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Home Fire Prevention and Preparedness

Fires and burns continue to be a major cause of unintentional injury death at home. Particularly at risk are the very young and the very old.

Facts:

  • 84 percent of all fire deaths occur in the home (U.S. Fire Administration)
  • The leading cause of fire deaths is careless smoking (U.S. Fire Administration)
  • Having a working smoke detector more than doubles one’s chances of surviving a fire (U.S. Fire Administration)
  • Adults 65 and older are more than twice as likely to die in fires as the overall population. (U.S. Fire Administration study)

Follow the safety tips listed below to protect yourself and your family:

Smoke Detectors:

  • One is definitely NOT enough! Every home should be equipped with smoke detectors on every level, particularly outside of sleeping areas.
  • Ensure that your smoke detectors are tested monthly and batteries are replaced twice a year. Change batteries when you change your clocks.
  • Encourage children to help test the smoke detectors. Familiarize them with the sounds of the alarm(s).

Fire Extinguishers:

  • Keep an all-purpose fire extinguisher in your kitchen (one rated for grease fires and electrical fires.)
  • It's a good idea to keep fire extinguishers near the furnace, garage, and anywhere else a fire may start. These extinguishers are affordable, life-saving equipment for your home.
  • Make sure every able-bodied member of the family is trained and familiar with the proper way to use the fire extinguishers.
  • If you must use an extinguisher, make sure you have a clear way out in the event you can't put out the fire.

Flammables:

  • Keep matches, lighters and candles out of reach and out of sight of children!
  • Smoking is dangerous! No one should ever smoke in bed. Make sure that cigarettes/cigars are extinguished properly before dumping ashes.
  • Avoid grease build-up in the kitchen and on appliances. Cooking fires are common. Don't leave food cooking on stovetops unattended.
  • If a fire should occur, suffocate it with a pot/pan lid or a cookie sheet, or close the oven door.
  • Around the holidays, Christmas trees are a primary concern. Consider using an artificial tree that is labeled "flame resistant." If you do use an evergreen, water it daily to keep it from drying out. Make sure to inspect stringed lights and window ornaments annually for deterioration.
  • Dispose of materials from fireplaces and grills in non-flammable containers.
  • Never put children to sleep in "day" clothes. Fire-retardant sleepwear can make a difference in burn outcomes.

Electrical Safety and Heat Sources:

  • Make sure your electrical system is not being over-taxed. This can cause a fire. Do your lights dim or flicker when extra appliances are plugged in? If you have questions or concerns, consult a certified electrician.
  • Inspect wires. If you find any worn or exposed wiring from appliances, discontinue their use immediately! A fire is imminent!
  • Space heaters can be dangerous if not used correctly. Make sure yours will automatically shut off if tipped over. Consult the operating instructions to make sure you are using space heaters, gas fire places, and other heat sources as intended by the manufacturer. Keep all flammable materials away from heat sources! If there are young children in the house, make sure space heaters and hot water heaters are inaccessible.
  • Chimney fires are common. Have your chimney inspected and cleaned annually.
  • Keep appliances unplugged when not in use.

Escaping a Fire:

  • Keep bedroom doors shut while sleeping. If you think there is a fire, feel the door and knob for heat before opening.
  • Have an escape route for each area of the home and a designated meeting place outside.
  • Draw a map—one that's easy for all members of the family and visitors to understand.
  • When planning for a family with young children, be sure to teach them not to hide from fire or smoke and to go to firefighters who are there to help them.
  • All children should be familiar with the ideas of "crawling underneath the smoke" to escape a fire. "Stop, drop and roll" is another safety principle that must be ingrained into children's minds.
  • Multi-storied buildings are of special concern. Ensure that everyone is familiar with how to use an escape ladder if necessary.
  • Make sure every sleeping room has two means of escape in the event of a fire. Windows provide a secondary means of escape. Ensure they are in proper working order, are not painted shut, and guards are able to be disengaged in case of fire and escape is necessary through that window.
  • Everyone must understand that once you escape, you must never reenter a burning building—no matter what you might have left behind.
  • Call emergency responders (911) from a neighbor's house.
  • Make sure to practice your escape plan periodically. It will be easier to remember in case of an emergency.
  • Young children should know their street address and last name (and, of course, how to dial 911).
  • After you've planned for the family, don't forget the pets. Alert firefighters about your pets. Don't rely on window or door decals to alert firefighters—such decals are often found to be outdated. In the event your pet suffers from smoke inhalation, rush the animal to the vet.

