Private Firefighting Crews - Insurance Companies

CAL FIRE Denied Access to Private Firefighting Crews Sent by Insurance Companies
It is statewide policy not to admit ‘civilians’ during an evacuation order, and that includes private firefighters.

A number of Malibu residents’ homeowners insurance policies include the use of private firefighting companies that work independently from county firefighters. The private crews protect specific homes under contract with insurance companies, and attempt to arrive ahead of the flames. These companies have been around since the 1980s, but have become even more common and in-demand as the risk of major wildfires in California has increased over the years.

The private crews emphasize doing fire prevention work as quickly as possible around an individual house in advance of the fire. They will rake leaves, clear gutters, remove debris from roofs, close windows and vents, spray retardant on brush, and, in some cases, spray the house with gel to protect it from flying embers. They’ll also remove stacked wood, clear brush and patio furniture cushions, and anything else around the house that’s highly flammable. Their fleet trucks carry water for putting out hot spots.

While benefits seem obvious for insurance companies, statewide fire officials point out they complicate firefighting efforts for central command, since they cannot communicate readily with rank-and-file crews. Now, in the fallout of the Woolsey Fire—where resources were spread so thin many homes did not see any fire engines at all—questions are being asked about why private crews were turned away.

Malibu resident Ron Krisel, who is insured by USAA (only available to active, retired and honorably discharged members of the U.S. military), was eligible for the services of a private firefighting crew. However, he was notified by USAA that when their crew checked in with the joint command for the Woolsey Fire, they were told by CAL FIRE that they would not be allowed to come into Malibu and, something to the effect that, if they disobeyed, they would never be allowed in during a fire from now on.

Krisel’s house burned down the day after the fire came through—a casualty of still-blowing embers. He feels strongly that if the private crew contracted by USAA had been allowed to come in, his house would’ve been saved—they would’ve kept an eye on the burning embers and hot spots and put them out before the house caught fire. County firefighters never showed up.

When The Malibu Times contacted Scott McLean, public information officer for CAL FIRE Woolsey Fire, to ask why, he said he wasn’t familiar with this particular incident, and would only be able to talk about their policy in general.

McLean verified that private fire companies must check in with the authorities at the joint command to show documentation from the insurance company and the address of the specific house.

“It’s a common thing—no big deal. We rarely turn them away,” McLean said. “But if there’s an evacuation order for the area the house is in, they cannot come in.” That’s the most obvious reason why the crew coming to Krisel’s house was turned away—the Malibu evacuation order must have already been in effect.

McLean explained they consider private firefighters to be civilians, regardless of the firefighting experience and training they may have. In addition, he said they “do not just drop hoses on the ground and start fighting a fire” the way county firefighters do. “They’re not part of the [official] fire service” or chain of command.

“From the standpoint of first responders, they are not viewed as assets to be deployed. They’re viewed as a responsibility,” Carroll Wills, communications director for California Professional Firefighters, a labor union representing rank-and-file firefighters in the state, told the LA Times.

During a wildfire, the private crews say they may not be able to visit every home insured under the program, but prioritize based on the fire’s movement and where homes have a high likelihood of being destroyed without their assistance.

As the danger of fire has increased in recent years, so has the use of private firefighters by insurance companies like USAA, Chubb, AIG, Liberty Mutual, Safeco and Nationwide. While some offer the service as an “opt-in” benefit that costs extra money, others, like USAA and Chubb, have made it a standard part of their policy.

One of the largest private firefighting companies, Wildfire Defense Systems, has contracts with a dozen different insurance companies, but doesn’t contract with individuals. When the Woolsey, Hill and Camp fires broke out last month, they deployed 53 firetrucks, more than 100 firefighters and 50 workers in California, David Torgerson, president, told the LA Times. He said only about five percent of such companies contract with individuals.

For insurance companies, the benefits of private firefighters are obvious—it’s cheaper to send them out to save a $5 million property than it would be to replace the house and its contents.

3 Likes

Yes, it is cheaper for the insurance companies, but in circumstances of evacuation orders, there is no accountability for these individuals nor are they tied officially to the incident in any way. They may well have radios capable of monitoring the incident frequencies, but they do not have authorization to use any of those frequencies if they get into trouble.

If they do get into trouble, which is highly likely to happen because their mission objective is to save the insured real estate, incident personnel are going to be required to jeopardize their safety to extract or provide shelter in place coverage.

At some point, there may well need to be agreements put into place between OES, CalFire and the insurance companies, but into the middle of a multi-conflagration event is not the time nor the place.

