Hoarders and Fire Operations

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...


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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.

 

Operational

Considerations

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.