Flood protection might be the last concern of Texas wildfire survivors these days. Yet Texans — even those who live in areas not rated at high risk of flooding — should consider purchasing a flood insurance policy now, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Flood risk is higher as a direct consequence of the wildfires that denuded thousands of acres in Texas this year, FEMA hazard mitigation specialists say. When fire burned away trees and other vegetation, healthy roots that soak up rainwater were lost. Storm runoff can cause severe erosion, mudslides and flooding.

While the highest risk of wildfire-related flooding is for properties burned in the blazes, it also rises for homes downstream or below scorched areas. Such conditions are one reason flooding is America’s most common natural disaster. Yet, most homeowner insurance policies do not cover flood damage.

A flood insurance policy is the best option for property owners and renters to safeguard their homes and belongings from flood losses. Most flood insurance is written through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which is administered by FEMA. Due to the waiting period, NFIP policies become effective 30 days after the premium is paid.

Less than half of the floods in the U.S. result in a federal disaster declaration, while NFIP pays claims even if a disaster is not declared, Hannes noted. What’s more, one out of every four claims paid are from areas at medium-to-low risk of flooding, said Kevin L. Hannes, FEMA’s federal coordinating officer for the wildfire recovery mission.

The NFIP offers flood insurance to property owners and renters in communities that participate in the program. That’s nearly 21,000 communities nationwide, about 1,000 of them in Texas.

Texans can often obtain flood insurance from the agent who handles their homeowners or renters insurance policy, or they can go to the NFIP website at www.floodsmart.gov to get a list of the agents in their area who sell the policies. The interactive website also offers an easy way to get the estimated annual cost of flood insurance for a specific address.

Source: FEMA

Gov. Rick Perry has renewed a proclamation declaring Texas a disaster due to the drought.

Perry renewed the proclamation on Dec. 27, a year after he initially declared the drought a disaster. The proclamation allows municipalities to apply for state assistance in dealing with the drought’s impacts, including fighting and recovering from wildfires.

Perry’s proclamation says all counties in the state are plagued by extreme drought conditions and are vulnerable to wildfires.

Additionally, the Texas Farm Bureau said its members have granted more than $1.4 million to help Texas volunteer fire departments in the wildfire fight.

The National Weather Service says 2011 was Texas’ driest year on record as well as its second hottest.

The agency said the average rainfall for the drought-stricken state last year was 14.88 inches. The previous driest average total was in 1917 with 14.99 inches.

The weather service says 2011′s average temperature was 67.2 degrees. Texas’ warmest year on record was in 1921 with an average temperature of 67.5 degrees.

Last year Texas suffered its worst single-year drought, its largest agricultural losses and the hottest summer in U.S. history. From June through August, Texas averaged 86.8 degrees, beating out Oklahoma’s 85.2 degrees in 1934.

The current drought started in fall 2010. Forecasters say it is expected to drag on at least through June.

The ongoing drought has led to some of the worst wildfires ever seen in Texas, destroying hundreds of homes and scorching thousands of acres.

Before the Hurricane

Insurance Tips   

Keep an inventory. Fill out a Home Inventory Checklist (PDF) that you can print or save to a disk and keep somewhere secure. Consider e-mailing it to yourself to ensure you'll have it wherever you are. Also take photos or videotape of each room and the exterior of your home to keep with your inventory.

Gather important documents and insurance cards and policies. Unless they are stored in a safe place, take health insurance cards; auto and home insurance policies; and an inventory of your possessions, including receipts and photos or videos.

Know what your policy covers. Make certain your homeowners or commercial property coverage is still in force and that it provides adequate coverage to pay the full replacement cost of your property. Check your auto policy to see if you have comprehensive coverage "other than collision." Comprehensive coverage pays if a storm, fire, or flood damages your car. Find out how much coverage you have for "additional living expenses" to cover lodging, food, and other expenses if you're forced to vacate your residence after suffering a covered loss.