6 Likes

On the Soberanes fire, like so many others, there was a number of Insurance based private fire agencies. It has become relatively common for the incident to recognize a responsible party who acts as the leader for these companies, liaising with the team and field overhead.

One day well into the Type 1 organization, these crews and their leader reported they had left our division.

Only they hadn’t.

When we had an IWI occur due to a large tree falling onto a private engine, it reinforced the belief that they were acting outside the system. The tree fell immediately behind the cab and crushed the apparatus, destroying the engine. If it had fallen just a bit forward, it would have severely injured, if not killed the crew.

No one knew they were there, since well before they had reported leaving the division.

I believe, like other contract private agencies, they want and can do some real good. However, they have to take responsibility for meeting the same training, experience, equipment and interoperability requirements as the rest of the players.

5 Likes

I know Cal OES and FIRESCOPE are looking and changes will happen. Sound like no red lights, maybe not use our frequencies.

Received a postcard in the mail recently about this (I have SF as an insurer), and I see it’s making the news. Doesn’t say in the article but the card says it there is no additional charge to property owners.

Wonder what their rules for engagement are in regards to a property owner onsite. In addition how they ID themselves if they show up w/truck and in uniform. Most of us would know the diff, but there are a lot of the public that would not.

1 Like

Under the Firescope guidelines, they are not allowed to wear uniforms, have code three lights or carry any firing devices. They are not to be allowed into an evacuation zone beyond any traffic control points, without specific permission from the IC.
They have a place, it is in preparing ahead of the fire, they should then leave and can be allowed in post fire front.
There have been some issues, I would not classify them as a lot, but some, with the potential for serious consequences, one in particular last year in LNU.
If you look at what is going on, you can see the growing influence within the firefighting community by private contractors. This is evident in every aspect of firefighting. They have taken a page from the defense industry. After WWII the large defense contractors lured away experienced staff from government service with large salaries. Using their immense experience post WWII and their inside contacts from their military service, the new burgeoning defense industry gained a seat at the public policy table. The lines between public policy and private interest were blurred, and soon public policy was being influenced by private interest. This set the stage for the arms race which led to the Cold War.
If you look at what is occurring in CA with PG&E and insurance companies, you can see the same thing occurring. They have hired away experienced firefighters from local, state and federal agencies and now have direct connections to the IMT’s and executive staff at our departments.
This begins the “moral hazard” where the liens are blurred when decisions are made, because of the existing relationships of former government employees.
The patches that we wear on our sleeves and display on our equipment are a image from the past with a deeper meaning than just representing the community or agency. When the fire service was first created, its roots were in the insurance industry, with most of the service being termed “salvage companies”. Homeowners would pay a subscription to a particular company and then display the placard outside their home. If a fire occurred multiple companies may respond, but if you were not a subscriber, the bargaining would begin. You can imaging, when your home was on fire, you are not in a very strong bargaining position. This is when public policy was formed to make this service an essential service and the even the service delivery model. Our patches now reflect those days, but have evolved to represent the tax paying customers that we represent.
Our patches as government employees mean that when we speak, we speak for the general public and not companies with shareholders or private for profit interests. When we speak and make decisions, we make them based on what is best for everyone, not just for one small and or elite group of people.
I am late in my career, but for you younger folks, pay attention to what is happening and see the dangers and dilemmas of allowing parties with a private interest a seat at the public policy table…

7 Likes

I mean nobody any disrespect, but the converse is also true. If private interests are not allowed any leverage, then whatever the government (public) interests say is best goes, and nobody is allowed to do anything different.

The reason the insurance companies are doing this is that they perceive that the “powers that be” are not able to adequately protect their risks, and they feel that they can assist in generating a better outcome in the structure protection arena.

Even though there are rules in place, they are still taking on a huge liability placing a lot of people and equipment under their responsibility somewhat in harm’s way, and they would not be doing it if there was not some tangible benefit to doing so, rather they would just pay out the claims as they came in.

It is not private- for profit industry’s job to watch us or determine if what we are doing is the best… There are people for that, policy makers, boards and elected officials. We hold ourselves to a standard.
For profit entities are always going to use the bottom line as the deciding factor when there is a decision to be made. We( professional firefighters) do not have to weigh that when we make a decision.

1 Like

Sadly poor policy(environmental, mismanagement, etc) combined with a changing political climate, combined with a doubling of the population in California since 1980 has lead to increasing problems. You’re right, it’s about the bottom line. The insurance companies who have lost BILLIONS over the past 5 years have done the cost benefit analysis and calculations. They know AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION IS WORTH A POUND OF CURE. In this case, less paid out in future claims. Keep in mind “Insurance” is a bet against the house in Vegas Terms. In this case, what government hasn’t been able to solve due to the above reasons, the private sector is filling the void and not changing more for it. No different than Cal Fire having 193 Hand Crews statewide a recently as 5 years ago. Today, because of political climate change, that number is 60-70 on a good day and only forecast to decline.

