"Fire in My Home": Now I Know How It Feels

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.

Then came making arrangements for the repairs needed to the house. The insurance company provides the funding, but you do all the work, such as selecting a contractor. You are provided a budget and you have to make it work. That includes having items in your home cleaned or replaced. It seemed every night after I got home from work, I was sitting at the dining room table working on paperwork related to the fire.

A few days after the fire, I learned that an inspector from the city would be doing an inspection of my house. I never knew about this because we usually had left the scene and this occurs a week or two later. The inspector ensures that the work needed to have your home rebuilt is up to code. At the same time, the inspector looks to see whether any modifications were done to the home and, if so, that they are up to code and permitted. If not, you could be fined. So if you did some plumbing work or electrical work yourself and you did not have a permit and inspection done on file, you could be fined. I was told by a building inspector friend of mine that if your alterations were the cause of the fire, the fines could be hefty. Lesson here: any future alterations to the house need to be permitted and inspected by the city’s building department.

I never knew about the emotional toll it takes on the family. Many times, I woke to hear my 8-year-old grandson crying in the middle of the night and asking why we had to have a fire. He just wanted to be back home and have it the way it used to be. How many times do we see small children waiting in a car or standing with their family as we put out a fire? Now I know the emotional toll a fire might take and I can tell parents to be prepared.

Monetary impact

We are finally back in our home and life is nearly back to where it was before the fire. Our home was built in 1994. After a fire, it must be rebuilt to the current code, so we have a lot of new features in our home that we did not have before. That work was paid for by the insurance company.

Our insurance rates went up immediately. Before the fire, we never made a claim, so we were eligible for special discounts for being claim free. After the fire, we are no longer claim free, so all the discounts are gone which means we pay higher premiums.

Insurance does not cover all the deposits you have to pay when you are moving. In one day, we paid out nearly $2,000 to move into our rental home and get all the utilities moved. The night after the fire, we stopped at a store to buy a change of clothing, bath soap and the like so we could clean up when we arrived at our hotel room. We spent $500 just on the way to the hotel. These were all unexpected expenditures. I learned it’s a good idea to have an emergency savings account to cover such things. We did receive offers from many support groups, such as the American Red Cross, but we refused and asked them to save it for people who have no insurance. Our total loss to date has been nearly $110,000. We are still finishing paperwork.

After this experience, I fully understand how it feels and know what to tell people. Nearly every week, I am out giving a fire safety talk somewhere in the community and this fire has been the most requested topic. People want to know what to expect and how they can prevent it from happening to them.

Someone once told me if life deals you lemons, make lemonade. That is how I look on my experience. It will help me to deliver the message of preventing fires so no one has to experience what I did. n