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© 2006

The photo on the left says it all. Your home and all its contents can be swallowed up by a monster such as this faster than you'd think possible. A fire of this intensity will drive you away from your home before you can gather up all the items you need for survival.

A major item that I have so-far neglected to talk about in depth is VALUABLE DOCUMENTS.

We all leave a paper trail. We all need some form of paperwork to either back up or prove we are who we say we are. If you are forced to leave your home - for whatever reason - you will be going to a spot where nobody knows you. Nobody can vouch for your sterling character and valuable credit rating.

Nobody will do ANYTHING for you without proof of who you are. Truth!

Flash Point
The temperature that will produce an ignitable mixture. (fuel plus oxygen)

Ignitable Temperature
The temperature that will make an ignitable mixture ignite.

The ignition temperature for paper is reported to be 450°C (842°F), and the flash point of paper is estimated to be 350°C (662°F). As paper reaches its flash point, it begins to char. Protection for you paperwork must be HIGHER than the Flash Point Temperature, for a minimum of 30 minutes. Otherwise, your safely locked-up papers will be black cinders.

What to Take

Ok, what kind of paper documents am I talking about? Each of us has different papers we hold near and dear. Here's a list you need to carefully consider for your own family:

1. Insurance papers. This includes life insurance, home-owners policies, car insurance papers (not the little clip-off piece, but the whole policy). Does your child have school insurance? Where's your proof. Do you have a business insurance policy? Partnership insurance? Medical insurance, see #8, to follow.

2. Birth Certificates. The original documents for all members of your family. Not copies, most government agencies deal only in the original documents. Include any and all passports here also.

3. Family photographs and albums. This is a tough one since most people have more photos than space to keep them. It might pay you to have all your photos converted to digital photos, and store these on easily portable computer discs. You can have hundreds of photos on one disc. Take photos out of frames.

4. Titles. Car titles, home titles, land titles, or any paperwork that says you have the sole rights for possession of any item.

5. Memorabilia. I have an "I love me" wall. Photos, certificates of educational graduation, memories of 20 years of military service, "atta-boys", federal, state and local achievement awards, etc. They all burn.

6. School records. Can your kids get into school without proof of completing last year's grade? Maybe, but it's easier with the proper documentation. College degrees and credits that give you a chance at a better job no matter where you finally end up.

7. Medical Records. This includes everything you've ever gotten from a doctor. You have a right to a copy of all your records. You just have to pay for the copies from the doctors offices. X-rays and other electronic-type exams will have official reports of the findings. You can get copies of these also. This includes dental records, veterinarian records for pets, "female" records from OB/GYN sources, hospitalization records (if you've ever been in a hospital), medical specialists you may have seen or been referred to, and chiropractor records. There may be more categories, but this covers a lot of them.

8. Medical Insurance Coverage. This is a biggie! Yes, most hospitals will admit you for emergency treatment. No, they don't have to take your insurance - particularly if you cannot prove who you are or cannot prove you are covered under your policy.
a. Medicare & Medicaid. Keep files or copies of everything you have ever done with this group of people. Medicare/Medicaid supplements are definitely included here.
b. Your "wallet card" may be sufficient to prove coverage, but Murphy's law says that "what can go wrong, will go wrong". If its possible to lose your wallet, you're in big trouble in an emergency.

9. Prescriptions. If you have one-time only drug prescriptions, then this won't matter. But, if you have refillable prescriptions, or long term prescriptions for drugs, medical supplies and equipment, you need to have proof of these prescription, signed by your doctor. If you explain nicely to your doctor, he/she may do it without any hassle. However, some will refuse to do a prescription twice. Therefore, it may behoove you to get a Notary Public to make certified copies to show to your next pharmacy.
Remember, if the only proof you have for a prescription refill is the bottle the medication comes in - DO NOT LOSE THE BOTTLE.

10. Official records. Military records, job records, or any paperwork that you will need later to prove you are who you say you are, will be needed to continue your life after recovery from the latest disaster.

11. Social Security paperwork. Retirement plans, and any of the many assistance plans you or your family may be eligible for are included here. Disability payments may stop if you are listed as "missing, presumed dead". You must be able to prove who you are and what you are eligible to receive.

12. Important personal documents. Address book. Records for possessions (such as weapons registrations, where required). Credit Card information & phone numbers. Other license documents (concealed weapons permits, fishing/hunting license). Don't forget your backup computer discs for your personal computer.

13. Adoption paperwork for any adopted children, as well as all guardianship documentation.

14. Financial Records, to include:
a. Tax Information for the past SEVEN years.
b. Stock & Bonds, annuities, Certificates of Deposit, Gold certificates, etc.
c. Check books and all blank checks not yet used.
d. Loan paperwork for house, car, business, etc.
e. Savings account, money market account information.

