You always think that it's something that happens to the other guy... until it happens to you. In our case, that "something" was a house fire that overturned our family's lives for well over a year, and we are among the very lucky ones because no one was hurt. According to FEMA, more than 18,000 people are injured, and 3,500 are killed, in house fires in the U.S. each year. In addition, while there was extensive smoke and water damage, thanks to the rapid response of our town's excellent volunteer fire department, my family's home was spared from too much structural damage. Now that our ordeal is mostly behind us, I thought this would be a good time to share some of the lessons we learned along the way.
That's not something that's just for good Boy Scouts. Having a fire plan in place should the unthinkable occur can prevent panic and save lives. FEMA recommends that you walk through your home and develop a solid escape plan, one with at least two ways out of every room in the case of emergency. For second-story rooms, get an emergency ladder if the window does not lead out to an adjacent roof.
Every member of your family should know the escape plan, and you should practice it regularly. For children, one good idea is to create a drawing that's easy for them to follow.
If you become aware of a fire, get out immediately. Don't stop to worry about protecting your possessions. Test closed doors before you open them; if a door is hot to the touch, look to your second escape route. Even cool doors should be opened slowly; if heat or smoke starts to come in, close the door quickly and move to another escape path.
Once you are out of your house, don't attempt to go back in. Have a designated meeting spot nearby where your family can gather so that you know everyone has gotten out safely.
Having a working smoke detector is an important part of pre-fire preparedness. According to the National Fire Protection Association, almost two-thirds of those that died in home fires between 2003 and 2006 did so in homes that lacked working smoke detectors. Install smoke detectors on every level of your house, and especially near or in bedrooms. Test batteries (if applicable) regularly, and replace the smoke detector as recommended (roughly every eight to 10 years). If you don't already have smoke detectors in your home, or if the time has come to replace the ones you have, the ConsumerSearch report on smoke detectors names some of the best choices.
Fire extinguishers can help prevent a small fire from becoming a large one, and one should be placed where it is in easy reach on each floor of your home. However, consumer fire extinguishers have their limitations. We'll have more to say about fire extinguishers in a future post, so watch for that.
Dealing with the aftermath
The hours after the fire is out and the firemen have left the scene can be a whirlwind of confusion and shock. Some of that can be minimized by pre-planning as well. Review your homeowners insurance regularly. Be sure that the coverage is sufficient to meet your current needs, including improvements to your home or changes in value due to changing market conditions. Our new report on homeowners insurance has some useful tips on what to look for.
You also need to be aware of your responsibilities after the fire, including informing the insurance company of your loss and protecting your property against further damage. For a structure that's not burned to the ground, that might include boarding up any damaged windows or placing a tarp over a damaged roof to protect your home's interior from the elements. You might also want to take steps to dry out your home from the firefighters' water to prevent mold and mildew from taking root on damp surfaces, and to remove undamaged possessions to a safe location. This FEMA page has more information.
Your insurance company — especially if it's one of the better ones as noted in our report on homeowners insurance — can be an asset in steering you toward firms that can help you secure your home and personal property after the fire, finding you a place to live if your home is uninhabitable, and in assessing the amount of damage. However, it's important to remember that an insurance company has a vested interest in limiting its own exposure. The lowest-rated homeowners insurance companies (again, see our report) might fight especially hard to limit the amount of money they have to pay out. This article (which advocates for using a public adjuster) points out some of the issues and tactics that a homeowner might run up against in settling a claim.
Public adjusters work on the insured's behalf in negotiating a settlement with the insurance company in exchange for a small piece of the settlement — between 5 and 15 percent. Though not every advocate agrees, many say hiring a public adjuster might be worth considering if your claim is large or complex. What everyone does agree on, however, is that if you do decide to turn to a public adjuster, it's important to make doubly sure he or she is both reputable and capable. Get and thoroughly check references and make sure the adjuster is licensed; all states where public adjusters are recognized (currently 44 plus Washington, D.C.) have some type of certification program. You can also check out the web site of the National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters for a list of licensed public adjusters.