This summer, as wildfires raged and families hurried away from their homes, a small group of firefighters raced toward neighborhoods. Insurance companies sent them.
“It’s really about: where is that fire imminent? And, which homes can we save,” said Angi Orbann a Vice President at Travelers Insurance.
Without fanfare, the company quietly added private firefighting services to all of its homeowner and landlord policies about a year ago. “We made the decision to apply this to all of our customers equally,” Orbann said.
Travelers connected NBC Bay Area with the vendor it hired.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
“We track fires … at our operations center,” said CEO David Torgerson.
WDS says its staff cross references imminent threats with homes that Travelers insures. Then, when an evacuation order kicks homeowners out, private crews move in. They tape up vents, apply fire retardants, and clear debris.
They’re not fighting fires themselves, Torgerson said.
After the big flames die down, private firefighters say they return to extinguish piles of embers and residual fires. Then, they leave.
“We’re not a first responder,” he explained. ”We’re a supplemental resource to help these insured structures survive the fire.”
They might save your home -- and you’ll have no idea. "This happens all behind the scenes,” Orbann said.
Travelers said it’s saved a number of homes, but didn’t share where.
WHAT'S THE PRICE?
So, how much does this cost policyholders like you? “We do not charge for this service,” Orbann said. “This is something we provide to our customers at no additional cost.”
Travelers was fairly open about its calculation. Orbann said the cost of the service pays for itself if the private crews save homes and the company doesn’t have to pay to rebuild them.
“I would have to reserve how much money we save, that’s proprietary. And, honestly, it’s not about the money that we save from it,” Orbann said. “But, clearly, if they’re able to save a home, that’s a loss that we’re preventing. And, to your point, those losses go into our analysis for how much we charge for home insurance in California.”
Perhaps then, more stable insurance prices and fewer destroyed homes. It sounds like a win-win proposition. But one group vocally opposes private firefighters: Public firefighters.
WHO'S AGAINST IT? AND WHY?
“They hinder the fire department response,” said Brian Rice, president of California Professional Firefighters.
“You want to come in and prep property and get it more fire resistant prior to the fire season? That’s great,” Rice said. “But when the fire season hits, get out of the state of California and let the professionals do their job.”
Rice said some private firefighters have gotten in the way. A few were recently accused of illegally setting backfires in the North Bay. Even if private crews play by the rules, Rice sees an unnecessary risk.
“Quite frankly, they make us take our eye off of the ball a little bit,” he said. ”Because that’s one more human being that we are responsible for.”
The firefighter union said it’s pushed through a state law to restrict private firefighting services. Now it’s looking to rein them in even more. Travelers says its firefighters are required to check in with incident commanders and follow official instructions… without interfering.
“This does not replace the state and local firefighters that are on the front lines,” Orbann said.
Chubb also offers private firefighting, but declined to participate in this story.
DO YOU HAVE PRIVATE FIREFIGHTING?
You can easily determine if you have private firefighting service. Pick up your homeowner or landlord policy and look under the heading 'endorsements.' Or, pick up the phone and call your agent. Ask about it.
Travelers said customers can opt out, by the way. We were told some in San Francisco have. But Travelers said they do not get a discount.