Imagine being awoken in the middle of the night to the screech of your smoke detectors. Your home is on fire. It’s likely to be the beginning of what could be months of stress, frustration, and a disruption of your life style.

Years after my parent’s home was damaged by a lightning strike fire, my father was razzed about running through the house screaming to my mother “What’s that 911 number we’re supposed to call?!” That panic turned to relief when the fire department arrived and later frustration when he realized the insurance policy, the company’s name and how to contact them was in the house. He began thinking that the discount insurance company from the 800 number might not have been the best idea.

Hopefully if this happens to you, you will have an agent you know you can call who will be quick to get on scene to begin the process of getting your home back to its pre-loss condition. From your first call, an insurance agent is likely making calls to the insurance company, arranging for someone to both secure the home and initiate efforts to save what can be saved. Once on scene, the agent should serve as intermediary between you, the fire department, fire marshal, building inspector, claims investigators, restoration contractors, and salvage companies. You will be barraged by “public adjusters” and insurance reconstruction contractors who will vie for your business. Feeding on strained emotions, they will try to make you believe they are your saving grace. In most of those situations, you’d be committing to them a piece of your recovery dollar unnecessarily. RI Law now restricts some of their tactics.

Depending on the extent of your loss, the recovery process will take place in the days, weeks and even months that follow.  Several things will need to happen almost simultaneously in that first day.

The fire marshal and insurance companies will conduct “cause and origin” studies to determine how the fire started. Both want to determine what caused the fire. The fire marshal’s investigation is to rule out arson and to identify how building codes might be changed to prevent such fires. The insurance company wants to determine if any outside entity is fully or partially responsible for the fire. They are positioning themselves to go after the responsible entity to recover what they will be paying for your loss.

Simultaneous to the investigation is securing the home. This usually involves boarding up broken windows and damaged doors, patching holes that may have been cut in the roof or burned through it. That security is important to protecting your interests. Protecting what remains from the weather is the obvious. It’s amazing how many people think nothing about entering your home after a fire. Some will attempt to enter out of curiosity. Others will steal your remaining belongings. And others will seek to strip the house of all the copper and appliances. Such a theft becomes a second loss and if someone is injured walking through; they may seek recovery for their injuries.

Simultaneous to securing the premises is the salvaging of your personal belongings. If it was a hot fire, the nylon fibers in furnishings and clothing stretches out; your dress or suit will never fit the same and must be replaced. But most fires are not “total losses”. Water may be extracted. The smoke smells may be removed from clothing and furniture through specialized cleaning processes. However, the longer items are left in a wet and smoky atmosphere, the lower the potential of being saved.

Arranging for temporary housing is likely going to be necessary. A standard coverage included in a home owner policy is “loss of use”. This provides for your temporary housing costs. It is usually 20-40% of your home’s limit and usually provides up to 12 months for temporary housing costs.  Commonly a family goes to an extended stay hotel, has a mobile home installed on their current home site, or rents a home on a month to month basis while their home is repaired. The insurer should be paying the costs necessary to keep you in a comparable sized home located a reasonable distance from your current home.

One of the first steps taken in your recovery process is taking lots of pictures. The limits noted on your policy are the maximum amounts your insurance company will pay for the repair or replacement of your home and your contents. Because you have these established limits, does not mean the insurance company will simply write a check for those amounts. You must show that your loss totaled the amount you are claiming. This involves preparing a required “Proof or Loss” document. It is a painful, time consuming process to identify every individual item damaged or lost.

To help understand how hard this process is, try writing down every item that is in your kitchen without walking into that room. How many place settings of dishes do you have? How many dish towels, bowls, glassware, pots, pans, food items? Now imagine doing that throughout your home.

I had the opportunity to help an insured recover from a fire last year. Pictures I took the day of the fire were supported by pictures taken in their home by friends and family. The store where they were registered for wedding gifts two years earlier provided a list of their wedding gifts. It took them close to 45 days to compile a complete “proof of loss”, but a few days later the insurance company provided a check for their loss.

Today you can take a simple action to make your job easier when you experience such a loss. A picture is worth a 1,000 words! Go room by room throughout your home taking a video of the entire room. If you don’t have access to a video camera, or cell phone with video capability, simply take several pictures. Now store that data off site in a “cloud”, at your work, or swap records with a friend or family member; not in your home because the fire will likely destroy them too!

Those same before and after pictures would be necessary to document your loss to the IRS when trying to write off such a loss on your taxes.

Nearly all companies today take pride in high customer satisfaction ratings following your claims experience. I’ve described the way a fire loss should be resolved. There are situations where a claim is not handled as it should be. If your relationship with the claims representative and your agent can not move your claim forward, first try elevating the issue within the insurance company. If that doesn’t work, filing a formal complaint with regulators at the RI Dept of Business Regulation usually stimulates a rapid response. Neither of those steps will cost you anything. However if your issues are not moving toward resolution, seeking the involvement of an attorney or “Public Adjuster” may now be necessary. The latter two carry expenses borne by you, but at that point it may be worth it to get your home back to your pre-loss condition.