Disaster-recovery restoration – how to be prepared and respond

Storms, floods, and fires are a constant threat and, when it comes to the clean-up afterwards, experienced restoration experts are worth their weight in gold. As climate change contributes to more extreme weather events, knowledge and training in this space has never been more important.

To suggest that restoration expert Scott McFadzen is in demand as floods keep inundating multiple areas of Australia would be an understatement.

As director of Coach8, an approved instructor by the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC), he specialises in delivering training courses and engaging in the restoration of commercial spaces and property after floods and other natural disasters.

“We say we’re in storm season now, but the storm season hasn’t stopped all year,” McFadzen says. “So, there’s been an increase with regards to specialised training.”

During his decades of experience, he has seen all the restoration mistakes and missteps that are often taken in the rush to clean up after extreme events.

For facility managers, homeowners, and cleaning contractors facing such a clean-up, McFadzen offers the following broad tips.

  1. Conduct a comprehensive audit of the site

An initial health and safety walk-through at an affected site is crucial to assess the damage and determine appropriate restoration actions. After eliminating initial hazards and removing floodwater, silt, debris and porous content, the space needs to be washed out. During this phase, McFadzen says it is important to do an inventory of damaged contents and any contents to be disposed of for insurance purposes.

  1. Clean first, then do the restorative drying

Too often, McFadzen says, people place drying machines into a flood-damaged home or office before cleaning up contaminated materials, remembering that Category 3 water from a river flood is the same category as having sewerage flow through a premises.

“We regularly hear of people installing restorative drying equipment into a property where contaminated materials are still in place,” he says. This uncontrolled airflow can spread dangerous microorganisms, which affects indoor air quality and can cause health issues for occupants.

  1. Remove fungal activity from the site

Removal of mould typically involves many forms of cleaning, including wet wiping, HEPA-filtered vacuuming, and an abrasive cleaning method where appropriate on semi-porous surfaces and non-porous surfaces. McFadzen says a common mistake is to blast a site with bleach or other chemicals in an effort to remove mould.

“With the removal process, we don’t want to rely on spraying a chemical or a bleach over mould. We call those guys the spray-and-pray brigade – and that’s where they just spray a chemical over something and pray that it works.”

Any use of disinfectants and cleaning products should be in line with the manufacturer’s guidelines.

McFadzen also warns against overly destructive clean-up activities. While knocking holes in walls may be recommended by an insurance company on occasions to get airflow through a site, there is a risk of causing secondary damage to elements such as tiles that may not need to be removed. There is also the danger of disturbing regulated materials. “So, telling people to go and smash holes in walls is not appropriate,” McFadzen says.

  1. Communicate with all parties

Communication between restorers, builders, insurers and property owners is crucial, from the start to the end of a project. Documentation of all processes during a clean-up should also be rigorous. “Communication is one area where a lot of restorers and builders fail,” McFadzen says. “We always need to engage with clients and let them know what’s happening.”

McFadzen also encourages the use of specialist restoration experts where required. This could include experts in restoring everything from musical equipment through to weaponry.

The right equipment at the right time

Floods have also been the recent focus for XPOWER Australia, a national supplier of equipment such as air movers, air purifiers and dehumidifiers.

National sales manager Brett Low says recent floods in Queensland, NSW, Victoria, Tasmania, and the Northern Territory have created unprecedented demand for flood-restoration services and equipment.

“You can almost bank on floods decimating areas, unfortunately,” he says. “We just know it’s going to happen.”

Low says property owners and cleaning contractors that rely on drying machines after floods should be conscious of supply-chain disruptions.

“When a disaster hits, there’s never enough stock,” he says. COVID-19-related supply-chain disruptions have exacerbated the problem.

However, XPOWER has opted to hold large quantities of stock and “sit on it for six months at a time” to help ease supply woes.

“You need to have stock available should an event happen and that’s one of the things we’ve focused on.”

XPOWER offers a range of equipment, including axial fans to circulate air, dehumidifiers for humidity control, and air scrubbers to help remove mould spores.

