Firefighting, Hazmat, Training

The Dangers of Hoarder Fires

By Ryan Pennington

Over the past two years of research on fires that occur inside compulsive hoarding environments, one common theme keeps coming up: The dangers presented by the massive amounts of belongings create dangerous situations throughout the entire response. From challenging access issues to increased fuel loads, the number of dangers that firefighters will face are many. One danger that often goes overlooked is the dangers to firefighters during the overhaul phase of the operation. After the fire has been knocked down and the attack has switched to the overhaul phase, many firefighters let their guard down and do not stay cognizant to the dangers. Whether it is taking off their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) or not using the proper scene lighting, firefighters’ guards often come down once the fire attack phase is complete.

Allowing these types of thoughts and actions to occur during the overhaul of a fire in a home packed with stuff collected by a person afflicted with compulsive hoarding disorder can lead to injuries or worse. Increasing the workload of firefighters who are tired, wet, and ready to complete the mission can push them to their limits, mentally and physically. In this article, I will look at some of the common dangers found with completing the task of sifting through pounds and pounds of collected material to ensure that all fire has been extinguished and to prevent a rekindle while reducing the chance for injury.

One case that illustrates the dangers of overhaul happened in Passaic, New Jersey, in December 2011. During this three-alarm fire, 11 firefighters were transported to the hospital for nonlife-threatening injuries. Of the 11, seven injuries happened during the overhaul phase of the fire. From a broken arm to pulled backs, this case illustrates the dangers we will face during the extended overhaul of hoarding fires.

 

The Number-One Danger

Without a doubt, the biggest danger facing firefighters when overhauling hoarder fires is the increased workload. Overexertion injuries and illnesses are still the number-one leading cause of death in the fire service.

Understanding the following steps will reduce this stress:

  • Increased on-scene staffing.
  • Doubling rehab times.
  • Decrease working times.
  • Using heavy machinery.

Once the discovery of a hoarding or “heavy content” environment has been established, the incident commander should call for additional resources such as an additional engine and ladder company or call the second alarm. Making the call for resources early in the operation will allow a greater number of firefighters on scene to rotate during the active firefight. Air consumption rates will be higher, and needed rehab time will increase. Without these extra resources, firefighters can be overexerted early on, even before the overhaul has started. The best way of knowing that hoarding is present inside a building is to prefire plan the building as we enter for a nonfire situation. If we know that 223 Main Street has these conditions on dispatch, we can call for the needed resources immediately.

If the resources are not immediately needed for firefighting operations, set up a staging area to allow personnel to dress down until called on. The length of time these companies will operate in these conditions will be extended, and you should stay ahead of the curve to ensure relief personnel are ready to be called in when needed.

Once overhaul has started, keep track of the firefighters’ work time. Use shorter work periods, and extend the amount of rehab time with proper cooling and hydration. It may be wise to release the first-arriving companies to return; they could be worn out from the firefight because of the increased workload they have already completed. Use the staging crews to come in and overhaul the fire.

When researching these types of fires, it is common to find that excavators and bulldozers typically are used to bring the building down and expose deep hidden pockets of smoldering debris. If the building is deemed too unstable or the amount of hoarding is excessive, having these resources available will reduce the workload. Using and training with the demolition crew should be considered ahead of time to ensure you have the proper hand directions and communication and that the operator has been trained for SCBA use; he should have a SCBA to protect him from smoldering debris that releases toxic smoke. Communication with the operator is especially vital when the building needs to be torn down while looking for trapped occupants. Recovering loved ones will be the number-one goal if this occurs.

 

Building Evaluation

Once the fire has been knocked down and the proper staffing resources are in place, evaluate the stability of the structure. Assess the additional weight from the contents absorbing the water. Many hoarding homes have previous dilapidation issues and water damage and are under an added amount of stress from the weight of the belongings. Often, the building is suffering a broken water line that will cause damage; firefighters will be unable to access the building, allowing the damage to progress until mold or rot has begun to affect the structural member. Add this danger to the overload stress, and it is a recipe for disaster. The occupant’s compulsion will not allow their belongings to be moved to repair the burst water line, so they will often disconnect it and not fix it.

