Protecting Your Business from Wildfires

There are currently about 60 large wildfires burning in the United States, mostly in western states. But a combination of high temperatures and dry and windy conditions can make wildfires a threat almost anywhere. Adding to the situation is the fact that more and more businesses are expanding into the wildland-urban interface (WUI)—wildfire-prone areas where homes and businesses are located. This creates a growing wildfire risk to businesses, according to the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IIBHS).

The Property Casualty Insurers Association of America lists the most expensive U.S. wildfires to date, all in western states:

To protect buildings from wildfires, IIBHS recommends that businesses survey the materials and design features of their structures; as well as the types of plants used, their location and maintenance.

Organizations also should determine their fire hazard severity zone (FHSZ) by evaluating the landscape, fire history in the area and terrain features such as slope of the land. Organizations can request the FHSZ rating from local building or fire officials in their area.

IIBHS notes three sources of wildfire ignition:

  1. Burning embers, or firebrands, generated by a wildfire and made worse in windy conditions.
    • Embers can ignite in several ways: By igniting combustible construction materials directly when accumulating on or immediately adjacent to them. Combustible construction materials are those that ignite and burn such as wood, plastic, and wood-plastic products used in decking and siding. By igniting nearby plants and accumulated debris such as pine needles or other combustible materials such as a wood pile. By entering a building through openings, such as an open window or attic vent, and ignite combustible items inside the building.
  1. Direct flame contact from the wildfire
  2. Radiant heat emanating from the fire

It is critical to assess a building’s construction, including roofs, windows, vents and exterior walls, also important is the area surrounding a structure, including trees and plants, IIBHS said.

A defensible space zone around the building will reduce the risk of fire. This includes consideration of specific types of plants and how they are grouped and maintained.

Plant characteristics associated with higher combustibility include:

  • Narrow leaves or needles (often evergreen)
  • Volatile resins and oils, as indicated by leaves that have an aromatic odor when crushed
  • Accumulation of fine, twiggy, dry, or dead material on the plant or on the ground under the plant
  • Loose or papery bark that often falls off and accumulates on the ground (such as palms and eucalyptus).

Wildfires Blaze through Western U.S. and Canada

Following a wet spring, at least six western states are now fighting wildfires, which have been intensified by extremely high temperatures, wind gusts and lightning.

In northern California, about 4,000 people evacuated and more than 7,000 were told to prepare to leave as fires burned in the Sierra Nevada foothills, about 60 miles north of Sacramento, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The fire has burned nearly four square miles, injured four firefighters and destroyed at least 10 structures so far, fire spokeswoman Mary Ann Aldrich told The Oregonian. The area burning was southeast of Oroville, where recently spillways in the nation’s tallest dam began crumbling from heavy rains, leading to evacuation of 200,000 residents downstream.

More than 14 fires are burning in Nevada and a state of emergency was declared in Arizona. While a 15-square-mile fire is partially under control in Montana, hot, dry weather and thunderstorms are threatening.

Other states including Oregon, Washington, Idaho and New Mexico are either battling fires or monitoring conditions in order to prevent them.
Western Canada is also seeing its share of wildfires. Evacuations are in effect for up to 10,000 residents in British Columbia, as 17 fires burn.

Kevin Skrepnek, chief information officer for the British Columbia Wildfire Service, told the Vancouver Sun that gusty winds and hot, dry conditions are expected to continue for days.

“Unfortunately, in terms of the weather forecast, we’re not really seeing any reprieve in the immediate future,” he said. Skrepnek noted that 572 fires have started and that 98,842 acres have burned since April 1. About 1,000 firefighters are currently on the front lines.
Residents of Fort McMurray, Canada, who saw major losses after a fire last year burned for months, are still rebuilding. Risk Management Magazine reported in September that the fire became the largest and most expensive natural disaster in Canada’s history, surpassing floods in Alberta in 2013. The Fort McMurray wildfire charred more than 1.43 million acres of land and destroyed at least 10% of the city, including more than 2,400 homes, businesses and other structures.

Commercial and personal damages from the wildfire are estimated at $6 billion, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada. Thomas Johansmeyer, assistant vice president of property claim services strategy and development at Verisk Insurance Solutions, said the preliminary estimate for insured losses has come in at $3.5 billion (CAN $4.6 billion). Oil sands losses are included in the commercial component of the estimate.

To help people who are currently displaced in British Columbia, residents of Fort McMurray are rallying to collect and deliver much needed supplies. They are filling trailers with item requested, including water, bandages, eye drops, energy drinks, department store and gas station gift cards, sunscreen and toilet paper, and delivering them to British Columbia residents in need.

Telemetry Data: What Information Works Best?

Direct measurement of driving behavior, the heart of usage-based insurance (UBI), is the best way to match risk to premium. Insurers offer insurance discounts to safe drivers via UBI in order to acquire and retain the best risks. As a result, safer driving is promoted among these customers, which can amount to savings for organizations insuring drivers.

