are electronic versus mechanical, it’s important to know what you’re dealing with.”

Lospinoso says a common-sense approach works, too. Being in boots that can survive a situation with radiator and battery fluids on the ground to prevent coming into direct contact with it is important.

“We’re still ‘old school,’ so I use a clipboard to kneel on in areas where there may be broken glass or other hidden dangers on the ground,” he says. “Anything you can do to increase your level of safety is important.”

Safety Strategy #5:
Expect the Unexpected

In 2004, 25-year-old Katie Froeschle was working as a property claims adjuster for a Florida insurance company when she went to a home to adjust a claim that only required her to visit the home’s exterior. She had no previous training on how to handle dangerous situations, and she showed up alone with no self-defense weapons on her. At the property, a new tenant greeted her, and when she went into the home, she was bludgeoned to death.

Florida attorney Charles R. “Dick” Tutwiler has been pushing for an increased focus on safety for field adjusters for more than a decade. Tutwiler, along with Katie’s father and other industry experts, later gave a presentation on safety in the field called Life, Health, and Safety Issues for Field Adjusters.

“Every storm, there are different issues that come up,” Tutwiler says. “With Andrew, it was wind; with Katrina, it was wind and flood; and with Sandy, it was flood. Each needs to be looked at as a unique event and analyzed for what you can do to prepare yourself. It’s not a static thing—safety in the field—it’s a dynamic thing, and you need to be prepared.

“If you’re going into areas that you are unfamiliar with, it’s important to know where you are going, what the risks are and how to get yourself out of dangerous situations. People are anxious, they get the assignments, and they run off without thinking about safety.

“I don’t think the industry considers this to be important enough in terms of sitting down and having safety classes,” he continues. “You go to the chemicals industry and you have safety classes, but I have not seen it in the insurance world. It really should be a part of the continuing education requirements.”   



Ed DeMask is director of claims management for Veritas Claims, a provider of independent insurance claims adjusters and investigators who serve the insurance, government, and private sectors. He has been a CLM Fellow since 2013 and can be reached at edemask@veritasclaims.com, veritasclaims.com.

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