My sister’s kitchen started on fire.
1. There isn’t anything that can prepare you for hearing your sister’s tearful voice on the phone saying “my house is on fire”. I’ve heard my sister in tears before. I’ve even heard her in the middle of a panic attack. But I’ve never heard her voice like this- a mixture of panic, terror, sadness, and not knowing what to do.
She called me at 4:30 pm last Tuesday. Our office is usually open until 7:00 pm on Tuesdays and that is my late day. Our sales agent, James, had just left, but my husband was on the phone with corporate. After ascertaining that 911 had been called, I told her I was on my way and rushed to get my husband and gather up my laptop and coat. We closed our office early for the evening.
2. Make sure everyone in your house knows how to put out a grease fire. Please. My sister’s boyfriend was just about to put water on the fire when he remembered this was a no-no. We went home and asked all four of our children (ages 10-17) if they knew how to put out a grease fire on the stove and it was not 100%, even though I know we’ve gone through it with them more than once. Here is a video to demonstrate.
3. Make sure you have a fire extinguisher handy. By handy- I don’t mean under the kitchen sink. In fact- many experts say this is the worst place to keep a fire extinguisher. Think about it- if there is a massive fire on your stove- do you think you will be able to get to your kitchen sink and open the cabinet underneath? Probably not. While you are thinking about it- why not spring for an extra fire extinguisher (like one specifically for the garage or basement)?
4. ABC fire extinguishers are multi-purpose fire extinguishers. They are the type of fire extinguishers used in homes- because they can be used on the three most common types of home fires. They are filled with a dry powder chemical that will put out a fire fast. (That is the good news). The bad news is that the powder is corrosive and after the fire, pretty much anything it touches will need to be professionally cleaned up or removed.
After the fire department left the house and gave the all-clear; we were able to file the claim. The very next thing that we did was call Emergency Fire and Water Restoration, which immediately sent out someone to assess the situation. They had someone at her house by 6:45 pm, which I found to be rather impressive!
Emergency Fire and Water Restoration was able to explain that although the actual fire damage was localized to the stove and microwave- the majority of the damage was due to the smoke and extinguisher dust. (Still better than having that fire get out of control and burning the house down!). Pretty much all of my sister’s personal belongings in the lower level of her house (she has an open concept) were going to need to be thrown away or professionally sanitized. Her cabinets- remodeled. Her couches- she needed new ones because they were microfiber and the dust and powder would be impossible to clean. Every single item of food in her cabinets- gone- it was now toxic). Anything electrical- needed to be professionally cleaned and have the wires looked at. All of her carpets in the entire house needed to be professionally cleaned- because smoke gets into the air ducts.
And because she had burning plastic- she had these interesting smoke webs all over every room- where her walls met the ceiling. They looked like cobwebs and were all black and icky. All of her walls would need to be cleaned and repainted.
Personally, I would never have thought that a fire that was localized to such a small area could do so much damage throughout the entire house.
Luckily, she had a great insurance policy that covered her dwelling and personal contents- but that brings me to the next thing I learned-
5. Make sure you have everyone that lives in your house listed on your insurance policy. If they own the house with you or have an insurable interest (spouse, domestic partner) they should be listed as an additional insured. Otherwise, they should be listed as occupants. The key is- the insurance company needs to know who is living in the house so that they cover their actions and their risk.
The fire occurred because my sister’s boyfriend, who has lived with her for years was trying to be a sweetie and was cooking her a surprise dinner (I think we may be getting him cooking lessons for Christmas!). He must have left the room for a minute and came back to find the pan in flames.
He is listed as an occupant on the insurance policy- luckily. If he wouldn’t have been, the insurance company would have paid the claim for my sister (because that is what they are there for) and then would try to recover the damages from the person who caused the fire (ie- boyfriend).
Let’s face it. The insurance company is a business, after all. If someone, who is not their customer (ie- not listed on the policy- even a family member- even if you meant to list them, but didn’t) caused them to pay out money for a claim, they will take steps to get their money back. You and I would do the same. That’s simple business- otherwise they would go out of business. Unfortunately, to you and I- that means someone would probably get sued. No one wants that.
So truth be told- this made me go double check to make sure my own children were all listed on my homeowners policy! I recommend everyone follow up with their insurance agent to make sure that everyone who lives in their home is listed on their insurance policy. Even if it raises your rate slightly- a few dollars in premium annually is nothing if a $70,000 claim doesn’t get paid because of an oversight!
6. Call your insurance agent directly to file the claim. If you can help it, don’t call the 1-800 number for your insurance company. Don’t go online or use the app on your phone. Those are all great conveniences; however, you have an agent for a reason. Having someone to walk you through the process is the reason we are here. (Seriously- it’s not because our kids want us to talk at career day at school or because we enjoy networking at our local chamber of commerce group meeting). Having your personal belongings destroyed is a scary, traumatizing event- and there isn’t a 1-800 number or computer screen that can take the place of a real, live person telling you that everything is going to be okay. My husband and I give out our personal cell phone to all of our customers so that even if they have a serious claim in the middle of the night- they have a real, live person to call.
The last thing I learned- well, not that I learned it- rather that I got a jolting reminder, was that family is so very important. For a couple of minutes while I was driving to my sister’s house- I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know if her house was going to be burned to the ground. I didn’t know if my 15 year old nephew was still inside. I didn’t know how it started or what was going on. When I pulled up and I saw all of the lights and sirens- but saw the house still standing and my sister and her boyfriend outside with the firefighters I had this huge sigh of relief. I also saw my dad pull up right behind me. And my other sister and her husband right behind him. And I felt proud. Because that is what family is all about- taking care of each other and being there for each other.
Property can be replaced. People can’t.
And by the way… have you thought about life insurance lately?