UBI is among the first attempts by insurers to adopt state-of-the-art technology for the underwriting process. Insurance companies and other service providers have struggled with some essential questions including those about the kind, resolution, frequency, and duration of data to collect, as well as what sensors to use. Indeed, many companies underwent independent efforts to establish data collection methodologies, generally resulting in a lack of any industry standard data “dictionary” or shared methodology for UBI. Still, it is possible to identify common approaches to collecting UBI data and how they are likely to evolve in the future.

Since the initial trials of UBI, the three cost factors—hardware, data, and analytics—have been the primary considerations as to how and what data elements each company collects. And even though prices of all three generally continue to decrease, the typical cost of setting up a full UBI program with filed predictive models remains significant. In the absence of industry-wide standards, it can be difficult to outline the breadth of the types of data collected. Even so, the following list covers most of the UBI data types found in the auto insurance market:

Verified mileage: This most basic mean of UBI is based on the well-validated assumption that more driving means more exposure to risk. Still, the advantage of verified mileage over declared mileage alone usually doesn’t justify a UBI operation for many companies.

Trip timing: A small advancement over verified mileage is trip timing. This goes beyond the pure mileage factor to estimate risk by studying when a driver is on the road, on the premise that some time slots tend to be riskier than others (Friday night, for example, with associated risk characteristics such as fatigue or drunk driving).

Driving events: Basic, yet powerful, behavioral aspects of driving are measured through collection of driving event data, mostly braking, accelerating, and turning. Sometimes absolute speeding events (exceeding 80 mph) and relative speeding events over the posted speed limit are recorded. Note, however, that onboard telematics units have relatively limited accuracy in collecting such data.

Full data log: As dongles came to market, they introduced improved collection capabilities, such as advanced GPS modules, CPU, accelerometers, OBDII, and large storage. With the falling cost of mobile data, companies started collecting full data logs and compressed them on dongles. Full data logs may provide endless analytics opportunities.

Smartphone data: The first technology to break the cost paradigm centering on device, data, and analytics is that operating from smartphones. Smartphones are also smart telematics devices owned by many, offering great collection and storage capabilities and data transfer at practically no additional cost. Unfortunately, smartphone data introduces many analytic challenges, including not knowing whether an insured is a driver or a passenger, whether the phone is turned off, and whether a driver operates an insured car.

What should we expect in the future? Against the background of rapidly changing technology and growing analytic complexity, future UBI is likely to rely on some of the following data elements:

Mobile data: As mobile apps become more sophisticated and reliable and as phone sensors become more accurate, more insurers are likely to use data obtained from mobile apps as a low-cost solution.

OEM data: Connected cars are growing in number (Gartner forecasts that by 2020, some 250 million cars will be connected). Data sets collected by connected cars aren’t as rich as those collected by dongles and provide more basic attributes (such as verified mileage, trip timing, and driving events). Nevertheless, they allow insurers to consume data more easily through data exchanges, where original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) take responsibility for the data collection process. Clearly, OEM capabilities will probably become even more advanced as manufacturers see more value from their investment.
Distribution of projected connected cars (source Business Insider)

Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) data: ADAS can provide driving alerts and override driver inputs in certain situations. To date, these devices haven’t become part of the UBI ecosystem but can potentially contribute tremendous value to analytics for driving behavior and may play a significant role in the future.

A final question about autonomous cars: Will they render UBI obsolete? Probably not, and for two reasons. First, penetration of autonomous cars and shared vehicles may well be slow and gradual. Second, many events currently measured by UBI will probably remain important when autonomous driving is used (for example, time and destination of journeys). UBI is likely here to stay.

Lessons from Distracted Driving Awareness Month

June is Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and while it is quickly drawing to a close, the message remains: Distracted driving is escalating, with 25% more vehicle accidents resulting from drivers talking or texting on cellphones. More cars on the road, especially during summer months, also translates to more accidents.

Organizations with fleets should take note as motor vehicle crashes are the number-one cause of work-related deaths, accounting for 24% of all fatal occupational injuries, according to the National Safety Council (NSC). On-the-job crashes are also costly, with employers sustaining costs of more than $24,500 per property damage crash and $150,000 per injury crash.

Zurich sums up NSC statistics:
Employers can and are being held liable for damages resulting from employee accidents. “We might expect an employer to be held liable for a crash involving a commercial driver’s license holder who was talking on a cell phone with dispatch about a work-related run at the time of an incident—especially if the employer had processes or a workplace culture that made drivers feel compelled to use cell phones while driving,” the NSC said.

The lines believed to exist between employment-related and personal or private life get blurred in some cases involving:

  • Cell phones owned by employees as well as employer-provided equipment
  • Vehicles that were employee-owned as well as employer-owned or leased
  • Situations where employees were driving during non-working hours or were engaged in personal phone calls

To protect themselves and their employees, the NSC recommended that organizations implement and enforce a total ban policy.

“The best practice is to prohibit all employees from using any cell phone device while driving in any vehicle during work hours or for work-related purposes. Regarding off-the-job hours, precedent has been set by lawsuits. Thus employers may want to extend their policies to cover off-the-job use of company-provided wireless devices, use of personally-owned devices that are reimbursed by the company, and use of devices in company-provided vehicles. All work-related cell phone use while driving should be banned 24/7,” the NSA advised.

Companies should also pay attention to other common distractions that can lead to accidents, Zurich adds: