The Call

April 30, 2008

The Call
By Alan Givens

Daniel cut a gas line, furnace ignited, and the house is on fire.” Those were the words that I read on Saturday, January 12, 2008 at 11:08 a.m. while sitting in my continuing education class on updates in the gas code. I read the text again thinking that I must have misread it the first time or, given the fact that I was in a continuing education gas code class, someone was playing a very bad joke on me! However, I realized that the text came from my Administrative Assistant (who doesn’t typically work on the weekends) and I knew this was no joke!

“I immediately excused myself from the continuing education class. I called my office and asked them to connect me to Daniel, the plumber involved in this accident. Still in disbelief, I asked Daniel if he really set a house on fire. He did not give me a yes or no response and as I talked to him for a few more minutes I realized that Daniel was extremely shaken up by the incident. Finally, he did confirm that the house had caught on fire. My next question, (while praying that the answer was no) “was anyone hurt?” Daniel replied that other than some burnt hair on his arm, face, and head, no one was hurt! I almost wanted him to repeat those words, “no one was hurt!”

I went on to ask Daniel what was going on at the site and what exactly happened. He informed me the fire department had shown up and had the fire under control (again, words I was so happy to hear). Daniel went on to say that he was in the process of replacing a gas water heater, and he had shut the gas supply off on the line feeding the water heater, cut the water lines, and was using his dolly to remove the old water heater from the mechanical room. He had the new water heater staged outside to replace it; however, he had moved the copper gas line behind the old heater. While pulling the old heater out, it turned the gas cock back on and he heard a hiss. He started to set the old water heater down, then reached for the gas cock and at the point when his hand reached the valve there was a loud explosion and flames everywhere. There was a furnace adjacent to the water heater and its ignition met the propane from the gas line. Daniel then ran outside and found the main shut off for the propane to the house. Next, he ran into the house and told everyone to get out and used a water hose to put out the flames in the mechanical room. However, he and the owner still heard popping and called the fire department. Apparently, the flames had gone up an outside wall cavity and what was a smolder turned into a blaze in the attic. After this phone call, I informed some of my fellow PHCC Board members of the situation and my need to leave the class and headed straight for the job site.

Prior to my initial text, Tim (Daniel’s supervisor) was informed of this incident and was also on his way to the job site. Tim immediately contacted our insurance company and local representative Dave Hersey of Federated Insurance. Ironically, Tim and I had just attended a PHCC dinner two nights earlier where Dave spoke regarding the importance of being insured in the industry. I made several calls to my plumbing supervisor and to Dave Hersey. Dave told me he was leaving his daughter’s soccer game and was on the way to the job site.

As a business owner, this was one of my worst nightmares. So many thoughts were racing through my mind: did we just screw up so terribly that I am going to loose everything I have worked so hard to build over the past 9 years; if I loose the business, what will happen to all of my staff and their families; should I fire the technician involved in this accident; oh, God, is this really happening to me?

The 2-1/2 hour drive from my class in Richmond to the Winchester job site was surely proving to be the longest drive of my life. As I drove, I reached out via cell phone to others in the industry—friendly competitors— for their words of wisdom. I was slowly starting to calm down and realize my world was not ending. I must also give tremendous credit to Dave Hersey of Federated Insurance for going immediately to the site, calming everyone down including not only my technician and my plumbing supervisor, but also me. He met with the homeowners who were now next door at their in-law’s home and assured them that Parrish Services and Federated were both great companies and everything would be taken care of. Dave’s presence, coupled with his knowledge, did wonders for everyone.

Dave explained to me that the damage was probably around a $100,000 and not to worry because he knew that given our outstanding service record this incident would be referred to as a “shock loss.” I, like many professional contractors, have gone through policy renewals and know what loss runs are and how they affect our policy amounts. A $100,000 loss (I suspected) would cause our policy rate increase to be extreme but Dave told me a shock loss like this would affect my policy as if it were a $25,000 loss. Yes, it’s going to cause me to have an increase in premiums but it’s not career ending. “Not career ending!” Those words were music to my ears! Parrish Services has an open book management style and I was not the only one panicking; my office manger Kelly and service mangers Tim and Mark all thought this could be the end. We had never experienced anything like this (and hopefully never will again). Dave’s words reaffirmed that hope was not lost.

When I arrived at the job site the fire department was wrapping up. The Fire Marshal had taken a statement from Daniel and completed a preliminary investigation. Tim had also spoken to the Fire Marshal. They were glad to find that no one was injured and that this was an accidental fire. After I arrived, I met with Dave, Tim, and Daniel (and started taking pictures). I then met the homeowner and passed along my sincere apologies and my relief that no one was injured. The homeowner was very understanding and happy that Daniel had not been hurt more than some burned hair. Dave and I worked with the homeowner to ensure that the home was secure and not open to potential theft before leaving for the day.

When we rejoined Daniel and Tim, Daniel said he would be in the office on Monday to turn in his truck, as he knew he was already fired. I had already pondered this question on my drive from Richmond but I recognized that not only was this an accident (that could have happened to anyone) but Daniel was a good employee who had just received a $100,000 education! I assured him that he was not being fired. I did, however decide to schedule a mandatory staff meeting for Monday morning so that Daniel could share his experience with everyone while also preventing the rumor mill from expanding and distorting the accident.

As I started writing this article, I began reviewing what could have been done to prevent this accident as well as what steps could be taken to ensure it never happens again. I decided that included in my Monday meeting will be a review of our current safety procedures and a chance for the staff to ask any questions regarding our safety procedures. Parrish Services is a company I have grown to just under 5 million dollars in sales and we have not done this by taking shortcuts. Safety is something we take very seriously. We don’t typically have losses and my employees would often say I am overly protective when it comes to safety.

However, it is my distinct belief that while material things can be replaced, lives cannot. I will continue to show safe driving DVDs and provide the best tools to prevent injuries. And while I wish I was never in a situation to put these words on paper, I truly hope my experience during this moment of crisis will help some of my fellow contractors institute or continue safety trainings to avoid such an accident. I would also like to say to homeowners how very important it is to hire professionals in the industry. Had this homeowner hired uninsured ‘Joe Plumber’, the repairs on their home would be at their own expense and the cost of hiring a lawyer to go after Joe Plumber would have also been at the owner’s expense.

In closing, I would like to share my profound appreciation and thanks to my fellow PHCC members for their support. Most of all I want to thank Dave Hersey of Federated who went immediately into action—calming my employees, the homeowners, and myself—while also taking care of the business at hand. I am fortunate to have Dave Hersey on my team! He is a value to the industry.

Article courtesy of Alan Givens via Plumbing & Mechanical Professionals of Virginia

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