After a Building Fire
Immediately After a Fire
- Have injuries treated by a medical professional. Small wounds may be washed with soap and water and then bandaged to reduce the risk of infection. Replace bandages if they become soiled, damaged, or waterlogged.
- Remain calm. Pace yourself.
- You may find yourself in the position of taking care of other people. Listen carefully, and deal patiently with urgent situations first.
- Check with the fire department to learn if your residence is safe to enter. Doors or windows may be cordoned off with yellow tape to indicate damage. Do not cut or walk past the tape unless local authorities advise that it is safe to do so. If a structure bears a color-coded sign, do not enter it until you get official information about what the sign means and advice about the safety of entering.
Coping with Emotions
You may be surprised at how you and others feel after a disaster. It can stir up a variety of unanticipated feelings, and they are as important to address as bodily injuries, damaged homes, and possessions. Almost everyone is apt to be upset. People may fear that the worst isn’t yet over. They may worry about their safety or that of a loved one. They may feel shock, disbelief, grief, anger, or guilt. Memory lapses, anxiety, and depression are also possible. Children, senior citizens, people with disabilities, and people for whom English is not their first language are especially at risk and may need extra attention. It is important to calmly let them know that they are safe and that help is available. Reassurance from a competent adult can help people recover more quickly and completely.
Some basic steps you can take to meet emotional needs:
- Try to return to as many of your normal routines as possible.
- Get rest and drink plenty of water.
- Limit your exposure to the sights and sounds of disaster, especially on television, the radio, and in the newspapers.
- Focus on the positive.
- Recognize your own feelings.
- Reach out and accept help from others.
- Do something you enjoy, like familiar get-togethers.
- Stay connected with your family or other supporters.
- Realize that recovery can take time.
If you have more questions or observe behavior in your dependents that concerns you, contact a counselor or community professional for additional information and help. See Emergency Support Contacts.
- If you have pets, try to find and comfort them. Handle animals carefully and calmly.
- Pets can become upset and react to a disaster in unusual ways, such as spraying urine, defecating on floors or scratching/biting furnishings. Since pets will need regular care and attention to help them calm down, try to leave pets with a family member, friend, veterinarian, or boarding facility while you are dealing with other challenges. Animals are naturally inquisitive and could be injured if they are brought back to a damaged home.
- Use toys, a blanket, or favorite human's unsoiled clothing to comfort pets.
- Make sure pets are fed their usual diet and have plenty of water.
- Visit your pets regularly, speak calmly, and take some time out to play with them. Caring for pets can help you in your recovery, as well.
Checking Your Residence
- If you live in Virginia Tech housing, check university news to find out when it is safe to return.
- For a residence of your own, check with the fire department to make sure your residence is safe to enter. Do not cut or walk past colored tape or a color-coded sign until you get more advice and instructions about what these signs mean and whether it is safe to enter.
- If you have children, leave them with a relative or friend while you conduct your first inspection of your damaged home. The site may be unsafe for children, and seeing the damage firsthand may upset them unnecessarily.
Checking for Structural Damage
- Check the exterior before you enter. Look for loose power lines, broken or damaged gas lines, foundation cracks, holes in the roof, or other damage. If you can see damage on the outside, the inside may be very unsafe. Await professional inspection and clearance before entering. If there is no significant visible outside damage, then check inside. Carefully open the door. If it is stuck, do not force it open. It may be preventing a collapse. Find another way to enter your home. Do not enter a damaged home without protective clothing. The last thing that you want to do is add injuries during clean-up to the list of things that require attention. Wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, closed-toed rubber-soled shoes or boots, and work gloves. Dust masks, safety glasses or goggles, a hard hat, and other safety equipment may be required.
- Smell or sniff for gas. If you detect the odor of natural or propane gas, or hear a hissing noise, leave the property immediately and get well away from it. Call the fire department. If the fire department instructs you to do so, turn off the gas with the proper tool at the valve on the outside meter. When natural gas is turned off at the main valve, it must be turned back on by a professional to ensure that the proper sequence is followed to restore gas service and to prevent possible gas leaks, fires, or an explosion. If you have a propane tank system, turn off all valves and contact a propane supplier to check the system before you use it again.
- Throughout your first day back, and beyond, check for smoke and embers throughout the home, including the attic.