Know your policy limits. Contact your agent and check the limits of your policies. For homeowners policies, ask about limits for contents and buildings. Your limits may be too low if replacement costs have risen because of new additions, improvements, or inflation.

Review your health coverage. Find out if you'll be able to receive non-emergency care from out-of-network providers, if needed, without accruing additional out-of-pocket costs.

Consider Renters Insurance if you don't have it. A landlord's insurance policy usually covers the house or building, but not the personal property of the building's tenants. If you rent an apartment, duplex, house, or townhouse, you may need renters insurance to protect your belongings.

Consider Business Interruption Coverage. Business interruption coverage compensates you for lost income and certain operating expenses if you are forced to vacate your business because of a loss covered in your policy.

Consider alternative storing methods for company files. Important documents can be scanned and stored in a safe location. Also consider taking photos of office equipment and furniture.

Consider purchasing Flood and Wind and Hail coverage. You may have to buy separate policies to cover wind, hail, and flood damage. Homeowners, farm and ranch, renters, windstorm, and condominium policies do not cover damage from rising waters. Use the "One-Step Flood Risk Profile" feature on the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) website to determine your relative flood risk. Use the Homeowners, Flood, and Windstorm Policies Comparison chart to see the differences between homeowners, flood, and wind and hail insurance.

National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP)
Homeowners and commercial property policies specifically exclude coverage for damage from flooding from rising waters. To protect yourself from losses caused by most flooding, you'll need to purchase a separate flood insurance policy from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) administered by FEMA. Flood insurance policies have a 30-day waiting period after the purchase date before coverage takes effect, so if you do not have a policy, you should obtain one as soon as possible. For more information about flood insurance, contact the NFIP
1-888-FLOOD 29 (356-6329) www.floodsmart.gov
NFIP Summary of Coverage (PDF)

Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA)
If your property is located in one of Texas' 14 coastal counties, or parts of southeastern Harris County, you will likely only be able to obtain insurance coverage for windstorm or hail damage from a special insurance pool called the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA.) To qualify for TWIA coverage, your property must pass a windstorm inspection and must meet certain windstorm-resistant building standards. You cannot buy or change TWIA coverage once a hurricane has entered the Gulf of Mexico. For more information about windstorm coverage call TWIA or visit its website
1-800-788-8247 www.twia.org

Flood insurance requirement. Certain Gulf Coast residents may be required to purchase flood insurance on their property before they are eligible for a TWIA policy. The requirement applies to you if:
you constructed, altered, remodeled, or enlarged your property (to the extent that a certificate of compliance is required) on or after September 1, 2009;
any part of the property is located in flood zones V, VE, or V1-V30 as defined by NFIP; and
flood coverage is available from the NFIP.
Note: Property repairs are excluded from the requirement. Repair is defined as the reconstruction or restoration of a structure that is damaged or deteriorated.
To view flood maps, visit FEMA’s website at www.fema.gov

Windstorm insurance inspections. New structures, alterations, additions, or repairs to existing structures, including re-roofs or roof repairs must be inspected by a TDI inspector or an engineer who has been appointed by the Commissioner of Insurance. There is no fee for any inspection conducted by TDI. All inspections must be made during the construction phase. For questions or to find out if your home was previously inspected, contact your agent or TDI’s Windstorm Inspection Division at 1-800-248-6032.

General Tips   

Protect your property. If a hurricane or severe storm warning is issued, and you have time, take appropriate precautions:

Buy emergency repair items. These include masking tape, lumber, plastic sheeting, sandbags and sand. Keep all receipts for insurance or tax purposes.

Protect large windows with storm shutters or plywood panels; use tape on small windows.

Move valuables away from windows and, if possible, to an upper floor.

Brace garage doors, move loose items indoors and secure television antennas.

Trim back any dead wood from trees. This will reduce the amount of wind stress on trees and eliminate potential damage from falling limbs.

Move cars, boats, and trailers to garages or warehouses or tie down boats and trailers next to house.

Check and strengthen mooring lines of boats still in water.

Drain swimming pools at least halfway to reduce chances of flooding.

Check your tie-downs if you live in a mobile home.

Decide in advance under what circumstances you'll evacuate your home. Whenever local authorities recommend evacuation, you should leave. The advice of authorities is based on experience and knowledge of the storm and its potential for destruction. If you live in a mobile home, in a high-rise building, on the coastline or an offshore island, or near a river or in a flood plain, it’s a good idea to leave. If you live on high ground or away from coastal areas, it is more likely that it will be safe to stay.

