Reader question: What should I store in a fireproof box?

Reader Hunter sent us the following question:

I know you’ve dealt a bit with managing paperwork and paper in general, but I haven’t seen anything about what to keep in a fireproof box. I’ve decided I need one (hopefully a small one) and want to be sure that I keep the most important (and only the most important) things in it. Any suggestions? Keep up the good work.

Hunter, this topic is larger than you might imagine. In an attempt to answer your question, I’m going to break my response into two separate posts: 1. Contents for a fireproof box, and 2. Purchasing literal and digital fireproof boxes.

First, let’s address what should be stored in a fireproof box. My recommendations are based on what will be the most beneficial to have immediately following a home fire or in an emergency. Most of the items on this list can actually be replaced, but having to replace them will cause you significant time and unnecessary stress.

As a second component to the home fireproof box, I also recommend having a hard-drive stored at an off-site location. In my next post on this topic, I’ll discuss the reasoning behind the second system.

Items I recommend you store in a home fireproof box:

  • Current passport
  • Birth certificate
  • Social security card
  • Property titles
  • Insurance policies
  • A list of bank and credit card account numbers
  • Copies of prescriptions for life-supporting medications
  • Spare keys to your car

Items I recommend you store digitally on a hard drive at a secure, off-site location:

  • Scans of photo negatives and videos that you would be devastated to lose (like wedding photos and videos)
  • Scans of your titles and insurance policies
  • Scan of your Last Will and Testament
  • Scans of your passport, birth certificate, and social security card
  • Scans of prescriptions for your life-supporting medications
  • A text file containing your bank and credit card account numbers
  • A recent backup of important computer documents
  • Photos of the interior and exterior of your home taken within the last four months
  • Recent photos of your pets

Stay tuned for my second post in this series where I’ll discuss preferred ratings and features of fireproof boxes and off-site digital hard drive storage.

15 Comments for “Reader question: What should I store in a fireproof box?”

  1. posted by Christine on

    What about storing those digital items on a small, external hard drive (or on a pen drive) and putting that in your fireproof box? Would the fireproof box protect the drive enough during a fire?

  2. posted by Erin at Unclutterer on

    @Christine–

    The short answer is no. Check back tomorrow where I’ll explain ALL you ever wondered about fireproof boxes! :)

  3. posted by Nora Rocket on

    Can’t wait! I hosted a houseguest recently who lost it all in a fire and swears by the fireproof box, and she really got me to thinking.

  4. posted by Maureen on

    Out of curiosity, why would you need photos of the interior and exterior of your home?

  5. posted by Erin at Unclutterer on

    @Maureen–

    Photos of the interior and exterior of your home are for properly reporting what you lost in the fire/emergency to your insurance agent. The photos are as much for you as they are for your agent. (Our insurance company actually requires these photographs.) They also come in handy if someone breaks into your home and steals things. In the trauma of the event, you may not remember exactly what was stolen.

  6. posted by rodney on

    > you may not remember exactly what was stolen.

    “oh yeah, they stole my fire-proof box!” ;-)

  7. posted by Erin at Unclutterer on

    Also, in anticipation of the pet photo question … often during fires and other emergencies pets get spooked and run. It’s good to have a recent photo for “Lost” posters and for shelters.

    @rodney —

    That’s actually a possibility … hence why having an off-site copy of those photos is very nice :)

  8. posted by Mark on

    I’m waiting to see Erin’s official fireproof box summary tomorrow…but for those that need the one important point right now…

    Most fireproof boxes are designed and rated to protect paper documents, not plastic CDs or thumbdrives. Paper burns at 451F (thank you Mr. Bradbury). The plastics in CDs and other computer media suffers failure at a much lower temperature.

  9. posted by Ru on

    What are the advantages to a fireproof box IN the home as opposed to a safe deposit box? Do they make good enough ones that there is no advantage to the offsite box?

  10. posted by Erin at Unclutterer on

    @Ru —

    I discuss the downsides of safe deposit boxes in tomorrow’s post. In short, if the bank is closed, you can’t get to your things. And, if you don’t remember to grab your safe deposit box key or wallet when you’re fleeing in a fire, you won’t have the key or ID to prove who you are when the bank does open. You shouldn’t have to worry about saving anything other than yourself and loved ones in an emergency.

  11. posted by Cate on

    Keep in mind that fireproof boxes are usually only rated to protect paper for a short period of time, like 15-30 minutes. For a small contained fire that’s put out quickly, that’s fine. But if your whole house burns down, don’t count on anything being recoverable from the box. It’s likely going to be a melted heap. Whatever contents survive will be charred and soggy. So it’s a good idea to keep copies in offsite storage as well.

    Also, when buying one of the inexpensive household firesafes, look for info about its water-tightness. If they don’t mention, it’s NOT. Your documents might survive the heat of a fire, but it’s moot if they can be immediately ruined by fire extinguisher chemicals and water seeping in. I learned that one the hard way after a leaky roof exposed my (sealed) safe to a slow drip. It leaked in easily, and wreaked a lot of damage with just a small amount of water.

  12. posted by Jon on

    And… if you have ever driven past a home that fell pray to fire, you will notice that the core of the structure is gone, but the peremeter is still standing. Think about where in your home you suspect a box would best indure the heat and water when or if the dreaded happens.

    I keep all the video’s of our kids growing up safe from fire too… most of which were prior to the digital was approachable for us common folk !

  13. posted by Andamom on

    In a previous post about automating my life (http://andamom.com/?p=78), I listed Mozy.com as a way to create system and file back-ups. Further, there’s a full spectrum of services related to back-ups and recovery — and you’ll pay based on the number of times you back up, the amount that you need backed up, the amount of time you are willing to wait before your files are restored, and so on. In financial services, time is of the essence and firms such as Sungard make a killing charging financial institutions for data that they need recovered almost instantaneously (without loss of time or data). But in my life, we try to back up weekly or monthly things like photos, documents, and other files that we don’t want to lose.

    In terms of an actual box… Fireproof — I’d first read the information on the box itself. At what temperature will the box itself get so hot that the things within it melt or be incinerated? What about chemical fires –? Most things have a destruction point and knowing that might dissuade one from buying.

    That said, I’d suggest that you might also want to consider storing certain documents off-site if you are concerned — maybe in a safety deposit box? Personally, I’d digitize just about everything (scan it).

    If you are content with keeping these things around though… You also may want to consider any of these: diplomas, marriage license, savings bonds, etc.

    Here’s another link to some useful ideas: http://www.bankrate.com/brm/ne.....ge=default

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