- Beware of animals, such as rodents, snakes, spiders, and insects that may have entered. As you inspect your home, tap loudly and often on the floor with a stick to give notice that you are there. Animals (including snakes) do not want encounters with humans, and will move away if you make your presence known.
- Objects, such as furnishings or building parts that have been damaged, may be unstable. Be very cautious when moving near them. Avoid holding, pushing, or leaning against damaged building parts. Check the ceiling for signs of sagging. Water from fire hoses or rain may wet plaster or wallboard. Wet plaster or wallboard is very heavy and dangerous if it falls. Since damaged plaster or wallboard will have to be replaced anyway, you can try to knock it down but do so carefully. Wear protective clothing, including eye protection and a hard hat. Use a long stick, and stand well away from the damaged area. If the ceiling is sagging from the weight of water, poke holes in the ceiling starting from the outside of the bulge to let water drain out slowly. Take your time, and knock away small chunks at a time. Striking the center of the damaged area first may cause the ceiling to collapse. Check the floor for signs of sagging. Floors damaged by water from fire hoses could collapse under human weight, so don’t walk on sagging floors. If only small sections sag, place thick plywood panels or thick, strong boards on the floor to cover the damaged area. Be sure the wood extends at least 8-12 inches on each side of the sagging area.
- If the weather is dry, open windows and doors to ventilate the interior.
- If power is out, use a flashlight to inspect for damage. Do not use any open flame, including candles, to inspect for damage or serve as alternate lighting. Disconnect and check all appliances for water damage before using them.
- Make temporary repairs such as covering holes, bracing walls, and removing debris. Take photographs of the damage, and save receipts. You may need these to substantiate insurance claims later.
Checking Utilities and Major Systems
- Check each telephone to see if it is still on the hook. Hang up any phones that may have been knocked off. Wait a few minutes, and then pick up one phone to listen for a dial tone to know whether you have working telephone service.
- If you do not have a dial tone, try unplugging all the telephones. Plug in one at a time and listen for dial tone. This will help you determine if the telephone instrument is broken or the phone service is completely out. If it is, contact the telephone company using a cellular telephone or a neighbor's phone to report the problem and to request repair.
- If you see sparks, broken or frayed wires, or if you smell hot insulation, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker.
- If there is a pool of water on the floor between you and the fuse box or circuit breaker panel, use a dry wooden stick to try to reach to turn off the main fuse or breaker, but do not step or stand in water to do that. If you cannot reach the fuse box or breaker panel, call a qualified electrician for assistance.
- Inspect the panel box for any breakers that may have tripped. A tripped breaker may indicate damaged wiring inside your home. Do not turn on breakers that tripped; instead, turn tripped breakers to the “off” position and mark them with a piece of tape to indicate which ones were tripped when you found them. Have a qualified electrician determine if there are hidden internal electrical problems and fix them.
- Turn off all other circuit breakers except the one marked “main” and the breakers for the room(s) in which you will be working. When the power is restored, turn breakers back on, one at a time, for each room as you get to it during the restoration process.
- Use a flashlight to check each fuse to see if it is still in working order. Replace each broken fuse with a fuse of exactly the same amperage rating. Do not use fuses of lower or higher ratings as replacements, or any other object such as a coin or strip of metal to bypass the protection that fuses provide.
- If equipment in your home is connected to a heating oil tank, turn off all valves and consult a plumbing-and-heating specialist before using the system again.
- If you suspect sewage lines are damaged, avoid using sinks, showers, or toilets and call a plumber.
- If water pipes are damaged, turn off the water at the main valve. Call a plumber for assistance.
Checking Household Items
- Normal household items, such as cleaning products, can cause toxic fumes and other hazards if they mix. If you smell a noxious odor, or your eyes water from fumes, open a window and get out of your home.
- Call for professional help. If there are spilled chemicals that do not pose a health risk, be sure to put on rubber gloves in addition to other protective clothing. Discard spilled chemicals and rags used for cleaning according to the advice of local authorities.
- Throw away food, beverages, and medicine exposed to heat, smoke, or soot. Food that was in the freezer can be used if it still has ice crystals on it. If not, discard it.
- Carefully follow the instructions provided with tools and equipment (such as power tools) to maintain personal safety at all times.
- Wear personal protective equipment — including goggles, gloves, long sleeves and long pants — whenever you are operating power equipment.
- Keep children away from power equipment.
