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CHIPS! Finally, a topic that I genuinely know something about – or (maybe) I might even be an ‘expert’? You will each have a favourite chipper, a favourite condiment, or long-lost memories of eating chips on a scorching hot day, at the beach with your granny and grandad. The social scientists might have found a multi-layered reason for our attachment to fried potatoes, but I suspect it has something to do with the national memory of our once overreliance on this staple… alongside, of course, the deadly combination of grease and salt.

Nevertheless, there has been a change in recent decades as to how we consume and – more importantly – cook those chips that we so readily devour. Rory Sutherland recently highlighted in his regular Spectator column that he had asked someone in the insurance industry what had been the most important event for home insurers over the past few decades. ‘Oh, without doubt, the invention of oven chips,’ he replied.

It is sometimes helpful to scrutinise data from the United Kingdom when thinking about trends in claims. The datasets are bigger and more comprehensive in scope, ironing out any statistical outliers. Naturally, there will be – for any given subject – cultural differences that may suggest that there should be different outcomes here in Ireland. Chip cooking is not one of these areas however, as Britons are as fond of the fried potato as we are.

In the year 2000 there were an estimated 447 fire related deaths in England, with an attendant 14,400 fire related injuries. By 2019 fire related deaths in England had fallen to 191. As insurance people we are always mindful of the difference between causation and correlation, the move away from chip pans is not the only reason for a dramatic reduction in these numbers. However, since 2010 the number of primary fires in dwellings has fallen by over 26%. In the same period the number of primary ‘chip pan’ fires in dwellings has fallen by over 35%.

The London Fire Brigade expressed concern in 2014 that there had, contrary to the downward trend, been an appreciable rise in the number of chip pan fires, attributing these to the popularity of television chefs such as Heston Blumenthal who preferred cooking ‘posh’ chips in deep pans. In response to this development, the UK Potato Council (yes, there is such a thing) had encouraged people to stay safe by visiting their local chippers instead of cooking chips at home. The London Fire Brigade had again endorsed the ‘chipper’ as an alternative to cooking chips at home, or, if you had to cook at home then to use oven chips instead.

As Loss Assessors we are always acutely interested in the cause of loss, not least because it is for the Insured to demonstrate, typically, that the loss has arisen as a result of a specified or named peril. I am reminded of a client who, when asked what has caused a catastrophic fire in his home, replied: “RTE.” I was taken aback by this news and asked him to expand upon his answer. He explained that he had retired to the local public house on Friday evening after work. Suitably refreshed he wandered home at a reasonable hour. He recalled, passing the chipper, that he had chips and chicken nuggets in the freezer, and he decided that he would make some supper when he returned. I learned that our client had put the gas on under the chip pan and then went into the living room to turn on the television. He described that it was here, whilst watching RTE’s Friday night offering that he had, in his own words, ‘lost the will to live’ and decided instead to go to bed…forgetting entirely about the chip pan. Needless to say, he was somewhat confused to be woken by the fire brigade personnel who had to force their way into the premises having been alerted to the fire by a passer-by. It is interesting to think that, if the Insured had turned on the television and alighted upon a programme that he liked, then maybe he would never have gone to bed and would have been awake to attend to his boiling chip pan.

Late night dining is often triggered by the consumption of alcohol, but others have not been so lucky to have survived similar incidents. In Cork, three men died (in 2015 and 2017) as a result of two separate house fires where the cause of ignition was attributed to unattended chip pans. In both cases, alcohol was determined by the Coroner to have impeded the victim’s ability to respond to the conflagration. Readers will also remember the sickening and tragic loss of life in October of 2015 at the Glenamuck Halting Site in Carrickmines, that claimed the lives of ten people – adults and children. In that case, the Deputy State Pathologist, Dr. Margaret Bolster was asked by the Coroner if alcohol may have had a role to play in this tragedy, Dr. Bolster replied it did, saying, “Unfortunately I have worked on many cases in the setting of acute alcohol intoxication … it certainly does affect reaction times.”

It will be appreciated that chip pans are not inherently stable. They require constant attention. Even then, fires can often still happen whilst the pan is attended. For example, the oil can self-ignite if it overheats, or, a boilover and ignition can occur when wet/damp chips are introduced en masse to the superheated oil.

As the popularity of chip pans has diminished in recent years, so too many people no longer remember how to tackle a chip-pan fire. I can certainly recall the Fire Brigade’s public information campaign which cautioned never to tackle a chip-pan fire with water but instead to turn off the heat and cover the flames with a damp cloth or preferably a fire blanket. This advice has largely been abandoned by the Fire Service. The rationale these days is that, as householders are not trained to properly deal with fires, they would potentially face severe injury or death if their attempts to extinguish fat or chip pan fires were unsuccessful. The damp tea towel advice is also contrary to all other advice the Brigades give to the general public about not tackling fires. Although it was recognised that some people will continue to tackle chip and fat pan fires in the home, on balance, the best advice should be to ‘get out, stay out and call 999’.

Of course, people have not only migrated from chip pans to oven chips. As disposable incomes have risen, a whole generation have gotten used to eating out or buying take away foods. There are insurance implications here too. The proliferation of restaurants and fast-food premises has seen the risk of ‘fats/oil’- related fires to commercial premises. It goes without saying that, as Brokers, you each will have seen the many moving parts to commercial policies involving these types of risks. As loss assessors, we are used to seeing schedules that are festooned with conditions precedent to liability, examples of which relate to deep fat fryers, duct cleaning, combustible materials, and fire extinguishment and suppression. A breach of a condition precedent previously provided an insurer with the basis for avoiding the loss, irrespective of whether the breach was connected to the loss that was the subject of the claim. These risk control measures were very often a headache for the policyholder, but in large part they were not unreasonable in scope. Of course, for Consumers, the Consumer Insurance Contract Act (CICA) has changed the playing field with regard to conditions, and warranties, and their application. We would however strike a note of significant caution: where any breaches are material to the loss then non-compliance therewith still gives the Insurer the opportunity to avoid liability.

The perfection of the oven chip is positive proof that seemingly small lifestyle changes can, collectively, have measurable real-world effects. Of course, there have been other contributors to the reduction in fire losses, claims and resultant deaths and injuries. Think of the improvements in electrical installation, safety and systems, or the fact that the number of smokers is diminishing year after year. Similarly, one fire-starting favourite, the tea-light candle, appears also to have fallen out of vogue.

But for now, at least, or until climate change or energy consciousness causes a shift in behaviour, people will still tumble dry their clothes, they will use electric blankets and forget to put the fire guard in the front of the fire before going to bed…and fires will happen.

John O’Donoghue

John O’Donoghue is the Managing Director of OMC Claims, Claims Specialists
Article in the January 2022 edition of IRISH BROKER: THE OFFICIAL JOURNAL OF BROKERS IRELAND