Quick response to Brisbane fire

On 9 June last year, a languid Sunday afternoon in Brisbane was interrupted by screaming sirens.

Fire had engulfed the top level of the Cathedral Place apartment complex in Fortitude Valley, home to more than 1200 people across 514 units.

As firefighters battled thick plumes of black smoke and rescued trapped residents, they also pumped about two million litres of water into the blaze, the inner-city’s largest since 15 people died when the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub was firebombed in 1973.

As firefighters dampened the flames, one of the first on the scene was broker Sean Bemrose, a director at Tony Bemrose Insurance Brokers, who has placed the complex’s insurance for four years.

“One of our staff was driving past, saw the fire and called me,” he says.

Bemrose obtained the policy details, went to the scene and lodged the claim via a 24/7 emergency service provided by the complex’s insurer, Strata Unit Underwriters (SUU), while watching the building burn from a park across the road.

Crawford & Company loss adjuster Mike Ballinger, who was on call that night, also responded quickly, after being engaged by SUU.

One of Ballinger’s and Bemrose’s first tasks was to develop an action plan, which saw engineering consultancy ICPs Australia and builder Paynter Dixon appointed to manage the restoration project – one of Queensland’s largest single strata building losses.

The claim is valued at about $10 million, including cover for loss of rent for investor-owned units and temporary accommodation for owner-occupiers.

From the ashes

Cathedral Place is on a 1.5ha site, containing eight separate residential blocks.

Initially all residents were evacuated, but only those in the 43 units in H block, where the fire started after a burning candle was left unattended, and the adjoining 60 units of G block required alternative accommodation.

Most g block residents returned three days later, after utility services were restored and the fire wall between the blocks repaired.

But H block residents have only just this month moved home.

All parties involved in the restoration project agree that, without SUU’s prompt decision to allow Crawford & Company to appoint specialists immediately and manage the project on a cost-plus basis, the delay would have been much longer.

The cost-plus delivery methodology enabled the project to start immediately, cutting the claim time and costs.

SUU Claims Manager Rifhat Jangir praised the claims process, saying that, with the benefit of hindsight, she would not have done anything differently.

“As an insurer we are only as good as the claims service we provide, which backs the promises we make,” she says.

“Working with some of the best experts in their fields helps us return customers to pre-loss conditions as quickly as possible.”

Building contractor Paynter Dixon was appointed immediately, rather than obtaining comparative tenders for the repairs, which could have taken months.

Fire Fighters pumped about two millions litres of water into the blaze, the inner-City’s largest since 1973. 

Paynter dixon managed sub-contractor specialists for specific works.

“This process allowed us to have works ongoing in the building while, concurrently, new works were being tendered and authorised, which would otherwise have stopped repairs,” Jangir says.

ICPs Australia was employed as the building and engineering consultant.

ICPs specialises in investigations, reporting, scoping, whole-of-building design and project management, with particular skills and experience in insurance investigations and repairs-rebuilds.

Prompt decisions

ICPs’s initial focus was getting owners and tenants in g block back into their units.

That required extensive cleaning and reconnecting power, water, sewerage and security services.

Prompt action in the first 72 hours after the fire greatly assisted in mitigating the loss.

For example, despite the massive amount of water used to extinguish the blaze, there were no mould problems because specialist water damage restorers from steamatic were on site quickly.

Five units in H block’s top floor were destroyed and those in the lower four floors sustained smoke and water damage.

Scaffolding was built around H block and the top level demolished. Units below were dried out and repaired.

Two large desiccant dryers pumped warm air into the building while ICPs engineers designed a propping system for the roof to prevent further damage before it could be demolished.

The dryers remained until the new roof was built.

The reconstruction project was hampered by factors like noise restrictions – construction was occurring in a heavily populated, residential area – and a lack of staging areas.

It was impossible to block streets during the day without causing major traffic disruptions.

Debris removal that required a large crane could only be performed at night.

Bringing it all together

Ballinger said the entire team of specialists involved in the rebuild worked “like a well-oiled machine”.

The broker had placed the correct coverages to ensure the adjuster had no major grey areas to negotiate; ICPs Australia was a one-stop shop of specialist engineers able to put together perfectly prepared packages of scopes of works for the builder.

The biggest challenge was managing all those involved in the claim, particularly residents dealing with the trauma of losing their homes, albeit temporarily.

A key lesson from the claim was the importance of insurance.

Bemrose had placed seven separate policies, all underwritten by SUU, covering material damage, loss of rent, temporary accommodation and liability for the complex’s different body corporates.

The policy provided full reinstatement of the building, temporary accommodation for unit owners and loss of rental income for investors. However, some tenants and owner-occupiers – including some total losses – had no contents cover.

“Body corporate managers need to emphasise the importance of everyone within a complex maintaining their own insurance – it would have saved a lot of heartache,” Bemrose says.