1 Nov 2006
The Following article was written by Tom Polera, CFI and published in the NFPA Journal
Another problem has to be added to the list of risks with which firefighters must contend: hoarding. Hoarding is a behavior that causes individuals to acquire and fail to discard items in their homes to such an extent that they can no longer use their living spaces for the activities for which they were originally designed. Studies suggest that an estimated 1.4 to 2 million Americans have obsessive/compulsive disorders that leads to hoarding.
Hoarding presents extreme hazards to firefighters because it can result in limited or no access to a fire and in extreme fire loads. Accumulated combustible materials can block exits, give rise to pest infestations, and result in non-working utilities. Severe cases can even compromise the structural stability of light-weight construction and present a health hazard that requires a haz-mat response.
Large cities such as New York and Los Angeles have dealt with this problem for years. In the infamous New York hoarding case of the 1942, the Collyer brothers were reported to have amassed 136 tons of junk in their apartment, which was discovered, along with their corpses, after they died. Scenes of such extreme hoarding have since come to be known as "Collyer's mansions."
On July 3, 2006, more than 150 firefighters battled a three-alarm fire in a Collyer's mansion in the Sunnyside section of Queens, New York, that injured 19 people, including 12 firefighters. FDNY Deputy Assistant Chief John Acerno told reporters that, "as soon as our first units got there, they tried to open the door, and they couldn't get it open because of all the debris that was behind the door. There was debris from the floor to the ceiling throughout the entire apartment."
In another example of hoarding, a woman in Shelton, Washington, was found dead in January 2006 after she suffocated under piles of clothes.
"I had never seen anything like it," recalled a 13-year police veteran. "The house was thoroughly packed-stuffed-with clothing items in every room, from floor almost to ceiling. We could only open the front door far enough to squeeze in."
While some in the fire service may argue that this is an issue for the building department, the health department, or social services, the fact is the fire service must also become involved so that first responders can adequately respond to such scenes. Departments that choose to ignore hoarding jeopardize the safety of the community and firefighters.
When deciding to take on hoarding, fire departments must dedicate resources for collaboration, research, and enforcement. Dividing the problem into a people issue and a property issue will help fire officials coordinate their efforts with those of other agencies and limit their role to areas in which the fire service has expertise. A partnership with the county attorney, code enforcement personnel from the building department, and mental health workers is an absolute must when pursuing this type of property enforcement.
Fire prevention is a logical place for hoarding enforcement. Using tools the fire service already has, such as Notices of Violation and affidavits for inspection warrants, can be built into a successful hoarding investigation procedure.
However, hoarding is a battleground with many traps. One concern with hoarding investigations is that they may give the legitimate impression that the government is intruding on personal freedoms. Investigations should be based on complaint, and right-of-entry-procedures must be carefully reviewed and practiced with authority granted by written consent, warrant, or exigent circumstances. State statute or local ordinance will dictate authority for fire inspection warrants for which probable cause is required.
Once entry has been made, decisions must be based on the circumstances. A detached rural residence may be handled differently than a high-rise apartment building. First-alarm units should be notified of severe cases of hoarding in advance so they can undertake the proper planning. Coordinating the entry with additional agencies will help ensure that firefighters have support mechanisms available. For example, a case in which severe hoarding results in no means of egress, endangering children, requires the assistance of Child Protective Services.
In December 2000, the Federal Emergency Management Agency released America at Risk: Findings and Recommendations on the Role of the Fire Service in the Prevention and Control of Risks in America. This report concluded that, as a community's primary first responder, the fire service is responsible for all local hazards, including hoarding, a local hazard that is dangerous to firefighters.
Hoarding presents a real safety risk to our community and our firefighters. If ignored, hoarding, like all other fire prevention responsibilities, will have serious consequences. Weighing resources and risk on the scale called priority funding will not work with hoarding, and simply reacting to hoarding will cost lives. U.S. fire departments must become proactive in their efforts to prevent hoarding.