Insurance companies have started contracting firefighters to show up at the site of a fire and protect the houses covered by their insurance policies. Bob Harvey, fire chief for Black Forest Fire/Rescue, said he worked for such a company – Wildfire Defense Systems.
“I thought it was a very good system,” Harvey said. “They aren’t just some thrown-together insurance agent-staffed firefighters that show up. They are experienced.”
Harvey said the “insurance resource crews” had a template when they arrived on the scene of a fire that indicated which houses they needed to hone in on. They provided the information to the type 1 incident commander so everyone knew where everyone else was working, he said. “They (insurance resource crews) can take a certain house off the plate of the already stretched resources,” Harvey said.
Rumors have spread that insurance resource crews impede other firefighters and don’t help protect houses other than ones under the particular insurance company policies, Harvey said. “In the 25 to 30 fires I was engaged in, a couple times they were so stretched for resources, they called us to help protect a house that wasn’t insured by us,” he said. “We have ethics. We’re first of all firefighters. They (insurance resource crews) will stop to put the fire out. They will fight a fire on the outside of a house that wasn’t insured by them.”
The insurance resource crews can also help protect houses before the fire has reached them, Harvey said. “They do certain emergency mitigation efforts,” he said. “They’ll apply gels to protect combustible surfaces. They’ll move patio furniture.”
Terri Hobbs, insurance agent with American National Insurance Co., said, “Our fire break squad (American National’s insurance resource crew) can go out with the fire break truck during the pre-evac (evacuation) or evac stage and spray fire retardant on our client’s houses. In the case of a fire like in Black Forest, it can help save the house. And if for some reason the fire didn’t get to that property, the fire retardant washes off and is used for fertilizer.”
Harvey said he has yet to come across an insurance company that charges policy holders for these services, and Hobbs said American National is no different.
However, the company is strict about their clients’ fire mitigation practices, Hobbs said. “We’re very big on mitigation,” she said. “In turn, we have the fire break squad. We are educating people about mitigation and about the process. We cancelled policies on people who didn’t mitigate, and saved a lot of money.”
One major difference between traditional firefighters and insurance resource crews is that the insurance crews cannot engage in interior firefighting, Harvey said. In an instance where a fire has gone inside a structure, the insurance resource crew would call the incident commander to report the fire had spread to the interior of the structure and they needed help to put it out, he said.
During the Black Forest fire, insurance resource crews identified several houses and told firefighters that the fire had spread to the interior of the homes. “We wouldn’t have gotten that information otherwise,” Harvey said.
Harvey said he has never experienced any conflict or impediment by having an insurance resource crew onsite to help fight a fire. “In the High Forest Ranch area, a strike team (insurance resource crew) leader identified himself and showed us which houses were already being dealt with,” he said. “It was nice to have additional engines taking responsibility for those eight houses that I didn’t have to worry about.
“There is a big demand to have this service expand across the nation. Right now, none of the companies that I know of have the capacity to do that. The problem is growing, and the resources are dwindling.”