I was recently asked to do a quick review of a fire damage restoration estimate for an insurance claim written in the industry’s most prevalent estimating software, Xactimate. The estimator captured the majority of the relevant scope and the majority of my comments back were related to formatting. I appreciate an estimate that is not only written to accurately reflect the scope but looks sharp and organized as described in my book Be Intentional: Estimating. Formatting is a personal preference that has served me well for 20 years whether I was composing estimates in Xactimate, Quickbooks, an Excel spreadsheet, or a variety of programs. This article will not be a tutorial on Xactimate estimating but a framework for intentional restorers when writing fire damage restoration insurance claims.
Fire Damage Estimate Format - Headers
- Create headers that outline your work sequence, this will help you and anyone reviewing the estimate to follow the "story" of the loss.
- Outline your work and estimating sequence by composing your line items either from top (ceiling) to bottom (floor) or bottom to top.
- Compose your estimate in a manner that outlines the work-flow so that once it becomes the contract it can be worked-from.
Fire Damage Estimate Format - General Scope Items
In Xactimate, many of the generalized charges are included in "Main Level" or a subset of “General Conditions” which should be outlined in any estimating format. These would include considerations for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Describe your calculation of how many technicians you anticipate by how many days the PPE will be utilized. These descriptions in Xactimate are called F9 notes. The Restoration Industry Association (RIA) arranged a series of recommendations and supports in their document Protection from Environmental Dangers During Fire Restoration, which includes the following list for, "Invasive activities such as removal and cleanup of areas with visible fire residue or discernible smoke odor."
- Hard hat
- Washable safety shoes or boots, such as those utilized for category three water restoration work
- Properly fitted N100 filtering facepiece and eye protection, or properly fitted full-face negative pressure respirator with HEPA cartridges
- Non-penetrable disposable suits with attached hoods (Tyvek or equivalent)
- Surgical-style gloves made from nitrile or other similar material (not latex), or disposable mechanic-style gloves with finger and palm protection to prevent transference of the fire residue through the glove
Most estimators know to utilize HEPA filtered air scrubbers but an intentional restorer understands the "why" and the "how". We use this equipment to assist with health and safety for our technicians, environmental controls, as well as applications specific to odor treatment. Be sure to include pre-filters to collect particles with heavier mediums such as airborne soot, charcoal filters to assist with odor capture, and the combination of both to increase the life of your HEPA filter. Michael A. Pinto, CSP, CMP and David A. Batts wrote a peer reviewed article titled Understanding the Hazards of Fire Residue Encountered During the Restoration Process which every fire damage restoration contractor should include in their required reading. In this report, the authors note:
"Substantial information was found about the types and extent of airborne contaminants versus surface contaminants. Several groups of chemicals were identified as potential airborne contaminants. Although many different processes create this mix of fire residue, the research is clear that most of the contaminants come from incomplete combustion of materials in the structures. Virtually all of the chemicals identified are considered hazardous."
Your HEPA filter will be destroyed after a fire damage restoration, so you should charge to change the filter and be sure to perform this swap unless you want your next house to smell like smoke. You should also charge to decontaminate your equipment and perform a thorough cleaning after each project. In Xactimate this is a specific line item whereas the scope may be included in the outline of an estimating presented in another means. Be sure to outline why you are charging for these items and include explanations (F9 notes) for any labor for supervisory or other such considerations.
Fire Damage Estimate Format - Headers by Room
In any scope presentation I would recommend these "master" headers for each room which should be in bold and capitalized:
- PREP WORK
- SEALING & ODOR TREATMENT
Fire Damage Estimate Format - Prep Work Items
Preparatory (prep) work for fire damage restoration estimates might include items such as:
- Environmental controls (if you aren't breaking these out by room)
Some companies perform contents assessment, treatment, and/or pack out themselves, while others sub-contract this work. This is a separate discussion and we will not address this now, other than to say that you will want to be sure your contents strategy aligns with your cleaning strategy or you can open yourself up to being liable for the client's personal items by way of secondary damage due to lack of environmental controls (i.e. air scrubbers, containment, etc).
Flooring is an important consideration in relationship to masking. If you are salvaging any finished floors, I would argue for a sequence that includes first cleaning the flooring and covering it with protective materials, prior to starting the cleaning and restoration work throughout, so that you aren't embedding any soot or debris. Once the cleaning has been completed, remove these protective layer(s) and perform a final cleaning as you work your way out of the affected residence.
