A property manager arrives at work to find a burst pipe, sewage back-up or smoke damage from a smoldering cigarette. Most often, this manager turns to his building service contractor to perform the restoration.

BSCs can enhance their value to customers by offering a quick inspection and resolution process, whether directly or through subcontractors.

“Our No. 1 goal is to arrive on the scene as quickly as we can, within the hour if possible, and begin the process of cleaning up. The longer that items such as carpets, upholstery, drapes, clothes and anything cloth are exposed, the more they will soak up the odors,” says Michael D. Hanophy, vice president of Wolverine Restoration in Toledo, Ohio.

The first 24 to 48 hours are crucial to the success of any fire or water damage restoration. At or before this time mold may form in wet areas, and smoke damage will seep into surfaces, making it much harder to treat.

Damage control
BSCs want to first make sure it is a safe working environment, says Michael Dowling, vice president of Dowling’s Disaster and Restoration Services in Avon, Colo. Are there exposed wires, possibly broken gas lines, anything that may be hazardous to workers? Air quality is another safety issue. Contractors must test for contamination levels and, in most cases, air scrubbers or protection/environmental suits will be necessary to protect workers from gases and airborne particles that may have been released by the fire adds Dowling.

If the damage to the building is only partial, BSCs may need to cordon off the damaged section with plastic and create a negative airflow situation, using a vacuum device to ensure contaminated air doesn’t move to other areas of the building.

After addressing all of the safety concerns, the contractor may begin damage assessment. This is done in many different ways, depending on the property as well as the nature of the problem. For instance, Hanophy uses moisture meters to detect water behind walls, as a way to determine the scope of damage.

Smoke and fire damage is much easier to determine since it is visible to the naked eye or nose.

“The nice thing about smoke is even if visual methods are not possible, you can smell it. You also can assess the damage to surfaces by heat through a visual inspection, so fire damage to wood, such as high temperature drying, will be visible,” says Larry Carter, supervisor with Ultrasonic Cleaning Service in Las Vegas.

The clean-up begins
Cleaning up after a fire or water problem is very labor intensive. Brushes, vacuums and fans are the tools of the trade, as well as deodorizing and mold-removal chemicals, and air cleaners.

“Shop vacuums aren’t enough. We use special portable backpack vacuums that are at least a dozen times stronger than your average shop vacuum. We also have an even stronger truck-mounted vacuum that we use for bigger jobs,” says Hanophy. BSCs can rent all of this equipment and have it delivered within a day he adds.

In a fire situation, the first task should be wiping down all of the surfaces. Smoke contains chemicals and acids that can break down finishes and rust metal.

“You need to check every room in the structure. Even if there is not fire it is very rare to not find smoke in all of the rooms of a structure, unless it is a very large building,” says Dowling.

Surface cleaning can be done without demolition, but in some cases, especially in water-damage scenarios, checking behind surfaces can help limit the extent of the damage.

“Don’t be afraid to open up the water damaged area, pull back the carpets, put some holes in the walls for circulation and put in high speed fans and drying units. If you do these things, ultimately you will have satisfied customers and a high success rate,” says David Thompson, vice president of T&M Ultrasonic Cleaning and Fire Restoration in Laramie, Wyo.

Most of the time, carpets and upholstery cannot be cleaned cost effectively if soot settles into the fabric, because odors become difficult to remove, says Hanophy.

On the other hand, contractors often can salvage computers and other electronic devices.

“We can take the smoke smell out of plastic with our ultrasonic system without damaging the interior workings of a computer, television or just about any other electronic device,” says Carter.

“We had a case where three computers were basically at the center of the fire, but our electronics specialist was able to salvage the hard drives and restore the data,” adds Hanophy.

Many cleaning contractors need to bring in someone who has the proper training for these specialized electronics jobs.

Delayed reactions
Sometimes, fire and water damage restoration takes place many months after the emergency. In most cases, the carpet and upholstery must be replaced, and additional work usually is necessary.

“If you have had water standing for a long period of time, you may have a black or gray water situation where an anti-microbe chemical is needed to kill fungus and molds before any new flooring can be applied. This may also apply to the walls and ceiling. You want to treat the area with anti-mold chemicals to keep anything from coming back,” says Hanophy.

Liability issues
With mold and other related litigation reaching a fevered pitch in the last few years, BSCs must take steps to limit their liability.

“Do it right the first time with no compromises. That is the best liability protection you can have. A pleased customer does not sue,” says Charles Woodard, chief executive officer and chairman of Woodard Cleaning and restoration services in St. Louis.

The best thing to do to limit liability issues is to work closely with the owner and the insurance company. The biggest problems contractors face often arise from lack of communication between these two parties and the person doing the restoration work, says Everett Lee Herndon Jr., a claims consultant for 32 years in Rancho Murietta, Calif.

“Make sure you all agree on the scope of loss –– what can’t be salvaged or cleaned. Once that is established, the contractor is free to do the job to the best of their ability,” he says. Contractors also need to remember that they are working for the customer, not the insurance company.

A walkthrough at the end of the project also is important. Liability is limited once the property owner and the insurance company are satisfied. Also, offer to come out free of charge if anything comes up related to your work. It is harder to sue a party that is willing to rectify the situation.

D.M. Maas is a business writer in Milwaukee.