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I have responded to thousands of fires in my career, many times as the person who talks to the people involved and helps them with arrangements after the fire. But I never understood how it “really” feels until I had a fire in my own home. Now, when I go to a fire, I know exactly what those people are going through and what they can expect.
I was off duty and just left our home on a Friday morning to drop off my wife at her office when the cell phone rang in our car. I saw on the screen it was the fire department dispatch center calling. Usually, they just page me; they only telephone when it is something serious. When I answered, I asked, “Where is it this time?” And the reply was, “It’s your house, black smoke coming out the rear, your dogs are barking, called in by the neighbors.”
The irony of it all
We turned around and made it back in time to see thick, black smoke coming out the rear vents in the attic. The fire radio was on in our car and we could hear the radio traffic as firefighters ascended the stairs into thick smoke. Just a few minutes later, they had knockdown of the fire in the rear bathroom. My wife and I tried to think of what could have caused the fire, but we had no idea.
As I waited outside in front of the house, I thought about the many times I saw families on their cell phones as we put out their house fire. I asked my wife to call our grown children and tell them what was going on; I didn’t want them to find out by way of the media.
Then, the neighbors came over to see if we were OK. How many times did I see that? It felt good to know how concerned everyone was. We discussed that since the street was built 20 years ago, this was the first time the fire department had a response on it and it was at the firefighter’s house. How ironic.
I called the media and told them about it and invited them in. Since the media cannot go into a home without the owner’s permission, I took advantage of it. I took each media contact in, took them into the bathroom and let them look, feel and smell what it is like to have a fire in a home. They did stand-ups, interviews, all they could. After all, it happened in a firefighter’s home, the home of a person who speaks about fire safety. How could that happen?
Next came the insurance adjuster. That took several hours. I learned about scopes of work, all the paperwork that had to be sent to the mortgage company, how to find a contractor and what was going to happen to the contents. Fifteen hours later, we loaded into our car and headed to a hotel room with my grandson who lives with us and our two dogs. Leaving our home was a feeling I had never experienced, but something I have seen many times before. Home is the place you can always go to when there is no other place to go, the place where you always feel the safest, and now it sits in the dark, lifeless. Then there was the drive to the hotel and finally arriving there. Again, how many times I helped people do the same thing, but this time it was me.
The morning after the fire, I was notified that the insurance company had hired a private arson investigator to check into our fire. Standard procedure for firefighters, I was told, since we know how fire works and how we could make it happen and maybe go undetected. The fire was already ruled accidental by our department’s arson investigators; it was caused by an electrical short in the bathroom fan in the ceiling that extended to the attic.
But the insurance company insisted on conducting its own investigation. That took another four hours. At the same time, they were checking into my past, my financial records, everything to make sure there is nothing foul about the fire.
Next came the insurance company and its assistance. Our insurance company was absolutely wonderful in helping us find a rental home, moving us into it and explaining all we had to do. One thing I did not know is that as the victim of a fire, you do all the work, every last little bit of it. I spent more time on the telephone the week following the fire than I ever had, making arrangements for our utilities to be transferred to our rental home, getting new furniture and finding a contractor.