Masking comes into play when there are damaged areas that are not being cleaned. In these areas, where damaged materials will need to be removed and then replaced, the non-salvageable areas must be separated from those areas being cleaned as well as unaffected areas to reduce cross contamination. Be sure that your masking and/or containment barriers are erected to sustain the duration of your project as well as your environmental control strategies, otherwise you could create your own secondary damages when one system prevails over the other.
Fire Damage Estimate Format - Removal Scope
Fire damage restoration contractors working on insurance claims must assess the damages and confirm the scope of work with all parties involved. These evaluations should include clarification as it relates to what is salvageable in the structure and what should be removed. In a fire damage situation the materials can be impacted by fire, smoke, soot, water, or a combination of all of the above.
The purpose of this article is to discuss the structure of a fire damage estimate. As I discuss in my book, a good format helps you as an intentional estimator to reduce scope creep, puts your “brand” on an estimate, and enables anyone reviewing your scope to follow your process. The RIA has developed the Fire Loss Specialist (FLS) course for the purpose of helping professionals understand, “Contracts, ethics, project management, report writing and consulting in the discipline of fire damage.” Intensive courses such as these can be helpful for elevating your efforts as an intentional restorer.
Fire Damage Estimate Format - Cleaning Scope
Cliff “The Z Man” Zlotnik, who is the founder of Unsmoke and regarded by many as the Godfather of the disaster restoration industry, shared many of his perspectives relevant to fire restoration cleaning on IAQ Radio Episodes 338 and 339. He reminds restorers that, “There are 3 primary types of fires: natural, synthetic and protein; each with unique odor and residue characteristics.”
After several years of performing fire damage restoration, I can remember how valuable the lessons that I learned in my first Fire and Smoke Damage Restoration Technician (FSRT) class were in adding resources to my arsenal of knowledge. Thankfully I had a great instructor who was a practitioner and was a subject matter expert. Intentional restorers work to elevate their technical, as well as their practical, proficiencies. Your scope should follow the workflow sequence that will be followed onsite, which include dry cleaning methods, wet cleaning methods, and odor treatment.
- Dry Clean methods include the physical removal of soot and smoke residues prior to wet cleaning so as to reduce cross contamination. This is often conducted by cleaning ceilings, walls, and floors using dusting tools, HEPA filtered vacuums, and/or “chem” sponges.
- Wet Clean methods include the cleaning of surfaces with chemicals that are designed for the particular source and/or material compositions of the affected surfaces.
- While physical (dry) removal and wet cleaning are all components of addressing odor, often there are secondary treatments such as ozone or hydroxyl that supplement these efforts.
Within the heading for fire damage restoration cleaning, you will want to use sub-headers for items such as:
- Walls and ceilings
If you are composing your estimate in Xactimate, intentional restorers are detailed in cataloging and documenting the conditions of the various fixtures throughout the affected structure. Many estimators leave legitimate work scope, and therefore money, on the table by not being as detailed as they could be. Margins of profitability are won or lost in the details.
As discussed above, if you are attempting to salvage any of the flooring, I would argue for cleaning and then covering the floors prior to proceeding with removing, cleaning, and/or treating the walls and ceilings. Once this step has been addressed, your team will typically want to work from the top-down. Not doing so could set you up for having to clean certain surfaces twice or creating avoidable secondary damages.
Even if there isn’t visible damage to the walls, ceilings, or floors, an evaluation of the sub-surfaces will be necessary prior to proceeding to determine the extent of damages and odor. This could include attics, wall framing, and the crawlspace. Your cleaning chemicals, equipment, and methods will vary based upon the source of the fire and the composition of the materials you are restoring. Even if you have performed dry cleaning methods prior to wet cleaning, there may be residue, staining, or odor that remains.
Fire Damage Estimate Format - Sealing & Odor Treatment
Once non-salvageable materials have been removed and salvageable materials have been cleaned, in most situations a series of ozone or hydroxyl treatments will follow. These steps should compliment, not replace, proper cleaning. Restoration and Remediation Magazine (R&R) published a helpful three member panel discussion titled The Ozone vs. Hydroxyl Debate. This article shares perspectives on the uses of ozone generators, man made ozone, and hydroxyl; many contractors also utilize thermal fogging. For estimating purposes you will want to ensure that you quantify this process appropriately including travel and labor charges for multiple applications, if necessary.
