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A few weeks ago Ed Todd spent two days volunteering in a day care center in Tillamook, Ore.
But he didn't have to change a single dirty diaper or comfort a teary-eyed toddler. Instead, Mr. Todd, a senior underwriter for Seattle-based SAFECO Corp., was placed on a team whose responsibility was to make sure desktop items such as fishbowls were secured to surfaces.
A fishbowl seems harmless, but when a natural disaster strikes, it can become a deadly object, say volunteers in a pioneering project by the Institute for Business & Home Safety to retrofit the nation's day care centers to protect the children who spend much of their day in the centers.
The IBHS is a Boston-based insurance industry initiative with the goal of minimizing the devastation of natural disasters, from human suffering to property damage.
One IBHS goal is to retrofit 93,000 non-profit child care centers over the next five years. In doing so, the group hopes to show citizens how to protect themselves and their property from extensive damage caused by natural disasters. Many of these measures are alternatives to filing insurance claims to cover preventable damages, said Harvey Ryland, president and chief executive officer of the IBHS.
In addition to attaching potentially mobile objects to secure surfaces, other volunteers placed plastic tubes over fluorescent lighting to catch the shattered glass from broken bulbs, attached reinforcements to shelves to prevent them from tipping, and installed "catch latches" to cabinet doors to hold them closed if they are rattled by tremors.
Comparing the group's disaster mitigation efforts to the car safety campaigns of 30 years ago, Mr. Ryland explained that it is important to instill the loss control philosophy in school-age children.
"One day (these children) will not live or work in a building that is not safe from natural disasters," he said. "If we don't start today, we'll never get there."
Although he had never heard of the IBHS prior to this project, insurance agent Jeff B. Hurliman, principal of Jeff Hurliman Insurance Services in Tillamook and a retrofit volunteer, said he was pleased IBHS selected his community for the first retrofitting project. The small coastal town, about 75 miles west of Portland, Ore., has experienced severe flooding in recent years, and Mr. Hurliman said Tillamook is also projected as the site of a major earthquake within the next 10 years.
Because non-structural retrofitting requires only minor fixes, the cost of these day care projects is relatively small, Mr. Ryland said. IBHS member SAFECO and a local grocery chain footed the bill for the Tillamook center for costs not covered by donations.
Mr. Todd, who is also the chairman of SAFECO's community involvement program in the Portland region, said the day care retrofit project fit into the insurer's sense of giving to the community, and it leaves volunteers with a good feeling. "The work that's required to do this isn't rocket science," he said. "We feel that issues relating to promoting safety in the business and home are vitally important."
"It's Saturday-morning work experience for insurance company employees," said Mr. Ryland.
The IBHS also is working toward greatly reducing the costs for major structural retrofitting projects, such as ways to strengthen the roof, rafters and shingles of homes and commercial properties that have traditionally been subject to damage from high winds and water in natural disasters.
The IBHS deals with more than just making modifications to existing structures, though. The group also advocates enforcing building codes and encourages adding damage mitigation features as new structures are built; these changes typically raise construction costs by only zero to 5%, Mr. Ryland said. Also among the group's initiatives is encouraging property developers to be more aware of "natural hazard vulnerabilities," such as the hazards inherent in building in coastal areas or near fault lines.
A spokesman for the Independent Insurance Agents of America said the IBHS produces consumer awareness materials that the Big I's 300,000 member agents can disseminate. "They have the message, they have the research, we have the grass-roots public relations," he said, saying that, as partners, the Big I and the IBHS can make a difference.
A spokesman for SAFECO also commented that the IBHS' message promotes responsibility for the care of one's possessions instead of relying solely on insurance. "They're right on the brink of having an impact based on the way people think about protecting their property," he said.