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Up in smoke… Are we doing enough to mitigate fire risks?

30 April 2021 Gareth Stokes

I was going to dedicate today’s column to a recent RGA webinar on empathy; but disasters in the South African risk environment must take precedence. Over the past few days, we have seen online images of the devastating damage caused by fire to the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus and surrounding buildings. This fire came just days after a blaze forced the evacuation and temporary closure of the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Johannesburg. As the smouldering embers cool, our attention turns to determining the causes of these fires and counting the financial cost that will be borne by the economy, the insurance industry and society. Questions will also be asked about the risk mitigation strategies in place at the affected sites.

Time for a risk mitigation overview

There are already suggestions that more could have been done to prevent the losses suffered during the hospital and university fires. Immediately following the hospital blaze, media reports emerged suggesting that some of the fire hydrants at the hospital were either not working or not up to spec. These allegations have since been dismissed by the authorities; but will no doubt be investigated thoroughly by insurance assessors and loss adjusters. As an aside, government does not have a great track record insofar the upkeep of its buildings. A September 2018 fire which destroyed the Bank of Lisbon building in Johannesburg did not meet health and safety requirements despite housing three government departments. 

Returning to present day, assessors will be working overtime to figure out why the UCT Campus, reasonably protected from wildfire over more than a Century, was so badly affected this time around. Their assessment of the Table Mountain fire could well centre on the maintenance of fire breaks and preventative burning, both recognised as critical fire risk mitigators, especially at the frontline between natural areas and human settlements or commercial developments. 

Warnings are falling on deaf ears…

There have been countless warnings about the fire risk in some of the parks and recreation land in the area. Environmental group Parkscape, in an article on enca.com, said that park authorities had been informed about significant fire risks in Table Mountain area. “We warn repeatedly of the homeless people living in the park and the risks [this] poses,” said Parkscape chairperson, Nicky Schmidt. “And we warn repeatedly about fuel load in the park and the alien infestations in the park … for example, the slopes of Devil’s Peak, where this fire started, is littered with old pine trunks and stumps and it is tinder dry”. Another major concern is the cause of recent wildfires in the Western Cape. Time and again, allegations surface that the wildfires are being intentionally started by disenfranchised members of the community.

Regardless of cause or risk mitigation, the South African insurance industry pays out billions of rand each year to compensate policyholders for fire damage to buildings, contents and vehicles. Commercial insurance claims can often run into tens of millions of rand per claim; but the real damage occurs when fires affect hundreds of individual personal lines policyholders. In fact, one of the biggest loss events in South Africa’s insurance history is due the runaway Knysna wildfires in 2017, which is said to have cost the insurance industry in excess of R3.3 billion. 

There are no estimates as yet for the structural damage caused by the fire at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital. A government spokesperson has, however, revealed that as much as R40 million worth of medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) went up in smoke. It is believed that the fire started in the medical supplies dispensary before causing extensive damage to a parking area and some of the hospital’s administrative offices. Cape Town’s latest wildfire will cost the economy much more! 

An insurance fund for tertiary institutions

Old Mutual Insure spokesperson, Christelle Colman, was among the first commentators to share an estimate of the economic loss caused by Table Mountain fire. She said that an industry insider had suggested it could come to more than R1 billion, with the disclaimer that it was really too soon to tell. 

The fire caused damage to buildings on the UCT campus, at the Rhodes Memorial and to a number of private homes in the area. Commenting in an interview broadcast on Moneyweb.co.za, Colman added that most local insurers could be affected by the loss event. “Most of the big South African universities are part of a specific risk and insurance fund for tertiary education institutions,” she said. “So, almost all insurance companies will be affected in some way by this fire”. 

UCT Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, is quoted as estimating the damage to the UCT campus at north of R500-million, excluding the priceless books that went up in flames in the Jagger library. The loss of artworks and original documents is disheartening given that most are irreplaceable. “We are talking about book collections, original plans of some of the oldest buildings in South Africa and apparently a very extensive art collection,” said Colman. She added that rare collections could be monetarily valued based on prices achieved at private or public auctions before adding that no amount of money could replace these items from an emotional or historical context. 

The dilution of risk mitigation responsibilities

Something that might be worth investigating is whether the dilution of risk that occurs in a multi-insurer facility contributes to a poor on-the-ground assessment of risk and an even poorer implementation of risk mitigation strategies. My question would be: Which of the many insurers participating in this scheme were interacting with local government and private property owners to ensure that fire risks were adequately assessed and addressed? I am sure that my readers will agree that the various insurers participating in such a facility have joint responsibility for risk assessment and mitigation. But whether or not there were systems in place to enable this joint oversight remains to be seen. 

Colman concluded her Moneyweb.co.za interview with some sound advice for private homeowners re fire risk. She urged homeowners to make sure that they had building and contents insurance in place and that their assets were insured at replacement value to avoid underinsurance. Underinsurance, being an inadequate sum insured to replace a building after a total loss, was a major issue in the aftermath of the Knysna fires. It is also non-negotiable to implement the various risk mitigation instructions given by your broker or insurer. This should include clearing excess vegetation in the immediate vicinity of your buildings to limit the spread of fire.

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