Most of the fire damage restoration contractors I have worked with understand that smoke sealing is not intended to be used in lieu of proper cleaning and deodorization. Even if the removal and cleaning was executed properly, the discovery of a pigmented sealant on remaining structures could raise questions. This occurs in microbial (mold) remediation scenarios as well. Brad Kovar and industry giant Martin L. King wrote an instructive article on The Use Of Primers And Sealers After Fire And Smoke Damage.
Application of a sealant includes more than just the product itself, which you will want to confirm material pricing is current in your estimating platform. Prepare for this process by including heavy masking prior to application, otherwise this effort will create more problems than it solves. I would suggest that you also account for the cleaning of your equipment, as the various sealers need to be thoroughly cleaned from airless sprayers.
Industry veteran Robert Rowe reminds his fellow intentional restorers, “Attic spaces are sometimes overlooked, especially on a two story loss where the event happened on the first floor with no ‘burn through’ into the second floor. Insulation in the attic can trap/hold subtle smoke odors that are very difficult to detect compared to the rest of the structure. These become very evident in the summer when attic temperatures do their thing.”
Fire Damage Estimate Format - Process
For many of the readers that have made a career out of property restoration, facing new challenges each day is part of what keeps us engaged in the work. Fire damage provides unique opportunities to develop remediation strategies that account for a jigsaw puzzle of source(s), extent, materials, resources, and remedies.
Before taking on a project, be sure that you give it the respect that it deserves. A common failure scenario includes one where the fire occurs in the winter and was not thoroughly restored, the “pores” in the home “close” and odors are not noticed, or aren’t thoroughly addressed. These shortcomings by the contractor are not revealed until after all of the work for repairs has been completed. The client moves back into the home, likely in the summer, and notices a lingering odor as the “pores” in the structure “open”. King and Kovar note, “Smoke odor complaints after fire damage repairs are not uncommon. When discovery occurs after the property has been reoccupied, the disruption and expense of odor remediation may exceed tolerable limits.”
Writing about the recent wildfires in Oregon, David Hart reminds intentional professionals to remember to look beyond the obvious. Even in zones of mass destruction where many homes were total losses, “The homes that remained—some shockingly untouched by flames amid the neighboring ash-strewn lots—needed a thorough cleaning and smoke restoration process. As we addressed the HVAC ductwork, we removed substantial amounts of soot.” Soot and odors can be particularly tricky to diagnose and will require investigation as your team works through the process of elimination.
Fire damage estimators should educate themselves, both in course work and hands on practice, on the real world process of remediation and restoration. Doing so creates a greater knowledge of the process so that the estimate will accurately reflect the scope and sequence of work to be performed. Intentional estimators make it a habit to get some dirt under their nails and maintain field experience. The DYOJO Way reminds thriving restoration contractors that training for all members of the team is key to increasing technical and practical proficiency.
To avoid failure or psychosomatic odors, Cliff Zlotnik encourages post remediation verification noting that, “On fire restoration projects what the customer sees and smells is often the clearance criteria. By showing the customer the extent of the problem and then allowing them to visually and olfactorily monitor the corrective action. Microscopy may be used to determine whether or not residue is fire related.” Don’t cut corners as you execute the work and don’t shortchange your team by short scoping the work with a poorly constructed estimate. Be an intentional estimator and contribute to developing an intentional culture.
Fire Damage Estimate Format - Production
As a fire damage restoration estimator it is important to see yourself as a part of a long chain of events that are designed to culminate in a satisfactory outcome for all parties. A lot of effort goes into the process of inspection and drafting a scope of work that reflects the needs of the structure. When you compose your estimate in a manner that outlines the workflow, you will produce a document that can be utilized for developing a realistic budget and an actionable work plan. The way of the Intentional Restorer is to: Do it Right. Do it Efficiently. Do it Excellently. Use your time and resources efficiently and write your work-flow so that once it becomes the contract it can be worked-from.
This article was peer reviewed by Robert Rowe and edited by Tiffany Acuff.