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Last year, there was a mid-night fire in my building. At 1 am, my husband woke me up because he heard the fire alarm. We quickly checked and saw that the fire wasn’t anywhere near our floor, so we took the time to get dressed quickly, grabbed our emergency bag, and left the building. It turned out to be a stove fire that the firefighters extinguished in less than 5 minutes, but it could have been much more devastating had the building fire alarm been less sensitive.

Our experience is common. The insurance industry has calculated that one American in three will be affected by a fire – not necessarily because a fire in their home or office proper, but because of a fire next door or in an apartment or office above or below them.

What massively disrupts people’s lives when a fire affects them is that they are not prepared for it at all. They walk out with their lives, and then spend weeks trying to get things back in working order, trying to prove to the insurance company what they owned, often unsuccessfully, and getting all the pieces of their work or home lives back together. It’s however easy to make a few plans that will limit the amount of disruption you will experience. Every case is different, but my own preparations will give you some guidelines for yours:

First, I protected my ability to run my business: all my files and ideas are backed up remotely, using dropbox and evernote, two systems I love. This way, I can work from anywhere, using any computer. Should I not have the time to retrieve my computer before leaving, I can go to the library the next day and work as if nothing had happened. My phone line is set up so that I can have calls forwarded anywhere, so again I’m not dependent on my physical phone line for people to reach me. As long as I have access to a phone, I’m fine. For some of my clients, who have inventory, it meant scanning the important documents they needed and make sure that they had good insurance that covered both their loss of property and loss of business for the time their business had to remain closed.

Then, we protected the things we really love. For us, it meant scanning all the photos we would be sad to lose and put them on dropbox as well, so that, should our stuff disappear, we can always print them again. Some of my clients opted to have originals of paintings they didn’t want to lose in a safe deposit box, with high-quality copies, or simply print-outs, on the walls – they usually did this for sentimental rather than financial reasons, by the way. It’s a little harder to keep objects you care about safe, but one thing you can do is take pictures of them, so that the memories attached to them are still accessible.

While we were at it, we also made an inventory, supported by pictures, of everything we have in the house, and also stored it on dropbox. Some people prefer to make a running film, with commentary describing every item. Either one works, you simply want to have proof of what you own for insurance purposes.

Finally, we prepared the all-important emergency bag that we stored inside right by the fire escape, so that we can just grab it and go without wasting any time. (We keep it out of view, though – who needs a daily reminder that bad things can happen?)

Our emergency bag is a packpack, which I recommend for everyone. It’s a lot easier to handle when you have to get out using the fire escape, possibly run, etc. In it we put the following:

  • our important papers (copies, the originals are in a safe deposit box): all ID documents; all our insurance policies; ownership proof and value for our high-value items, such as car, home, expensive furniture; wills and other documents.
  • the key to said deposit box, and an extra set of our home keys (makes it easier to get back in if we don’t have the time to go downstairs get our wallets and keys).
  • a wallet with a couple of hundred dollars in cash (we estimated that we didn’t need more than $200 within 24 hours, I’ve seen recommendations ranging from $100 to $1000) and a credit card that you keep there specifically for emergencies.
  • a change of clothes for everyone in the house, including shoes. Last Thursday we had the time to get dressed before heading out, but this is not always an option.
  • a couple of emergency blankets (the metal looking, really light blankets you find in many first-aid kits). They are quite useful if you find yourself outside of your home, half-dressed, in winter.
  • a basic toiletries bag with the bare essentials for everyone: toothbrushes, soap, lotion, etc.
  • a few meal bars to keep everyone fed for the following few hours if needed.

Depending on your specific situation, you may need more things in your bag. For instance, if you have a baby or a toddler, having a few diapers, wipes, a changing pad and formula in the bag will be extremely helpful. If you take medication, keeping enough pills for a couple of days will also make your life much easier. Think about the things you need on a daily basis and that would disrupt your life if you didn’t have them for a day or two.

Also, think about who can shelter you for a night or two, until you can get back to your place or find more long-term accommodations. We are fortunate in that we live in an urban location and can walk to friends who can shelter us in case of need, but your logistics may be a little more complicated than ours. Thinking ahead about it will make your life remarkably easier if a fire or other emergency actually affects you.

Knowing that my business would be running no matter what; that we had everything we needed to get back on our feet very quickly; that we had places to go in case of need, and that we had with us the essentials to face this potential crisis made the difference between being completely stressed and panicked that night, and being calm, knowing we’d be ok. All that for a couple of hours of planning.

I highly recommend that you take that time. It’s worth your peace of mind.

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