Let's Talk Fire: The Dangers Of Hoarders
What is a hoarder?
While television has finally brought the hoarder and the hoarding mentality out into public view the fire service has been feeling the sting of this erratic behavior for quite some time. Hoarders are people who compulsively collect things, whether they need them or not. They fill their homes, garages, and any place they can with clutter. I want to differentiate on the hoarder and the collector. A collector buys things they enjoy, places them in a protective manor and stores them in an organised safe way. Hoarders simply buy things and toss them in a room or nook somewhere and usually forget they are even there until someone threatens to get rid of them. Whereas a collector may have a detailed collection organized and cataloged a hoarder will simply put things anywhere that is convenient at the time.
Hoarders surround themselves with useless junk. Some may profess to collect magazines but in reality they just simply have several boxes full of random magazines scattered about a house or storage closet. This clutter presents danger to the resident because they now must deal with the fact that their home is unsafe due to clutter but it presents issues for fire departments who may have to respond to a fire there or even EMS who may not be able to get the resident out due to clutter. Remember the more fuel we have to get the fire going and keep it going the more intense that fire will be. When you look at fuel loads in a typical living dwelling you are looking at furniture, TV sets, maybe some occasional debris here and there. It is what we are used to dealing with and how we are trained.
In a hoarder's home we are dealing with a much more difficult fire scene.
Signs Of Hoarding
- Cluttered living spaces
- Inability to discard items
- Keeping stacks of newspapers, magazines or junk mail
- Moving items from one pile to another, without discarding anything
- Acquiring unneeded or seemingly useless items, including trash or napkins from a restaurant
- Difficulty managing daily activities, including procrastination and trouble making decisions
- Difficulty organizing items
- Shame or embarrassment
- Excessive attachment to possessions, including discomfort letting others touch or borrow possessions
- Limited or no social interactions
- Hoarder Hotline | Clutter Cleaner
Clutter Cleaner phone service to help families in need of help with hoarding.
A Hoarder's Home
Fuel Load Monster
As a seasoned firefighter I can tell you something as small as an average sized coffee table can produce a great deal of smoke and heat. In fact it can produce enough to flash over a family sized living room in a very alarmingly short amount of time. That being said now imagine a hoarders home where not one table is involved but 2 maybe even 3. In many ways hoarding almost mimics greed. They can not be satisfied with one or two of anything but have to have an elaborate amount of one certain item. This creates a very dangerous and time consuming work environment for us firefighters.
We have to assess whether or not we can save a structure at a fire and how to do just that. We need to know what is burning to fuel the spread and growth of the fire, where things are positioned in the home should we have to make entry for rescue or interior fire attacks, and how we can get out if need be. A hoarder's home almost completely negates all of those decisions. We know the dangers a typical household fuel load presents. Firefighters die in them all the time. A hoarding fire is much more dangerous.
Smoke, gasses, and that ever lingering threat of flash over are always on the minds of firefighters working inside a structure, but at a hoarding fire those threats are sky rocketed. An average hoarder home will have roughly triple the load of a normal living dwelling. That is three times the amount of fuel to burn and three times the amount of obstacles to try and navigate through. Maybe instead of one couch and a magazine rack to navigate around you have two couches and six boxes of magazines. These items may be engulfed in a fire and with the close proximity they will be stored may make navigation impossible.
The amount of items and how they are stored will add to the rate of fire spread. Instead of having a few moments before a new item is involved you may get seconds or even less time to react. You basically have an endless supply of fuel chained together through the home. A fire can rip a house apart in minutes given these idea circumstances.
How Do We Work It?
When dealing with fires in the homes of hoarders we must express a great deal of added precautions. While many of the same procedures we use on a standard house or structure fire will work many have to be modified and adjusted to see the scene come to a close.
We all know to have two ways out, hell I like to have as many options as I can get. We look at windows as additional means of egress should the event arise in which we need to get our inside self outside in a hurry. In the home of a hoarder this option may be gone. They stack boxes so high that sometimes they block windows. Their "collections" often make it so we can not even tell their is a window in the room we are in. Always proceed with caution. If you are in a hoarder home never enter any room that you do not see a safe way out of.
Without this option of a secondary means of egress we may be forced to shut down offensive tactics and go for a defensive approach. Sadly most of us know sometimes the only way to save a structure is that quick interior attack on the fire. In a structure occupied by a hoarder we may be given the disturbing task of protecting our exposures and letting the fire do it's thing.
Advancing A Hoseline
We have all been there. Stretching a hoseline into a structure when it tangles on a couch or a chair. It kills us every time and adds to the time the fire is burning. Even in a normal home this is an issue. Now imagine a hoarder's home. The sheer amount of debris in the way would make advancing a hoseline a task no firefighter would volunteer for. Remember for every second that hose is not attacking the fire, the fire is gaining leverage. It is devouring items in the home and weakening the structure.
If you can see that there is no way to safely advance that hose radio your incident commander and tell them. Don't try and be a hero because it could cost you your life. We all want to be the guy every body at the station brags on and all of us love that pat on the back from the chief, but even if it meant being ribbed by the crew back at the station I am not going to openly engage in a task I know I can not compete with 100% accuracy. We have to know our limits.
In the event of a fire in a hoarder's home we as firefighters have to be more than just gung ho kick the door down firefighters, we have to use our training and our brains. If we don't have an additional means of egress we must assess what will be gained by our entry and what will be lost. I love saving a person's home but not if it means me or one of the crew I work with doesn't get to go home to theirs when the fire is out. Proceed with quickness but tread lightly. The faster a fire is put to rest the less damage it can do, but we also need to look before we leap.
Be safe out there and remember look for signs of hoarding in the structure and than make the right moves to see the fire controlled and the property saved to the best of your ability. Learn from the past for survival in the future.