15. Marriage licenses and/or divorce decrees. You don't want to go through either one a second time.

16. Legal Matters to include:
a. Last will and testament.
b. Advanced Health Care Directive; Appointment of Health Care Surrogate.
c. Power of Attorney
d. Pending legal matters and past legal matters that can come back at a later date to haunt you, such as a tax audit, etc.

17. Telephone numbers, names and addresses that will be needed later, to include:
a. Personal physician
b. Medical specialists
c. Financial institutions (bank, stock broker, etc.)
d. Friends and relatives, local and nation-wide.
e. Insurance company, salesperson and/or company information.
f. School phone numbers, teachers, counselors and coaches.
g. Local, State and Federal Emergency Phone Numbers.

18. Inventory sheets for the following:
a. Household goods left behind during disaster.
b. Property or possessions in outside storage areas or off-site rental storage locations.
c. Garage and business inventories. Include location, address and phone numbers.
d. Property appraisals for valuable items, e.g., artwork, jewelry, etc. Use PHOTOS.

19. Phone book for your town, city, or local area, to include Federal, State and Local government offices.

Why all this stuff?

Some of the above items, such as medical records and medication prescriptions may be needed during the bug-out phase of a disaster. Most all of it will be needed if and when you can return home during the recovery phase of a disaster. I CANNOT STRESS ENOUGH THE IMPORTANCE OF HAVING PHOTOS OF EVERY ITEM YOU OWN - AND MAY LOSE. After major disasters, many insurance companies will balk at paying you for some items you claim you lose during a disaster. During Florida hurricanes, every boat (no matter of size) had some form of hand-held satellite communications gear and a GPS navigation system that was washed or blown overboard. The insurance companies are catching on, by the way. They CANNOT argue with photos of these items, particularly if you are also in the photo. You don't have to have printed copies. Put the digital photos on a disc. Make 2 or more copies. Carry one copy with you and mail another to a friend or relative in another state.

Equipment needed to secure documents.

There are two considerations for safe-keeping your important documents. Fire is first, and water is second. Fire containers must be able to withstand high heats (over 600 degrees F.) for a minimum of 30 minutes. This gives you at least an opportunity to grab your containers and bug out without getting yourself or your paperwork burned to a crisp. Water damage is usually from flooding. None of the commercial security boxes I have seen will float. So, get them loaded into your bug out vehicle early in the loading procedure.

Here's some typical commercial fireproof and waterproof boxes available on the market today:

Sample Bug-Out-Suitable Document Safes
30 Minute Portable Fire Safes

Honeywell - The Waterproof / Fire Safe Protector - 330 cu. in.

Honeywell helps you protect your documents with this powerful, low-impact fire safe. Great for up to 1550F during a fire for 30 minutes, this smaller fire proof safe allows you to store money or checks, bills and other valuable paperwork. It perfectly secures standard office paper flat, without folding.

  • 1550°F / 30 Minutes Fire Protection
  • 330 cubic inches interior storage
  • Includes key lock
  • Carry Handle
  • Stores 8 1/2" x 11" paper flat
  • No folding necessary for document storage
  • UL listed

  • Interior Dimensions: 2.91" H x 13.23" W x 8.5" D
  • Overall Dimensions: 6" H x 16" W x 12.62" D
  • These two safes are typical of the portable safes available from a number of manufacturers. I just happened to hit "Honeywell" first on the internet for use as samples.

    All bug-out safes should be both waterproof as well as having a minimum of 30 minute fire rating.

    Water or fire "resistant" is not good enough.

    Honeywell - The Waterproof / Fire Safe File Protector - 1,070 cu. In Honeywell helps you protect your documents with this powerful, low-impact fire safe. Great for up to 1550F during a fire for 30 minutes, this fire proof safe with water proof seal allows you to store hanging file folders and valuable paperwork without worry. $85.00
  • 1550°F / 30 Minutes Fire Protection
  • 1,070 cubic inches interior storage
  • Includes key lock
  • Holds hanging file folders
  • UL listed

  • Interior Dimensions: 10.25" H x 12.17" W x 8.58" D
  • Overall Dimensions: 13" H x 16" W x 12.75" D

  • 1-Hour fire ratings

    Sentry Fire Safe Waterproof Security File - 1 Hour - 1.3 cu ft

  • UL-classified 1-hour proven fire protection
  • Fire protection for digital media, tested for 1-hour up to 1700°F
  • Waterproof seal-ETL Verified
  • Tubular key lock
  • Outside: 14-1/8"H x 17-1/2"W x 20-1/4"D
  • Inside: 11-1/2"H x 13-7/8"W x 14"D
  • Capacity: 1.3 cu ft
  • Shipping Weight: 91.7 lbs.


  • Sentry 2300 Fire Safe
    SENF2300 Fire-Safe®

  • Waterproof Insulated Security Chest,
  • 15-1/4w x 14-7/8d x 7-1/2h

    One-hour UL fire protection for up to 1,700°F external temperature: internal temperature will not exceed 350°F.