- Damaged locks (especially iron locks) should be taken apart and wiped with oil. If locks cannot be removed, squirt machine oil through a bolt opening or keyhole, and work the knob to distribute the oil. Hinges should also be thoroughly cleaned and oiled.
Cleaning up and removing smoke odor
- Some products are especially intended to reduce odors in fabrics. Use only products that are clearly marked as suitable for clothing – for fabrics that come in contact with skin. Check the label.
- A common cleaning ingredient is trisodium phosphate. It is a generic and can be abbreviated as "TSP". It is a caustic substance and should be stored and used with care, out of reach of children and pets. Read the label for further information and safety instructions.
- Test garments before using any treatment, and follow the manufacturer's instructions. Smoke odor and soot can sometimes be washed from clothing that can be bleached with 4 to 6 tbsp. TSP (or 1 cup household cleaner/chlorine bleach) to every gallon of warm water. Mix well, add clothes and rinse with clear water. Dry thoroughly. Alternatively, consider washing clothes in cold water with your usual household laundry detergent, and adding one tablespoon of pure vanilla extract. This solution also has been shown to remove smoke odors on kitchen surfaces and washable furniture.
- To remove soot and smoke from walls, furniture, and floors, use a mild soap or detergent or mix together 4 to 6 tbsp. TSP and 1 cup household cleaner or chlorine bleach to every gallon of warm water. Wear rubber gloves. Be sure to rinse your walls and furniture with clear warm water and dry thoroughly after washing them with this solution.
- Pots, pans, flatware, etc., should be washed with soapy water, rinsed, and then polished with a fine-powdered cleaner. You can polish copper and brass with salt sprinkled on a piece of lemon, or salt sprinkled on a cloth saturated with vinegar.
- Wipe leather goods with a damp cloth, then a dry cloth. Stuff purses and shoes with newspaper to retain shape. Leave suitcases open. Leather goods should be dried away from heat and sun. When leather goods are dry, clean with saddle soap. Rinse leather and suede jackets in cold water and dry away from heat and sun.
- Washable wallpaper can be cleansed like painted walls, but do not wet through the paper. Wash a small area of the walls at a time, working from bottom to top to prevent streaking. Then rinse the wall with clear water immediately. Ceilings should be washed last. Use a commercial paste to refasten loose edges or sections.
- Do not repaint until walls and ceilings are completely dry.
- Reduce the growth of mold and mildew by wiping down surfaces that got wet with a solution of one cup of liquid household bleach to a gallon of water. Beforehand, test painted, textured, or wallpapered surfaces to ensure that the bleach solution will not discolor them. Test by wiping a small area with the bleach solution. Allow it to dry for least 24 hours and then check.
- Consult a professional about replacing drywall and insulation that has been soaked by water from fire hoses. Water-damaged drywall and insulation must be replaced. It cannot be dried out and maintain structural integrity or resistance to mold and mildew.
- Contact your insurance agent, broker, or insurance company as soon as you can to report how, when and where the damage occurred. Provide a general description of the damage.
- Prepare a list of damaged or lost items and provide receipts if possible. Photographs or videotape of the damage can also help prove your claim.
- If possible, keep damaged items or portions of those items until the designated claims adjuster has visited your home. Do not throw away anything you plan to claim without discussing it with that adjuster first.
- Keep receipts for all additional expenses that you may incur such as lodging, repairs, or other supplies.
- Keep copies of all documentation given to the claims adjuster or insurance company.
- See also: Disaster Recovery: A Guide to Financial Issues (ARC).
- Make sure that the contractor rebuilding your home obtains a building permit and follows the current building, fire, and electrical codes for your area.
- Ask a professional about having automatic residential fire sprinklers installed during the reconstruction process. It is much less expensive to have sprinklers installed during reconstruction than after the construction is complete.
- Make sure that smoke alarms are installed following your local fire protection codes. Smoke alarms are best installed inside each sleeping room, and in hallways outside sleeping areas, with at least one on every floor. The smoke alarms are best interconnected, so that if one alarm sounds, all will sound. Alarms are best operated by both household power and batteries in case electrical service is interrupted. (Check with local authorities about the fire code in your area.)
- Update your disaster plans and replenish emergency supplies, just in case a disaster happens again. It is reassuring to know that you are again prepared and less vulnerable to another disaster.
- Consider purchasing homeowner’s or renter’s insurance. Make copies of important documents, such as birth and marriage certificates and insurance policies, and store these in a safe place.