2 Likes

I wish the insurance companies would start throwing their weight into land management and pre fire realms. I believe that is where they will see the most benefit. Put some money pressure on environmental groups, state and federal governments and these so called experts that have been pushing this one sided completely false agenda for decades.

3 Likes

If insurance companies send in their own crews to clear around values they have an interest in protecting that’s not a bad thing. It’s no different than having tree service crews brush a road to use as the next fire line. As for structure protection you have to know what they are doing at all times and if the sh.t hits the fan you’ve got know where they are. They should be assigned to the structure protection group for the area they are in and not freelance resource and if the insurance company won’t go along with it they can kick rocks and go home.

1 Like

If insurance companies started doing that 25 years ago they may have saved billions of dollars and people may not have gotten their policies canned.

1 Like

So why do we give special permission to the big electric companies access to go save their equipment during fires? Double standards by California, since they all basically pay for political items and campaigns. I hope and want people to push this issue. I pay for a service and the state says they are not allowed to go do a service I paid for, wtf. Then the state should insure my property and pay for all the damages.

1 Like

It’s not a double standard, there is a big difference in something that’s a critical infrastructure and a personal residence. If the grid goes down it effects thousands if not millions, if a house burns down it effects only 1 unit.

2 Likes

Until its your house.

2 Likes

The argument can be made that the boards and elected officials are being ineffective which may be why the insurance companies want to step in and do what they can, now.

If some bunch of concerned citizens decided Cal Fire was doing a really horrible job, and wanted to clean house, they would have a terrible time of it, because no board or group of elected officials are directly responsible. Rather it would have to go through the governor, who also has 1 or 2 other concepts to worry about, and a bunch of state legislators, who are in the same vein.

This all takes years and decades, and meanwhile people’s houses are at risk, now.

Then of course we all know what it is like getting changes done in local fire districts, hit or miss, and of course the USFS is another animal entirely.

So there are systems in place, theoretically, but they can become so bloated and unresponsive as to be useless.

1 Like

I will submit again, there is no place at the public policy table for a private- for profit entity to dictate public policy. Look no further than PG&E as an example of how that will go. They knew there was a problem, and chose to neglect it in an effort to increase profits and preserve shareholder values.
IF PG&E were truly interested in public policy, they would have put larger poles, stronger towers and stronger conductors in prior to causing multiple devastating fires which caused the deaths of over one hundred people.
If the insurance companies really wanted to preserve their profits, they should be conducting defensible space inspections, and helping their policy holders to harden their homes. Right now, it is upside down, with the burden being on the fire service to conduct and enforce the PRC 4290 standards.

3 Likes

A small percentage of your power bill every month was supposed to go to Maintenance of the power grid and equipment they own. Spot on shareholder profits! Before I retired we were doing about 3 to 5 emergency inspection a day on some shifts. Why, because the insurance companies were going to cancel someone policy. We would inspect, give them 7 to 14 days to get in compliance. We would reinspect and they were good as for as PRC 4290 compliance. The insurance company would come back in and tell the home owner we want the trees 500 feet away from your property thinned out. Well…here would lie the problem those trees were on and adjacent property, not the home owners property. The insurance companies were putting some ludicrous demands on the home owner. I got so bad that I would say “you can not break one law to enforce another”. I been retired for over 10 yrs from CDF/Cal fire and the last five years I have never seen anything like the fires they have had in that time period. If this fire season is like the last it will be a miracle if any of us living above 1000 feet have any coverage at all. I don’t know what the answer is here, I do know if you maintain your dwelling and your property the dwelling or structure has a better chance of survival.

1 Like

For profit is fine, the issue lies with the fact that PGE is a state sanctified monopoly. Think about it, if people could choose who to get power from, why would they choose PGE? They would have gone out of business or fixed their issues. It would also decrease rates, because competition.
Same thing goes for private fire crews, if it’s my house in the cross hairs, I’d be glad to have the insurance company send someone out to solely protect my house or my neighborhood. In most other states citizens are on their own, and there is less expectation of having the state for service protect their homes, and they take things into their own hands, normally successfully.

1 Like

on the converse, pge lines have been in these areas for decades, winds have always blown in these areas, but terrible land management policies have given us continuous fuel beds right into and through communities. blame can be thrown in multiple directions.

3 Likes