Sending first-in overhaul crews to open up inspection holes while scanning for sagging floors and ceilings and bulging walls is essential. Approach this with caution; crews should work outside and begin operations, staying close to load-bearing walls, looking for signs of impending collapse. At any time anyone notices the floor feeling “spongy” or the ceilings sagging, he should immediately leave the building and call for additional resources to tear down the building or to shore it up before reentering.

There have been multiple cases of fires inside hoarder buildings that have been undiscovered for 12+ hours. These fires have burned through floor and ceiling joists. If the smoke stays hidden and is allowed to burn these floors, it could mean that a localized collapse is waiting to happen. Understanding this, always be mindful of spongy floors; there could be burned-through joists as well as an additional live load of the firefighters themselves, which may help precipitate a collapse. During your assessment of the conditions, look and listen for and constantly expect these dangers.

Once you make the inspection holes, look for the following:

  • Clean wood, which indicates that the floor joists have pulled out of their sockets in a masonry bearing wall.
  • Burn depth.
  • Dilapidation issues.
  • Water damage (not from fire attack).

Use multiple holes in multiple locations to look for any damage, whether caused by fire or simple neglect.

 

Extended SCBA Times

Now that the structure has been sized up and proper staffing is available, require firefighters to extend the time they use their SCBAs. Even with proper air monitoring, we can still be exposed to toxic fumes while the stacks of belongings are moved. Smoldering debris can be found deep inside the stacks of the hoard pile. Using the SCBA for longer periods of time will keep you from breathing in this smoke and fumes. Many times, smoldering stacks can be found hours after the overhaul has begun. Requiring firefighters to use their SCBA during overhaul should be adjusted for time worked. Continue following shorter work periods with longer rehab times.

A hidden danger to the firefighters is the mold, biohazards, and potential exposure to rodents and insects under the hoard pile. Think about what was underneath the belongings before the fire occurs. When firefighters are moving, digging, and overhauling, these biohazards can be stirred up and breathed in if no SCBA is used. Firefighters tasked with overhauling these environments should wear SCBA until the task is completed.

 

Using Dumpsters

A great lesson that was learned regarding hoarder fires came from the San Diego (CA) Fire Department (SDFD), who brought large dumpsters to a hoarder scene. By calling for these resources, its firefighters had somewhere to discard debris to ensure no rekindle would occur. It also allows the firefighters to spray down the debris and somewhat control the run off. Preplanning this resource in your response area before a fire happens is key to knowing what resources you have available. In this scenario, the SDFD called the homeowner’s insurance agency and coordinated the dumpsters through a company. This was a great lesson learned because they understood that this preplanning kept the building from being condemned.

 

Occupant Interactions

Interacting with the building’s occupant can be challenging at any stage of a fire, including overhaul. An occupant with compulsive hoarding disorder sees his or her stacks of rubbish as “valuable.” Imagine if you would see firefighters throwing around stacks of gold in and out of your house! This is how many afflicted people see their stuff. In multiple cases, occupants have been removed from the scene because of the stress they face and the potential of their harming a firefighter. They can’t take the stress of seeing all their treasures being thrown into a dumpster.

Understanding the complexities of this disorder will allow you to be sympathetic to the person’s condition and be supportive by offering to have them taken to another location during overhaul operations. It’s possible that law enforcement will be needed to remove the occupant if he or she is unable to cope with his or her belongings being thrown away.

Understanding the dangers of hoarding conditions should be on every fire department’s training agenda and should always include the needed adjustments for the overhaul operation. Just because the fire is knocked down, the dangers still remain. Make sure to call for additional resources, adjust work times, add rehab times, and remain vigilant to the warning signs of collapse.

Photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Shadwwulf.

 

Ryan Pennington is a firefighter/paramedic for the Charleston (WV) Fire Department currently assigned to Station 8. He is also a member of the West Virginia Task Force 1 USAR team. He has more than 18 years of fire, rescue, and EMS experience. Pennington is  a West Virginia state instructor 2, hazmat technician, and certified fire officer 2. You can reach Ryan by e-mail at [email protected].