Fire and Consequences

(This Update was written by one of my colleagues, whose parents’ home was destroyed by a fire last week.)

At 3:15 in the morning last Thursday, I received a call that anyone who has elderly parents never want to get.

“CHRIS! This is your parents’ tenant, Laura. Your parents are fine, but THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE! You need to get here, QUICK!”

In a foggy blur, I rushed to my car and sped over to the house, which is only a few blocks away. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to drive up the street because NINE fire engines blocked my path.


I parked and walked two blocks to the house. The exterior appeared fine, but as the flood of water from the hoses rushed out the front door, along with a phalanx of fireman entering and exiting, I knew we were in trouble.

I found my 86-year-old father, sockless, jacketless except for a wool blanket, watching his three-family home – where my family was raised and he has lived for the past 50 years – go up in smoke.

“Dad, what happened?” I asked. “Oh, David. I mean, Chris. (David is my brother. My dad is 86 after all.) I meant to give you your son’s Christmas envelope. It’s in the car. Let me go get it.” “DAD!” I yelled without trying to sound hostile. “Focus. Don’t worry about my kid’s gift. What happened?” (We are still waiting for the report back from the fire department, but it appears that it began in the first-floor unit.)

He gave me a quick account; apparently, the quick-acting third-floor tenant may have saved my parents’ lives.

As we stood in front of the blaze, the surrealness of watching the destruction of my childhood gave way to the reality of the situation through a series encounters with – if you can believe this – salesmen. (All names have been changed)

“Mr. Leone, can I talk to you?” a rather large gentleman approached my dad. “My name is Jeremy. I’m from a board-up service. We need to talk. Here’s my card.”

My father was confused. Another squirrelly man was right behind Jeremy. “Mr. Leone, I’m sorry for your loss. I’m from Larry’s Clean-up. We specialize in removing water from your home. I have a contract right here for you to sign and we can get started right after the firemen leave. Don’t worry; the insurance will cover it.” Behind this guy, another representative from a cleaning company was lurking, waiting to make his move.

I stepped in.

“My father is not signing or employing anybody until we have more information,” I said forcefully.

Apparently, not forcefully enough.

A gentleman in his seventies unabashedly walked right up to me and offered his hand. “My name is Cliff. I’m a public adjuster. I’ve been doing this for forty years. You need someone to represent you. We usually do it for about 10%, but considering the circumstances and your father’s age, we can do it for less.”

Are these people serious, I thought. My parents were burned out of their home less than twenty minutes ago, and these predators want my father to sign contracts with absolutely no knowledge of what to do?!?”

“Please give me your card,” I said through gritted teeth. “I’ll contact you if we need you.” “I would strongly suggest considering me. Like I said, I have forty ye–“

“I SAID I WOULD CONTACT YOU!” I raised my voice high above the din of the working fireman, whose axes were chopping my parents’ house to pieces.

Four others approached with essentially the same sales pitches, and would often have something negative to say about the guy before them. I was livid. Part of me understood that these people were simply doing their jobs, but I couldn’t believe that so many made their livings by seemingly exploiting another person’s tragedy.

Fortunately, I had a friend in real estate who owned a property that had recently caught fire. I called him, and he gave me the name of his adjuster, whom he trusted completely.

“Don’t worry,” Matt, the adjuster, said. “Here’s what you do.

” Evidently, there is an immediate protocol for what happens after a fire.

  1. Employ a board-up service to ensure that no one can get into the home. They will put a lock-box on the front door after the fire has been cleared so tenants can access personal belongings.
  2.  Use a water-removal company to prevent mold and standing water.
  3.  A plumber must then winterize the pipes and place anti-freeze in the toilets. (This may be included in the cleaning crew.)
  4.  A trustworthy public adjuster – preferably one who has been referred – is essential. Ours was able to coordinate all of the cleanup efforts and will represent our interests when dealing with the insurance company.

Speaking of insurance, THANKFULLY, my father had been diligent in keeping up with his payments and had increased his coverage in correlation with the property’s rising value. If not, we would have been looking at a much farther uphill climb to recovery.

Lastly, if I can impart a few more words of wisdom for those who may have aging parents living alone:

  1. Keep a list of your parents’ medications and doctors. Mine are in their eighties and they can’t be responsible for remembering the names of every pill they take or doctor they see. Also, get them to keep all of their medications in the same place. My mother’s were in a tray, and we grabbed them easily. My father’s were strewn about his room and were lost in the debris. Luckily, the pharmacist was able to provide three days of pills until his doctor could be reached.
  2. Keep a list of your parents’ important contacts, including their insurance company. My father knew his agent, but not who held the policy. We had to wait until 10:00 to get the information to our adjuster.
  3. Take all of their pictures and have them digitized. We were extremely fortunate that most of our pictures remained intact. The gentleman on the first floor was not so lucky. Paying a company to scan and back up your family memories is money well spent.
  4. Discuss with family members who will be responsible for your parents’ well-being if a tragedy occurs. It was understood that my sister would take them because she has the room. Other families may not have it so easy.
  5. My experience may provide valuable information to all of the Update readers, but I truly hope you will never need to use it.

A friend of HealthView, Scott, who is an EMT, offers some crucial advice he’s gleaned from countless experiences like the one discussed above: One thing I suggest is to utilize mobile apps such as Keeper®, which allows users to store passwords, PIN numbers, and pictures of important items (like medicine bottles) in a safe and secure environment. I take pictures of every card in my wallet and every important document I own. This way, I always have it with me.  Unfortunately, I only started doing this after I was on a flight when a woman experienced a medical event.  I offered to help, but the airline staff followed protocol and would not let me assist her because I didn’t have my EMT card on me.