Las Vegas house fire hits too close to home for firefighter

LAS VEGAS -- Las Vegas firefighter Tim Szymanski has rushed to blazes at other people’s homes for 43 years, the last 30 as a public information officer and education coordinator.

The other day, he rushed to a fire at his own home.


In an odd twist of fate, a faulty exhaust fan in a second-floor bathroom ignited a blaze Friday morning. Szymanski, who was out running errands with his wife and son at the time, saw the trucks hurrying down the road, lights flashing, sirens wailing.

“We saw the trucks and I said to my wife, ‘There they go, to fight another fire.’ ” Moments later, Szymanski got a call on his cellphone from the fire alarm office. His alarm had been set off -- there must be a fire at his house, he was told.

“I said, ‘You guys have got the wrong address.’ They said they’d gotten calls from neighbors that there was smoke coming from the second floor. And I remembered seeing neighbors outside when we left. Then I knew it was me. It was my house.”

For Szymanski, 61, the situation went from strange to surreal. Without emergency lights on his personal car, he was forced to fight rush-hour traffic to get back to his house, not knowing what he’d find when he and his family got there.

At the scene, the place was crawling with more than two dozen firefighters. Not to mention members of the media -- reporters with whom Szymanski deals every day.

“When they found out it was my house, they came in droves,” he said. While he said that federal law precludes the media from entering the scene of a fire at a personal residence, Szymanski knew he had the opportunity for a teaching experience. So he let everyone in, once the blaze was under control 20 minutes later.

“The TV people were doing standups in my living room,” he said. “They took their cameras right to the place where the fire started. They got to show up close and personal what happens when a homeowner goes through a fire -- what it looks like, what it smells like.”

A former Atlanta firefighter, Szymanski served on the fire safety committee at the 1996 Olympics, experience that got him a job offer as public information officer for the Las Vegas fire department.

“When I’m not dealing with the media, I’m out in public and at schools, instructing the public how to be safe. What I was trying to show people with this fire is that even if you have a lot of safety equipment in your home, like I do, there are bound to be accidents. Even the best intentions miss the mark.”

He said that he had replaced the bathroom fans every few years but, apparently, not frequently enough. The fire caused $50,000 in damages and gutted the upstairs of Szymanski’s Summerlin residence, including his home office.

But the hard lessons haven’t stopped coming. At many fires, it has often been Szymanski’s job to console victims, to make sure they have the necessary information about insurance, Red Cross assistance, public benefits and temporary housing: “I have tried to make things as comfortable as I can for people, after the firefighters leave.”

Now he knows firsthand what such a post-blaze situation is like.

He and his wife and grandson spent the weekend in a cramped hotel room. And he has learned about the red tape involved in acquiring necessary reports before he can even think about hiring a contractor to rebuild his home -- a job he has been told could take three months or more.

“I’ve never had to go through this mess before. Unless you’ve experienced a home fire, you have no idea about all the hoops -- the insurance and the accommodations -- it’s very complex. A whole different world than seeing it from the outside.”

The next time Szymanski arrives at a house fire, he knows what he is going to do differently. “For one, I’m going to have even more empathy than I’ve had in the past,” he said.

With regard to the fire at his home, he asked reporters for a few moments of privacy so he could call his adult children to tell them of the blaze -- he didn’t want them learning about it in the media.

“Now when I see a victim on the phone at the scene, I won’t interrupt them to get the information I need. I’ll wait until they’re off the phone, because who knows who they’re talking to? Probably family, and that’s important.”

From now on, Szymanski can tell victims he has been in their shoes. “I used to tell them after the fire that the blaze is out and that everything’s fine. I will never use that phrase again, because it isn’t fine. Nothing is fine when the fire is at your house.”


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