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Many people, including firefighters, are collectors. From baseball cards and butterflies to old videos and Waterford crystal, the range of items that people accrue is limited only by the imagination. Having that record album collection or some scrapbooks is fun and enjoyed by millions. When collecting or hoarding becomes overwhelming, however, it can overtake a person’s home or, in some cases, their business. The A&E TV show “Hoarders” illustrates some of the problems that compulsive collecting and saving can cause.
This article is geared to fire operations in places where collecting and hoarding are at the extreme. Fires and other types of emergencies at locations of compulsive hoarding present serious challenges to fire department operations and safety issues for members operating at them. These types of situations are not new; many firefighters may be familiar with the term “Collyer’s mansion.” This term came from an incident in New York City in 1947. Two reclusive brothers, Homer and Langley Collyer, were found dead in their Fifth Avenue brownstone. After their deaths, 130 tons of books, newspapers, musical instruments and other “stuff” was removed from the building.
This type of situation has continued and impacts firefighting and EMS operations today. The Buffalo, NY, Fire Department responded to a fire involving a property with a serious hoarding condition that resulted in a fatality. This was not the first incident of this type encountered by the department and surely will not be the last.
On a cold evening in January 2009, the Buffalo Fire Department received calls for a fire on Downing Street in the south side of the city. A full first-alarm response was dispatched consisting of three engine companies; three ladder companies, including the third ladder assigned as the firefighter assistance and search team (FAST) ladder; the heavy rescue company; a battalion chief; and the division chief.
Engine 4 arrived first under the command of Captain Dan Flaherty and found a 2½-story, single-family dwelling approximately 20 by 40 feet of Type V (wood-frame) construction. The crews observed heavy smoke conditions and fire coming from the first-floor windows on side 4. Engine 4 stretched a 1¾-inch line to the side-4 door to begin an attack. It is important to note that from the exterior there was little indication of what awaited crews as they entered.
Engine 4 entered to find heavy smoke conditions and fire in the stairway, kitchen, dining room and rear hall leading to the bedrooms. Sixth Battalion Chief Jim Poley arrived and was informed by neighbors that the home was occupied.
The first-due ladder company was Ladder 10 with Captain Anthony Page in charge. Page took his interior team to the entrance, where Engine 4 was pushing their line in – this is in accordance with Buffalo Fire Department standard operating procedures (SOPs) that call for the first truck to search the fire floor via the route the first engine is taking. Poley was providing information to the interior units of a person possibly trapped on the second floor. The normal operation would be for the interior team to access the second floor via the interior stairs, but this was extremely difficult and Page opted to perform a vent-enter-search (VES) operation via the second-floor front windows. The front porch was laddered, providing a platform to search the two front bedrooms.
As Page and Firefighter Tony Serafini entered, they encountered debris above the windowsills. Climbing up the debris, they performed a search that proved negative. The team entered the next bedroom window and continued to search. This time, a woman was found at the top of the pile. Ladder 10’s interior team pulled the woman out onto the porch roof and brought her down to EMS, who provided care and transport to a hospital, where the woman later died.