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Tips for Property Conservation at Fire Scenes

Issue 8 and Volume 4.

A carpenter should like to build, an accountant should like to count money and a teacher should like to teach. Of course, in an ideal world, everyone would be passionate about what they do.

Many firefighters are passionate about their job, and that means that, despite the inherent dangers, they may enjoy fighting a fire—gasp! I’ve lived with this sentiment for a long time. I’ve also lived with some occasional guilt for feeling this way, but that subsides once I remind myself that I’m not hoping for fire to harm anyone, but simply that if a fire occurred, I want to be there to help out as much as I can.

When my childhood home burned, I didn’t see firefighters high-fiving each other or bragging about the hole they chopped, the windows they broke or the fire they eliminated. I saw a group of dedicated individuals trying to save my family’s property. There wasn’t much left, but they tried to preserve whatever they could—and this act didn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated.

Damage & Save
It’s part of every truckie’s job to both damage and save property at a fire. We break windows, chop holes and pull ceilings only to quickly shift to “salvage mode,” focusing our attention on protecting property from further damage.

We immediately start to clean up the mess we didn’t make (that caused by the fire) as well as the mess we did make. We cover and tarp property, squeegee water and sometimes cover the very holes we chopped in the roof a short time earlier.

A Higher Level of Customer Service
A great deal has been written about the importance of customer service in the fire service. I totally agree that it’s a crucial part of our job, but I also believe firefighters should be held to a higher level of customer service. After all, it’s our sworn duty to protect life and property.

I used to work for a department store chain known for great customer service. The people we served chose to shop at our store, and they could choose to go anywhere else at any time. Also, if a customer was difficult, we could suggest that they may be better served elsewhere. In the fire service, fire victims don’t choose us, and we don’t have the option of not serving them. It’s our duty.

Further, people trust us in their homes more than they trust other workers. For example, if the cable guy comes to my house, I stay home—same with the plumber or carpet installer. I allow babysitters who have proven themselves trustworthy to be alone in my home with my kids, but kids love to tell on people anyway, so I’ll know if the babysitter misbehaves. Also, before the arrival of the babysitter, I usually put away anything of value or of a personal nature, and maybe even make a mental note of how much alcohol is in the house. Bottom line: I trust all these people, to some degree, but still use caution when they come to my home.
Things are very different for firefighters. There’s no supervision when we’re crawling through someone’s home. The occupants have willingly exited (if they were home and able to do so), leaving their valuables and possibly their loved ones in our hands. The amount of trust people give us is tremendous, and that makes our responsibility to their home and valuables even more profound.

Property Value
For many years I worked in a distressed area of Buffalo where many homes were practically falling apart. The furnishings inside were mostly secondhand, unmatched and far from peak condition. Some people may think the furnishings in any of these homes are worthless. However, many people in this area don’t have fire insurance. It saddens me to know that after we pick up and leave, these people may be left with nothing other than what the Red Cross provides and what they can recover from the burned ruins. So, when going to fires in these homes, I make sure to preserve their property with the same determination as I would if I were fighting a fire in a lavish home in Beverly Hills.

And speaking of the higher-end homes, it’s no Beverly Hills, but my district now includes some of the most expensive real estate in the Buffalo area—big, beautiful houses filled with beautiful things. The homeowners are likely people of means. And I tend to assume that most of the homes have fire insurance and, if there were a fire, the insurance company would replace their things. I’m sure they would still experience the misery of being displaced by the fire and feel the anguish of the loss of irreplaceable personal items, but in time, they would likely land on their feet.

So whose property do I worry about more? The poor and uninsured who will drop even further down the social stratification ladder after a fire? Or the people with the big, beautiful homes filled with high-quality furnishings but who are covered by a big financial insurance umbrella? Some may feel as though more effort should be made for the poor, while others may dismiss their property as junk. On the other hand, some may feel that the well-kept home deserves more attention because there’s more of monetary value to be saved, while others would argue that insurance will cover their loss so firefighters shouldn’t expend great effort to save it.