Fill your gasoline tank as soon as a hurricane watch is posted.

Keep emergency phone numbers handy.
Turn off utilities if instructed to do so. Otherwise, turn the refrigerator thermostat to its coldest setting and keep its doors closed.

Check for weather bulletins. When a storm watch is issued for your area – an alert that a storm has not yet hit, but conditions are likely in the days or hours ahead – regularly check TV and radio for official bulletins.

Prepare for being away from home. Assemble a disaster kit that you can grab in a hurry. Include the following in the kit:

Water: Pack enough bottled water for every person to have one gallon of water for three days.

Food: Non-perishable foods, canned goods, can opener, and utensils.

Extra clothing: Clothes, shoes, and blankets

First aid kit: Gloves, gauze, soap, hand sanitizer, antibiotic ointment, bandages, pain relievers, thermometer, and tape.

Medications: Prescriptions, eye glasses and hearing aids, and items for dentures, and contact lenses. Pack prescriptions in their original containers. Ask your doctor about storing medications.

Emergency items: Battery-powered radio, flashlights, extra batteries, cash and change, a whistle, shovel, basic tools, baby wipes, garbage bags, toilet paper, and a state map.

Baby items: Formula, diapers, bottles, powdered milk, medications, baby wipes and diaper rash ointment.

Personal hygiene supplies: Soap, toothpaste, toilet paper, and cleaning cloths

Pet supplies: Medical records, medications, ID tags or microchips, current photos, leash and carrier, three-day supply of food and water, can opener, pet beds and toys, paper towels and plastic bags, and a list of hotels that accept pets.

Important documents: Insurance cards and policies, copies of prescriptions or unfilled written prescriptions, list of all medications, wills, contracts deeds, stocks and bonds, passports, drivers license or other identification, Social Security cards, bank account and credit card numbers, home inventory, important telephone numbers, and family records (birth and marriage certificates).

Evacuation Tips   

Place valuables, documents, etc. in the car ready for a quick departure. Also load your pets in the car.

Monitor storm reports. Consider crowded roadways and possible flooding in deciding your route and departure time.

Plan your escape route early. Check with the Red Cross or other authorities for the location of the nearest shelter.

Map out safe routes inland or to safer areas. If you live in a low-lying area, know where low-water crossings might make travel to safety more difficult and plan routes that avoid these areas.

Work out a way for family members to communicate if you are separated. Remember that in a severe storm, local phone service may be disrupted. Ask a friend or relative who lives outside your immediate area to serve as a point of contact.

Make other arrangements for your pets' safety. If you must seek shelter in a community shelter, understand that you might not be able to keep your pets with you. Contact your local humane society for information about animal shelters.

If you are leaving your home, lock and secure the premises. Take small valuables and important documents with you.

Beware of fire hazards as you prepare your vehicle to leave. Obey all restrictions regarding smoking and the use of open flame. Always extinguish smoking material in a safe method and location. Avoid spills and ignition sources when transferring gasoline from one container to another.

Exercise fire safety when you're at a temporary location. Restrict the use of candles and alternate or portable methods for cooking to well-ventilated areas. Keep combustible materials (especially paper and cardboard boxes) away from open flames, space heaters, and other electrical devices. Keep electrical circuits from overloading by limiting the number of electrical devices plugged into outlets. When staying in hotels and motels make sure the smoke detector is working.

Avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. Never use generators, grills, camp stoves, or other gasoline, propane, natural gas, or charcoal-burning devices inside your home, basement, garage, or camper—or even outside near an open window. Health Alert: Carbon Monoxide Warning!

After the Hurricane

General Tips   

Return when authorities have said it's safe to do so. Listen to news reports to find out if the water is safe to drink. Stay out of any buildings surrounded by flood waters.

If you are returning home after evacuation, enter your home with caution. Do not enter your home if you smell gas, floodwaters remain, or your home was damaged by fire and authorities have not said it's safe to enter. Also, be wary of wildlife or other animals and use a stick to poke through debris to avoid encountering snakes. Use caution when walking, as there could be hidden foundation problems.