  • Key lock.
  • .36 cu. ft. interior capacity.
  • Outside dimensions: 15-1/4w x 14-7/8d x 7-1/2h;
  • inside dimensions: 12-7/8w x 9-1/2d x 5-1/8h.
  • Shpg. wt. 33 lbs.


  • Larger boxes and those with longer fire ratings will cost more money. Closely examine your needs (storage size) BEFORE purchasing your container.

    I am not aware of any "home made" box that is suitable (fireproof and waterproof) for this task.

    No matter the cost of whatever box you pick, the cash outlay will be more than worth it if you lose even one of your documents. What is the cost of losing your identity? How much can be put on your credit cards before you find out about it and stop it? You can die without medication prescriptions. Can you draw Medicare benefits, Social Security or health insurance benefits (somewhere else) without proper identification? I don't think so.

    From a strictly survivalist standpoint, all the emotional items such as family photos and memorabilia must take a back seat to items necessary to survive. It does you no good to have fond memories of the past . . . Only to be tortured by the loss of insurance coverage or health benefits in the present. You only have so much space to use before you fill up the family car.

    Every recovery scene I have ever watched on the news will show somebody poking around the ruins of their home looking for "family heirlooms". When the find them, they cry and bemoan the fact that they lost this priceless and irreplaceable item. Unless the disaster came from something immediately dangerous, like a terrorist bombing or tornado in the nighttime, much of that blame falls on the owner. In Florida, our biggest threat is hurricanes. We get days, if not weeks, of advance notice. What do we do? Nothing. Who's to blame?

    Family Document Checklist







    Home Owners

    Insurance Policy


    Medical Records

    Each Person



    Insurance Policy


    Diagnostic Tests

    X-Ray/MRI, etc.


    Life Insurance

    Insurance Policy


    Specialists Reports

    Written Reports


    School Insurance

    Kids Policy


    Dental Records

    Each Person


    Business Insurance

    Insurance Policy


    OB/GYN Records

    Each Female



    Insurance Policy


    Hospital Records

    Each Visit






    Each Patient


    Insurance Claims



    Other Medical



    Birth Certificates

    Original Documents



    Each Pet Records



    Original Documents


    Medical Insurance

    All Policies


    Other ID

    Copies or Originals



    All Policies/Supp.


    Family Photos

    Paper Prints


    “Wallet” cards

    Med Insurance/Each


    Family Photos

    Digital Discs





    Household Inventory

    Lists and Photos



    Each Person


    Vehicle Titles

    Original Documents


    Medicine Refills

    Each Person


    Home Titles

    Original Documents


    Medical Equipment



    Land Titles

    Original Documents


    Medical Supplies



    Other Titles






    Computer Discs

    Backup Files/Discs


    Official Records




    Important to YOU


    Job Information

    Resume, etc.


    Awards & Citations



    Social Security Info

    Each Person


    Military Records



    Retirement Plans



    Kids School

    All needed records


    ADC Authorization

    Dependent Children



    High School/College


    SSI Authorization

    Eligible Persons


    Property Photos

    Paper/Disc for claims


    Disability forms

    Eligible Persons


    Financial Records



    Power of Attorney



    Financial - Bank



    Legal Papers

    Will, Living Will


    Financial - Loans

    Payment Documents






    Last 7 years



    Court Records


    Credit Cards

    Copies of all cards


    Custody Records

    Children/Court Orders





    Health Care Surrogate

    Each Adult


    The "Location" column is for where YOU store these items in your own home. Add more if needed.
    Final Thoughts

    You don't really think about all the valuable papers you have - until you lose them. All lost identification can takes days, weeks, or months to replace (even when everything is going along quietly). NOW is the time to start collecting all those valuable items and placing them into fireproof and waterproof containers. A plastic bag or bin will not be sufficient to safely protect those papers we all take for granted. I would like to read the after-action reports coming out of the New Orleans flood on exactly how much original documentation had to be replaced after the flood - and how long it took to get it all done. I personally, would like to continue my life with as little hassle as possible. I have owned a sufficiently large fireproof box for years.

    NOW is the time to start taking photographs (digital if possible) of your belongings and possessions for future use in insurance claims. It make take a while for the insurance people to pay off, but your claim, backed by photographic evidence, will be taken care of quicker than the suspected fraudulent claim, and inevitable investigation by insurance agents.

    NOW is the time to start converting your family photo albums and documents of emotional attachment to digital (disc) format. Save at least two copies. One for you, another to a friend a long way from where you live. Later on, once your computer has dried out or been replaced, you can print out new photos that you may have thought were hopelessly lost in the carnage of the disaster.

    If you take your time now to backup those computers and make all the digital photos mentioned above, you won't regret it. You won't have time to get it all done with only a few minutes notice to evacuate your home.