The answer: Treat everyone’s property the same! Treat every item like it’s the Mona Lisa. It isn’t our job to make the judgment call on whose stuff is worth saving or what looks valuable or disposable. We should try to save everything we can at every fire we go to.

Tarping Tips
So now that we’re all clear about treating everyone’s property with equal respect, we have to ask ourselves, “How do we pick what to save and what is the fastest way to do this?”

I see many crews tarp like they’re throwing down drop cloths before painting a room—a tarp over a couch and a tarp over a couple chairs, and that’s it. This is a good start, but we can do a lot more. Once we’ve tarped the large items, we’ve created a shelter area underneath the tarps where we can place many other items.

We usually have little time to get our job done before the water, and possibly falling plaster, drywall and insulation, starts coming down on top of our fire victim’s belongings. So when my crews start tarping, I like to go for the most bang for my property-protecting buck. I try to stack some furniture—maybe place some chairs on top of a table and then toss a tarp over it, creating a large tent—then circle around the area and grab anything that will fit under the tent (i.e., computers, pictures on the wall, important papers, medications or anything else I can grab that looks important).   

Imagine you’re on that old show “Supermarket Sweep,” where contestants race around a supermarket, grabbing as many goods as possible in a set amount of time. Instead, race around the immediate area of the house, grabbing as much as you can when and where it’s safe to do so, and place it under the tarped areas.
We never really know what’s important to people, so we sometimes have to use our best judgment as to what the average person may value. I tend to protect the irreplaceable items (i.e., photographs and family heirlooms) first, then those items of seemingly high value. Priority-wise, these groups are close, but irreplaceable has the slight edge because, well, it’s irreplaceable.

At a recent fire conference, I met a future long-time friend, Charlotte Fire Department Captain Scott Hardin. He told me about a fire in a single-family, occupied, wood-framed home in the Charlotte area. The officer in charge asked him to do some salvage work, so he bunched up pieces of furniture, threw tarps over them and then started collecting the large assortment of family photos on the walls to put under the tarps.

A few days later, he ran into a friend whose mother-in-law’s home had suffered a serious fire. The friend told Capt. Hardin that despite the damage that was done to the house, his mother-in-law had gone on and on about how the fire department had cared for her pictures. It wasn’t her couch, lamp or fine china that she cared had been protected—it was the family memories that meant the most to her.

And guess what—it was the same house.

Of course, there are situations when something is both high value and irreplaceable. We have a couple Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in Buffalo. One in particular is on the national register of historic places; it’s called the “Darwin Martin House” and it’s actually a compound of several buildings.

The property’s curators asked us not to break the stained-glass windows if there were a fire. Odd, I thought: the occupant advising us on how to fight a fire. At first, I was put off by this request. I try to only break windows that I feel need to be broken.

After a tour of the buildings, I learned that some of the windows are valued at around $20,000—and are definitely irreplaceable. I also learned that many of the windows are just regular glass with a stained-glass-looking plastic film applied. OK, I can work with this, I thought. Now that I know what to look for, if possible, I will break the knock-offs instead of the high-value, irreplaceable windows.

Another example of why it’s important to save anything and everything we can occurred in February in the Buffalo suburb of Clarence Center. A plane crashed into a house and completely destroyed it. A man in the home was killed, but his wife and daughter miraculously escaped. The house was obliterated but a detached garage behind the house received very little damage. In the days following the crash, the newly widowed occupant expressed a desire to retrieve her husband’s things from the garage because that was all she had to remember him by. Clearly it wasn’t the dollar value attached to those items, but rather the fact that they belonged to a lost loved one.

In Sum
Firefighters are professionals and, for the most part, we shouldn’t let emotions get in the way of doing our job. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t show compassion and empathy for fire victims. So before your arrival, keep in mind that the victim’s lives may now be in turmoil, and your actions can minimize this turmoil. If you start to lose sight of this, take a look behind you on your way into the next fire building. Glance at the faces of the victims and think about how you can best—and safely—protect their valuables.