Adjusters Come to Rescue in So. Cal Wildfires

December 3, 2003

Late in the afternoon of Oct. 26, an innocently started signal fire jumped its containment and spread into the wilds of San Diego County ahead of gusting Santa Ana winds.

Over the ensuing days, this and nine other Southern California fires expanded into one of the worst firestorms in California history killing more than 20 people, destroying hundreds of thousands of acres, leveling 3,600 homes and disrupting the lives of countless residents.

Current loss estimates are $1.5-$2.5 billion. Every insurer writing in Southern California has responded with extraordinary personnel and assets to service their policyholders’ needs during this difficult time. Adjusters from as far away as the East Coast have been deployed to assist with this tragedy. Already, lessons learned from the 1991 Oakland, Calif., fires are being implemented in hopes that all losses may be fairly and equitably settled in short order.

Within hours of the first reported property losses, adjusters were being contacted by insurers with instructions to contact policyholders and render assistance. Unfortunately, in many areas, phone service and power were interrupted and immediate contact was impossible. Adjusters were not permitted into burned out residential areas to leave contact information, and they were forced to await a call from the insureds or to go to crisis centers in search of families. In a few cases, cell phone numbers were available and contact was expedited.

In a time of terrible and widespread devastation, our profession leaps to preeminence as the deliverer of the promise. We are the professionals who directly contact policyholders, fairly evaluate their losses, sympathize with them during the grieving process and assist them with becoming whole again.

Less than three weeks after the conflagration ended, many large insurers are reporting more than 80 percent of their insureds have received some form of payment toward settling their losses. As a consumer would view it, that speaks favorable volumes for our industry. As an adjuster might view it, pride in our profession would be appropriate.

This is not to say there will not be difficult cases, lingering cases and/or fraudulent cases. There are already instances reported of seriously exaggerated claims – particularly within the personal property limits portion of policies. While delivering the promise, Adjusters will remain mindful of claims overstating values, claims for articles that never existed, claims for items not damaged in the fire and claims unsupported by proper documentation.

While it may be difficult to look a homeowner in the eye and ask him/her these difficult questions, this is what professional adjusters do. There will be many instances where this is understood by the homeowner and a few where it is not understood. But, the professional adjuster will do the best he/she can to obtain information and offer the least offense possible in doing so. That’s what professional adjusters do.

By helping to deliver the promise, adjusters will make less painful most homeowners’ difficult transitions. Professional adjusters will help with the rebuilding of homes, neighborhoods and communities. They will retain the confidence of the public. They will keep the public trust. In all but a few cases, they will affirm the hopes of the policyholder that fair and equitable settlements are the norm.

Tragic events such as this give us many lessons learned. The 1991 Oakland fires damaged or destroyed nearly 3,000 homes. Problems settling those losses remained almost 10 years later. Though many of those problems were operational in nature (access, communication, etc.), our industry also reaffirmed many truths about the claim profession. Some of those were:

*Deliver what you promise.
*Timeliness is vital. Haste is not.
*Be fair.
*Be equitable.
*Practice good, sound, tried and true claims handling techniques.
*Communicate clearly and often.
*Trust policyholders but verify claimed losses.
*Handle a claim as if it was your own money.

These truths may seem antiquated in today’s quick-close world. But, they are as true today as they were 275 years ago in a coffeehouse in London.

We just have the advantage of much more rapid and thorough communication. Let’s hope we use it to reaffirm the public trust through professional, thorough and fair claim handling.

Dan Price is president of Pacific Claims Service, Inc, a multiline independent adjusting firm located in San Diego since 1969.

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