Hoarder Homes: Piles of Hazards for Firefighters

The definition of hoarding is accumulating a large number of possessions that have no apparent value. With today’s popular reality show that is spreading the message on this subject, we all are more aware of this type of situation. Hoarders are becoming...


The definition of hoarding is accumulating a large number of possessions that have no apparent value. With today’s popular reality show that is spreading the message on this subject, we all are more aware of this type of situation. Hoarders are becoming an ever-increasing problem in the modern world of firefighting.

Since the beginning of the fire service, we have dealt with stacks of belongings located inside and outside the buildings that we respond to with one major difference, today the numbers of these type buildings have become increasingly more common. The risks associated with fighting fires inside these conditions are increased due to the lack of room to maneuver, a larger fire load, and limited means of egress because the rooms are no longer able to be used for their intended purposes.

From the time of the Collyer’s Mansion in Manhattan, through today, firefighters have adapted to fighting fires in these situations. The most common answer to fighting fires inside these homes is to not go in. But are we really not going in or can we go in with some tactical changes? What are the determining factors in fighting offensively or defensively? Let’s take some time to review some tactics and establish the tasks used while fighting fires in hoarder homes.

Size-Up: The Exterior Picture

Just like any normal response, fighting fires in hoarder homes starts with a scene size-up that will allow responders to observe different areas for clues. A lot of these homes have cluttered yards or derelict cars out front. These exterior conditions are most often found in the rural areas that don’t have the stringent building codes, but that’s not always the case.

Noticing a yard full of stuff might mean the inside will be the same. Take a quick peek into any windows that allow an interior view for a better idea. You will definitely know you have a problem when you get to the door and it will only open slightly, if at all. With the use of these quick observations, coupled with the reading of smoke conditions, a first due officer can make the determination between offensive and defensive attack and adjust staffing accordingly.

Building Construction

While sizing up these buildings, we need to consider the structural integrity. Most hoarder homes are in poor repair and have tons of added weight stressing the structural members. These concerns are especially prevalent in today’s lightweight wood-frame construction. We also need to keep in mind the added stress that water will add to the already weighed-down structural members.

There are other considerations like rodents, insects, and unsanitary conditions. Many cluttered homes have been documented with infestations of rodents and insects. These conditions can prove to be a problem with fighting fires as you may encounter them trying to exit as you try to enter.

If entering these conditions in a non-firefighting activity, such as an EMS response, a responder may need to tuck in their pant legs and zip up their coat to keep insects from crawling up their legs or down their neck. An attack crew crawling into the home can use their hose line to sweep the floor to clear any crawlers they may encounter if the numbers prove to be a problem.

Offensive Considerations

Now that you have arrived and identified a manageable risk, let’s talk about some tactics for offensively fighting this fire.

The first consideration should be to establish a solid water source. A first arriving company officer should make the determination to wait until a hydrant line is established before entering this type of environment. Even the largest booster tanks don’t have enough water to absorb this type of heat.

While waiting on the water supply, the first attack line may elect to find the room closest to the seat of the fire and use an indirect attack. This should help reduce the size and spread of the fire while waiting on a definite water supply.

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