Low says the three machines should be used in conjunction with each other, in the right order, for the best results. It is also advisable to seek input from experienced drying professionals to ensure the right equipment is used for the right jobs.

“For instance, it’s pointless putting in a dehumidifier that works best in temperatures of 32C into a property in Far North Queensland where the ambient temperature might be 42C,” Low says. “It just won’t work.”

Stay up to date with rules and regulations

Restorers, builders, and cleaning contractors should always stay abreast of the latest guidelines in relation to clean-ups. For example, the IIRC has published the fifth edition of the S500 Standard for Professional Water Damage Restoration, which describes the necessary procedures and precautions for performing water-damage restoration in residential, commercial and institutional buildings.

McFadzen says staying up to date with training and education is vital.

“Anyone getting involved in flood remediation needs to be competent,” he says. “They also need to understand the health and safety risks. When they’re dealing with floodwater, it’s coming from external sources and it’s carrying a largely unknown source of contamination that needs to be remediated correctly.”

Furthermore, he believes restoration experts need to commit to ongoing training, rather than doing a one-off course and thinking that it will be sufficient.

“Standards are always being renewed and revised,” McFadzen says. “Continuous training is important because you should always be learning.”

How to avoid common mistakes with disaster clean-ups

Infectious diseases expert Dr Gavin Macgregor-Skinner says a lot of people and some cleaning and restoration companies make fundamental errors during clean-ups after natural disasters, including floods. He offers the following advice.

  1. Stop using bleach (sodium hypochlorite)

Multiple research reports have shown that bleach should be avoided as part of disaster-recovery cleaning efforts, according to Dr Macgregor-Skinner, senior director of the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC), a division of ISSA. “Bleach does not kill mould,” he says. “Bleach may make mould go clear, but it doesn’t kill mould and it’s toxic. People honestly believe they’ve killed the mould by bleaching it, and don’t realise they have only eliminated the stain, not the spores, and not the mould. We’ve got to fix this urban myth.”

Dr Macgregor-Skinner’s frustration rests with many authorities and “self-called experts” who continue to recommend the use of bleach in public messages after disasters. Instead, he recommends using a product that is cheap and readily available such as white distilled vinegar, which is proven to kill mould spores and help prevent mould outbreaks in the future. Spray the vinegar directly on to the mould, and let it sit for at least 60 minutes before wiping or scrubbing.

  1. Resist throwing out salvageable items

During the recent floods in Lismore and Murwillumbah in northern NSW, the sight of people throwing out refrigerators frustrated Dr Macgregor-Skinner. “You can clean and disinfect a refrigerator,” he says. Other household appliances could also be rescued, he says, but in rushed clean-ups they are often sent to landfill.

  1. Be selective with ‘aggressive’ high-pressure cleaners

The screech of high-pressure washers can be heard after every flood as well-meaning people try to clean up homes, offices and equipment. “But it damages stuff,” Dr Macgregor-Skinner says.

For example, using such machines on roof tiles can strip off protective coatings that leave them vulnerable to bacteria, viruses and mould. They can also damage the surface of floors and tables, while they tend to aerosolise dangerous bacteria. Rather than using high-pressure washers to remove material, for your home use low-pressure cleaning instead. “After a flood, we’re too abrasive with our methods and we damage our brickwork and tiles and all the surfaces that need to be protected.”

  1. Get some microbial test kits

When a flood goes through an office or house, it will almost certainly contain oils, chemicals, pollutants, germs, bacteria, fungi and mould. “It’s a toxic swamp that’s gone through your house,” Dr Macgregor-Skinner says.

That means real rigour is required in the clean-up. Just because something looks clean does not mean that it is. Dr Macgregor-Skinner says after cleaning houses following a disaster, the owners or cleaners rarely turn to microbial test kits to see if the property is safe.“Everyone goes, ‘Well, it looks clean and smells clean, so we’re safe to go back in, but you need to test first.”

This article first appeared in INCLEAN NZ magazine.

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