Be careful to avoid fire ants. Ants often float in colonies, or "rafts," after floods and should be avoided.

Turn flashlights on before you enter your home to avoid sparks that could cause a fire or explosion if there's a gas leak. Do not smoke or use oil, gas lanterns, candles, or torches for lighting inside a damaged home until you are sure there is no leaking gas or other flammable materials present.

Be cautious of your surroundings outdoors. Watch for fallen objects; downed electrical wires; and weakened walls, bridges, roads, and sidewalks.

Clean up household chemical spills. Disinfect items that may have been contaminated by raw sewage, bacteria, or chemicals. Also clean salvageable items.

Throw out all food and other supplies you suspect may have become contaminated or come in contact with floodwater. If appliances are wet, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker. Then unplug the appliances and let them dry out.

Insurance Tips   

Contact your insurance agent or company promptly. Keep a record of all contacts you have with your company.  Be prepared to answer questions about the extent and severity of the damage.

If your home is not insured, contact your local Red Cross or FEMA Disaster Recovery Center for assistance. Disaster assistance is money or direct assistance to individuals, families, and businesses. It is meant to help you with critical expenses that cannot be covered in other ways. Call FEMA at 1-800-621-FEMA (3362).

Make a list of your damaged property. Photograph or videotape the damage if possible. Refer to your policy to determine the amount of personal property coverage you have. Don't throw away damaged items until your insurance adjuster has had a chance to view them.

Make necessary repairs to protect your home and property from further damage. If there is partial damage to your home, take reasonable and necessary repairs to protect your home and property from further damage. Cover broken windows and holes to keep rain out. Don't make permanent repairs until instructed by your insurance company. Keep a record of your repair expenses and save all receipts.

Know if you have replacement cost or actual cash value coverage. Replacement cost is what you would pay to rebuild or repair your home, based on current construction costs. Actual cash value is based on the replacement cost of the dwelling minus a deduction for depreciation. With replacement cost coverage, the company will pay you the actual cash value initially and after repairs are complete, will pay the remaining amount owed on the claim. If you have replacement cost coverage for personal property when your loss occurs, your loss will be paid on an actual cash value basis until the property is repaired or replaced.

Ask your agent about additional living expenses (ALE) or loss of use. ALE may provide coverage for some of the expenses you incur if you are unable to live in your home because of damage from a covered peril. Most policies pay up to 20 percent of you home's insured value. Provide your insurance company with documentation regarding your expenses. Keep your receipts. When possible, the documentation should include the vendor, date, and amount. Remember that different insurance policies may have different coverages, limits, and procedures for reimbursement.

Refer to your policy to know what deductible you'll be required to pay. Most homeowners policies contain two deductibles: one for windstorm and hail losses, and one for all other losses.

If you hire a public insurance adjuster, make sure the public adjuster is licensed by TDI. Public insurance adjusters work independently and charge a fee for their services. Public insurance adjusters must disclose their fees in the written contract with you. To learn whether a public insurance adjuster is licensed, call TDI.
  
Repairing Your Home   

Should you choose to hire a public adjuster, make sure the adjuster is licensed by TDI. Public adjusters work independently and charge a fee for their services. The adjuster must disclose the fee in the written contract with you. To learn whether a public adjuster is licensed, call TDI.

Try to be present when the insurance company's adjuster inspects your damage. Be sure your address is visible. If damage forces you to move, leave a note or a plywood sign with your temporary address, phone number and name of your insurance company.

Resolving your claim. Your insurance company must acknowledge that it has begun an investigation within 15 days of receiving your claim. The company may request additional information to settle your claim. Once it has that information, the company must accept or reject your claim within 15 business days or tell you why it needs more time. If the Commissioner of Insurance designates the event as a major catastrophe, the claim handling deadlines are extended for an additional 15 days. Once a settlement is reached, the company has five business days to mail you a check. If you do not receive your payment promptly, call your agent.

Work with reputable contractors. Ask contractors for references and verify them. Contact your Better Business Bureau, local police, or chamber of commerce for information. Insist on an itemized contract in writing and pay only as work is completed. The Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act prohibits price gouging once the governor has declared an area a disaster area. Call the Office of the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Hot Line, 1-800-337-3928, if you suspect price gouging or any other deceptive business practice.

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