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Engine 4 entered to find heavy smoke conditions and fire in the stairway, kitchen, dining room, and rear hall leading to the bedrooms.
Photo credit: Photo courtesy of the author
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.
The crews of Engines 4, 25 and 35 quickly knocked down the fire. Ladder 10 and 15 and Rescue 1 continued the primary and secondary searches, which proved negative. These operations, although routine, were extremely difficult due to the amount of material in the home.
When operating at an incident where extreme hoarding or storage of material is occurring, fire department units must identify the condition, notify other operating and responding units, and adjust strategy and tactics accordingly. A Collyer’s mansion or hoarding condition will affect much of our operation. As is the case with many firefighter line-of-duty injuries and deaths, basic fireground operations can falter and cause our problems. In this type of situation, our basic operations are seriously impacted.
• Size-up. Hoarding conditions may be difficult or impossible to detect from the exterior of the building. The incident described in this article involved hoarding in virtually every square inch of the house and was evident immediately upon entry. This may not always be the case. It may be that certain areas of the building appear normal while other rooms are full of material. When observing windows during your approach to the building entrance, look for tell-tale signs such as windows covered by material stacked up to them. At times, neighbors may not be aware of the condition or the severity of the condition in a building.
Another area of your size-up that is directly affected by hoarding is fire load. In the average house fire or fire in an apartment, we will not anticipate a tremendous fire load. Multiple tons of hoarded combustible materials can add to our fuel load and increase fire conditions. Buffalo firefighters once responded to an incident involving a private dwelling in which videotapes were neatly stacked floor to ceiling in almost every room in the house. Small walkways were all that was available for crews to move in the house. The fire conditions that would result from the amount of plastic cases and Mylar tape would have been staggering.
• Entry. Entry into the structure can prove very difficult. Some hoarders will have substantial security features in their residences; this may be to protect the real or perceived value of the “collection.” Even buildings with simple locking systems can cause problems for crews trying to make entry because doors may not open or open very little, offering small openings to enter. Low-profile maneuvers may be needed just to get in the front door of the occupancy.
• Attack line advance. Fires in one- and two-family dwellings will most often require initiating the use of a 1½-inch or 1¾-inch handline, depending on your department’s SOPs. Due to the difficulty in advancing the line in such an occupancy, it may be a good idea to assign two engine crews to the operation of each handline. Consideration may require the use of a large-caliber handline or exterior operations with master streams.
The incident commander and all members operating must be aware that crews may be forced high toward the ceilings and be exposed to much higher heat than normal. Stairways may be blocked or partially blocked and very difficult to navigate. Firefighters may enter spaces, but have difficulty exiting because of the material stored. Maneuvering in self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) may be difficult and materials may fall as we pass, blocking our exit. Patient removal at an EMS call in a building with hoarder conditions will be difficult even without fire conditions.
• Search. Members performing a primary search will be faced with all of the difficulties previously described. VES tactics may be the best option to get in and cover as much area as quickly as possible. Caution should be taken as some of our components of our VES operation may be affected. It may be impossible to close the door to the room that you are entering to try and limit fire and smoke spread. Entanglement hazards abound, regardless what operation you are performing. A firefighter may literally sink into the piles of material and have great difficulty in self-extricating. Another issue while performing a search is in zero visibility identifying a person from other piles of debris. Sweeping with a tool will provide little if any help in finding a trapped individual.
Providing a rapid intervention team (RIT) at the scene of a fire in a building involving this type of condition is crucial. If your SOP is to dispatch one engine or ladder company to a fire, it may be wise to up the ante on this type of incident. Having two or more RITs available may prove beneficial if the need arises to activate the team. Either by the RIT or an operating company, the generous positioning of ground ladders is helpful at a hoarder-type fire. This can prove helpful during normal operations and critical during a RIT operation.
A thorough size-up by the RIT to include both actual and radio reconnaissance of the building is important – ascertain which entry points are usable and determine whether the hoarding condition involves the entire structure or clear areas exist. Also determine whether the removal of a downed firefighter through the interior would be possible or if it would be better to perform the removal from an exterior opening.
The added collapse potential in a situation such as this needs to be anticipated. Following the fire on Downing Street, seven 40-yard dumpsters were needed to remove the material that had been kept in the home. A 2½-story frame single-family dwelling is not designed to carry that weight. It especially was not designed for that weight after our hoselines compound that by soaking the tons of material with water.
When dealing with incidents with these conditions, remember that what we see initially may not reveal the problems that we can encounter. Very early on, identify and notify all units of the presence of hoarder conditions. As an incident commander, company officer or firefighter, be keenly aware of the situation and alter your strategy and tactics accordingly.