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Searching for Clues

Cissell Investigative Engineering Gets to the Bottom (and Top) of Things

Jeff Cissell saw many scenes like this throughout New England

Jeff Cissell saw many scenes like this throughout New England during the harsh January of 2011.

When homeowners call Jeff Cissell about a damaged roof or a crack that suddenly appeared in a wall, they have a tendency to think the worst.

That’s why he considers peace of mind one of the many services his company, Cissell Investigative Engineering, provides.

“I feel like we’re actually helping people in that way,” he said. “People don’t know why something is happening, and they get scared. Sometimes all we’re doing is giving them peace of mind. They see a crack and think the structure is ready to fall down. But 99% of the time, it’s a common thing, and we can make a simple suggestion to keep it from happening again. Most times, they’re just happy to know they don’t have to move out.”

Cissell’s job is essentially to uncover why an adverse event — from a torn-up roof to a workplace accident — took place, and the extent of the property damage. He works for a variety of clients, but mostly insurance companies — specifically, claims adjusters trying to assess liability after a storm, fire, or other incident causes damage to a property.

He said 2011 — which began with a harsh, icy January that took its toll on roofs, but also included the June 1 tornadoes, a microburst and a tropical storm later in the summer, and the freak snowstorm just before Halloween that took down countless trees — was an exceptionally busy year, but every season provides plenty of opportunities.

“A lot of damage, a lot of structural issues arose out of those events,” he said. “Usually what happens is, claims adjusters will call us to take a look at a problem when they have questions about whether a policy would cover it.

“We don’t interpret the policy,” he emphasized, “but we interpret why the damage occurred. We go in there and objectively look at what the problem is and come up with a conclusion about what caused it, and the insurance company uses that information to decide whether it’s covered and what the extent of that coverage should be. We also provide some qualified ideas about how to make the repairs.”

For example, he said, “a lot of times, we’re asked to come take a look after a hailstorm comes through. Hail generates different-sized pellets, with different wind velocities and different wind directions. We’ve been successful in ascertaining when hail has damaged a roof and when it hasn’t. We’ve developed some fairly sophisticated ways to ascertain that.”

It’s an important task, and not just for insurance purposes, but sometimes to save homeowners money out of pocket. Cissell noted that many out-of-state roofing contractors moved into Massachusetts after the ice and snow of January 2011 and stuck around after the tornado, and they typically want to push customers for major repairs.

“People want an objective opinion. When they ask a roofer what the problem is, they’ll say they need a new roof. The same goes for a window salesman; they’ll say you need a new window. We don’t sell anything; we just tell you why something happened. I’ve personally been involved in dozens of cases where we come in after someone told a homeowner they needed a new roof, and we find something that can be fixed quickly.”

For this issue’s focus on construction services, Cissell spoke recently with BusinessWest about how his Connecticut-based company, which works at sites across Southern New England and beyond, is bringing clients a welcome dose of clarity when it’s needed most.


When Disaster Strikes

The 2011 tornado rattled plenty of Western Mass. home and business owners — not just those with obvious, catastrophic loss, but those whose properties might have been buffeted by wind and debris to a lesser — and difficult-to-determine — extent.

“When the tornado went through, a lot of people were scared; it’s one thing to lose a few shingles, but another to sustain roof damage to the structure itself,” Cissell said. “If a structure has been compromised, there are clues for us to find. We’ve done about 5,000 of these, so we know where to look.”

Roofs, in fact, comprise a good portion of Cissell’s investigative business, and on this front he’s seen it all, from a shopping-center roof that collapsed weeks after the building was vacated to flat-roofed schools that couldn’t handle ice and snow buildup — some of which had inherent structural defects to begin with.

Property managers reach out to Cissell as well, when they’re unsure about the extent of storm damage or don’t understand where a water leak is coming from. “A large complex in New York called us when people were getting mold on their walls and they couldn’t understand why,” he said. “We can determine where the potential water sources are.”

Cissell is also called upon in legal proceedings in cases like slip-and-fall injuries, to determine whether a property or business owner should be liable for damages. “Are there code-related conditions? We determine who’s responsible for the accident — did someone just lose their balance and fall, or did something contribute to that?

