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Loss turns fireman into renter's insurance advocate

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. (AFPN) -- An off-duty firefighter driving on base here waved casually as a Robins fire truck passed by. Within minutes, he learned that the truck was headed for his house.

Airman 1st Class Michael P. Lecik would soon learn that he and his wife, Tiffany, had lost all but their kitchen table in a fire that happened before he got around to purchasing renter's insurance. The loss totaled $31,700, including most of the couple's furniture, a new camcorder, a laptop, the couple's wedding album and other family photos.

Two kittens born just eight weeks before were at home and perished in the fire.

Assistant Fire Chief Tom Kennedy said the probable cause of the fire was an extension cord connected to computer components.

On the day of the fire, Lecik was in his car when his fire department pager went off. The number belonged to Deputy Fire Chief Senior Master Sgt. Forest Johnson. Lecik used his cell phone to answer the page.

"You need to come by your house," Johnson said. "We had a fire."

Lecik headed home and since he did not see smoke, figured it was a grass or dumpster fire.

"Then I turned the corner and saw the five-inch hose attached to the fire hydrant," Lecik said. He watched, a sinking feeling washing over him, as a soot-covered fireman came out the front door. "I knew that it had to be a pretty serious fire."

Thoughts of his wife, their unborn child and the kittens rushed into his mind. Two weeks before, the couple learned their first child was on the way. A fellow fireman met Lecik at the door and warned him not to go in without a mask. Chemicals in the laundry room had ignited, filling the home with fumes. He donned a mask and went in, shocked at the smoke and water damage that greeted him. Lecik knew it was time to tell his wife.

A friend drove Lecik to his wife's place of business. He did not want to break the news on the phone. Instead, he took her to lunch and explained what had happened.

"She went to pieces," he said. "The first thing she asked was 'where are my cats?'"

The next few days were filled with change. The couple checked into the base's temporary lodging facility. After a week, she went back to Richmond, Va., where they had lived before her husband enlisted. She plans to stay there until the couple is re-established in the next few months. Lecik is living in the base dorm.

"We probably will get another house, either on or off base," Lecik said. "Then we will kind of rebuild, piece by piece."

Lecik said he regrets not buying renter's insurance sooner.

"My advice to others is simple: Don't put off getting renter's insurance -- no matter what," Lecik said.

"As a fire prevention officer and investigator at Robins AFB, I have seen a considerable (number) of fires, and it still amazes me that servicemembers haven't purchased renter's insurance," Kennedy said. "When asked if they have insurance, they usually respond by saying that they didn't think anything would happen to them living in government quarters. Let me assure you, whether you live on or off the base, renter's insurance is equally important and should be a top priority when moving into an apartment, condo or home."

The average cost of renter's insurance is about $20 a month, Kennedy said.

He said most insurance companies offer renter's insurance policies. The question should not be whether to buy the insurance, but how much insurance is needed to cover possessions. Kennedy recommends that prospective buyers list their personal property and estimated values, videotape or photograph all valuables, make copies of receipts, write down serial numbers and keep owners' manuals of major appliances or electronic equipment in a safe place.

He advises people to work with an agent to determine proper levels of coverage and shop around for the best policy and coverage before making a commitment.

Costs vary depending on the premium, location, deductible and whether people need additional coverage or a rider to an existing policy, Kennedy said. For those who do not need additional coverage for expensive jewelry or computers, Insurance Information Institute estimates costs to between $150 and $300 per year, he said.

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