By Ryan Pennington
Many things that happen in today’s fire service are reactive. Reacting and then learning from a tragic event or a near miss remains a constant way of training firefighters to avoid the same mistakes of the tragic or near-tragic call. My research into fighting fires inside hoarded conditions is an example of being reactive to a near miss. I started noticing an increase of these types of homes and the number of cluttered environments growing on our emergency medical services (EMS) runs. I had never really thought about performing a rescue inside. Then it happened: My home department experienced it firsthand.
The call came in as a working fire in a 3,000-square-foot house with confirmed entrapment. During the rescue, there were multiple near-miss situations that ranged from out-of-air emergencies to a firefighter falling through the floor and into the basement. Right here on this call, the dangers of cluttered fires became evident. This fire enticed me to begin to research fires that occur inside hoarding conditions. During my research, I found that not many articles addressed the dangers and tactical changes needed to make the hoarded environment safer.
Since I have begun this research, I have had the privilege of speaking to many firefighters and officers who have also responded to these types of calls. I heard over and over again statements like, “We won’t go in” and “Let them burn.” These choices may be valid in some situations, but the fire service needs to tear down the barrier of this stereotype. How many fires can you classify into one category? Not many. Hoarding fires are more complex than “normal” bread-and-butter fires and have many additional variables we need to consider when facing them.
Can we go interior on all hoarding fires? Unfortunately, no. Can we try to make a rescue if we have a confirmed live victim trapped? Yes. These examples are basic descriptions of a defensive vs. an offensive attack strategy. Do they sound familiar?
Chief Billy Goldfedder has a great response to firefighters who get caught up on tactics: “Show me the fire, and I’ll tell you what we are going to do.” This approach is exactly how we should handle fires in hoarding conditions. It all starts with breaking down the assumption that all hoarding fires are “defensive only.”
Offensive vs. Defensive
The decision to enter a heavily cluttered environment to battle a fire or make a rescue should be based on solid, comprehensive size-up. This size-up should include variables such as the following:
• Location of the fire
• Confirmation of viable victims
• Small fire
• Adequate staffing
• Available secondary means of egress
• Adequate water supply
• Volume of smoke and fire
The size-up is the same for hoarding fires and non-hoarding fires. The only difference is that many hoarding conditions can be identified by looking at the exterior. Overgrown vegetation and stacks of items are two clues that the inside is cluttered. If the first-arriving officer spots these clues, more investigation is needed to determine the interior conditions. If large amounts of clutter are on the exterior, officers can decide to start off with a defensive attack and transition to an offensive attack if the conditions improve.
If it is confirmed that a victim is trapped, you must attempt an offensive attack even in heavy clutter conditions, but you must adjust for the conditions. Often, homes of compulsive hoarders are so full of belongings that they no longer can sleep in the bedrooms, use primary routes of entry, or use the available empty spaces for day-to-day living. Since researching hoarder fires, I have discovered that there is no common system hoarders use to store belongings. One person might fill the bedrooms first; others may leave the bedrooms empty until last. Commonly, the first two places to become full are attics and basements, and the last to be filled are kitchens and bathrooms. Based on this, we may start searching in the kitchens and bathrooms.
How can we confirm where the empty spaces are? The only sure way is to establish a prefire plan if we enter these homes during a public assist or an EMS call. After the situation is handled, we can ask for permission to have a look around. Identify the empty spaces, blocked means of entry, blocked windows, and other dangers. Many of the hoarding situations are discovered during a nonfire situation.
A common finding in hoarding fires is that an extended burn time damages the floor decking. Case studies from Shoreview, Minnesota, and Fort Wayne, Indiana, illustrate these dangers. In both cases, burn time was estimated at 12-plus hours before the fire was discovered. These fires can stay contained inside the hoarded area longer, as there is no available airflow. If you think about the conditions, there is available fuel and a heat source, but air is missing. As the collection of belongings grows, this airflow restriction can contain the smoke and allow extended burn times.
Firefighters who go offensive to perform a rescue or knock down a small fire must adjust the way they crawl through and constantly sound the floor for integrity. Firefighters crawling with their heads down who don’t sound the floor can find themselves falling through the floor. They should adjust their crawl to a duck-walk style while using a tool or the water stream to sound the floor. In the Fort Wayne case, the firefighter’s leg went through the floor. His partner rescued him. An inspection revealed that the basement was completely packed, and he would have been severely trapped had he fallen through the floor.
Another best practice is to constantly evaluate the height of the stacks. As you push inside a structure with hoarding conditions, sweep above your head with a tool to determine the height of the stacks. Do not push the stacks over; just determine how high the stacks are so you can make any necessary adjustments. .
In the two research burns we performed inside hoarded structures, we found that the stacks shield firefighters from the heat. The shielding increases as the stacks grow. This shielding can cause big trouble for firefighters: they could be reaching near-flashover conditions and not “feel” the heat rising as the fire rapidly grows.
Do not crawl over stacks if you do not know what types of materials are in the stack. Crawling over these mountains of merchandise can raise firefighters higher and expose them to higher temperatures, entanglement hazards, and collapse risks. Occupants use the pathways to travel from room to room; we should use them to perform searches and advance on the fire. Continuously sounding the floor and using a thermal imaging camera can help keep the firefighters on the floor instead of advancing up a stack of debris. Many firefighters have found themselves on top of debris stacks without realizing it.
Can we go inside when hoarding conditions are present? Sometimes. An accurate size-up is required, and adjusting your tactics once inside is mandatory!
Ryan Pennington is an authority and expert on heavy content firefighting (hoarder firefighting). He has more than 22 years in the fire service and is a firefighter/paramedic in Charleston, West Virginia. He has trained thousands of firefighters in the United States and internationally. He has been published in fire service magazines in the United States and Canada. He is the founder of ChamberofHoarders.com, an online training academy for heavy-content firefighting.