“Sometimes we’re working for the defense, and sometimes we’re working for the plaintiff,” he added. “It doesn’t matter who is buttering our bread. But we don’t take sides; we apply scientific methods to come up with an answer. For example, we have a machine that tests the friction of surfaces. And we can stand up in court and take a lot of the subjectivity out of insurance liability.”

He said building a reputation for objectivity is critical to the success of his business, and clients appreciate that quality — even when his findings don’t match up with their hopes. “I tell them, ‘I’ll tell you what you need to know, not necessarily what you want to hear, and let the chips fall where they may.’”

He recalled a case where a worker was installing trim on a building and fell over a handrail. But the investigation concluded that he had failed to secure himself according to normal worksite protocol. “That’s why he fell. He was suing the property owner, but he was, in fact, violating all kinds of OSHA rules. He should have known better.”

Whether it’s a home or business owner faced with such an incident, he added, “most people don’t know why something happens and what they are obligated to do. But we look at these things objectively.”

By ‘we,’ Cissell is also referring to a team of independent professionals who work as subcontractors for his investigative business. Paul Huijing, a Wilbraham-based general contractor, is one of them.

“I’ve done mostly roofs lately — looking at storm damage, hail damage, and whether it’s significant or not,” Huijing said. “I’ve also looked at structural issues with severe winters, where we’ve had the weight of ice and snow cause cracks and structural problems.”

Some of these are minor and easily fixed, he explained, but homeowners usually can’t determine this on their own. He echoed Cissell’s contention that a roofer or other contractor isn’t always the best source of information because they’re trying to sell additional products and services.

“I was on a roof the other day; there were some cracks in the roofing,” he recalled. “A roofer had gone up there and told the homeowner they had some wind damage; I went there and looked at it, and they had some cracks in the roofing material, but it wasn’t the result of wind damage, just the expansion and contraction of the shingles themselves.”


Career Change

Cissell, who studied engineering in college and earned his master’s in environmental engineering, has worked in a variety of settings over the years, specializing in power and petrochemical plants, wastewater-treatment facilities, and construction, along with a stop in Clinton, Conn. as the town engineer. In 1991, he hung out his own shingle, doing mainly design work for various clients.

But when an attorney for an architect asked him to look at a slip-and-fall claim, his career path began to change. “I was looking for another revenue stream and include more of my talents. So I started doing more and more of this, and by 2003, I was doing very little site-design work; that just kind of faded away. By 2005, my work was almost exclusivfely forensics-related.”

Cissell Investigative Engineering performs work throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, as well as Western New York — essentially anywhere within a two-hour drive.

“There aren’t a lot of people doing this, in part because it’s so multidisciplinary; not everyone has the tools to do it,” he said. “The guys who work best for me get their hands dirty and aren’t afraid of climbing a ladder. They think of the big picture and don’t focus on just one possibility; they bring all the tools to the table.”

Even though he might show up at a house as a representative of an insurance company, Huijing said his role as an investigator provides an opportunity for education as well.

“I usually end up meeting the homeowner there, so I can at least educate them about what’s going on,” he told BusinessWest. “So I feel that adds value; what I find may or may not be covered, but hopefully they learn more about their house and other peripheral issues — what does the chimney look like? Do they have enough ventilation? If I’m in an attic, I might talk about how they need more insulation, and how they can get that through the MassSave program at reduced cost. I try to bring my broad experience to the homeowner in addition to the specific thing I’m looking at.”

But the education aspect is often a two-way street, Huijing noted.

“It’s an interesting sideline for me because my main business is building and remodeling, and it’s useful and instructive to see these problems,” he said. “You are only the sum of your mistakes or what you’ve learned from other people’s mistakes, so it’s a good way for me to gain even more experience on items I might not normally see.”

As for Cissell, he loves the variety of the work, with a roster of jobs that constantly changes. “This just conglomerates all the experiences I’ve had in my career,” he said. “Plus, it’s fairly quick; I get an assignment, and we usually have things figured out in a day or two.”

Which is a relief for property owners clamoring for answers — and a little peace of mind.


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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