Tactics for Battling Fires in Hoarder Homes

After watching a FirefighterNation.com video of Buffalo (N.Y.) firefighters’ response to a “hoarder fire,” I couldn’t help but think, they did it right. The windows were removed, the building was ventilated in a safe manner, and everyone went home safely that day.

Unfortunately, over the past few months, the U.S. fire service has seen numerous fires in structures with hoarding conditions. Six civilians were killed and three firefighters were burned in hoarder fires.

I’ve been studying fires in conditions caused by compulsive hoarding disorder for the past two years, and it is clear to me that looking out for these conditions should be a key focus for all first responders as they tour their district.

Hoarding Basics
Dr. Randy Frost, a hoarding expert at the Smith College psychology department, defines compulsive hoarding disorder as, “the accumulation of, and failure to discard, a large amount of belongings that have little to no apparent value.” Belongings are accumulated until the rooms are no longer usable for their intended purpose. Hoarding can be found in anyone’s district and is not limited to specific financial situations, ethnicity, gender or location. The effects of compulsive hoarding disorder can be seen in the poorest households and in million-dollar mansions. 

Hoarding has been around for years, but until recently, it hadn’t undergone substantial research, as it had been classified with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), limiting its potential for funding and research. However, in 2013, compulsive hoarding disorder received its own clinical diagnosis, and was added to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of physiological disorders. As such, government funding will now be available so that compulsive hoarding can be researched and better understood.

See the Signs
Recognizing the signs that hoarding is present is easier in some buildings than others. Cluttered front yards, cars filled with belongings, porches filled with stuff and backyard privacy fences that hide large amounts of belongings can all be clues that the inside of the building mirrors the outside.

Note: Some areas have strong codes and ordinances that prohibit front yards from accumulating large amounts of clutter. If the home is inside a municipal district or homeowners association (HOA), the homeowner will only be able to collect things in the backyard and storage buildings. Their collection will not be allowed to extend beyond the front porch, or they can be cited for a building code violation. As such, you may not notice the signs of a hoarder house until a 360-degree size-up is performed, offering a better idea about the true status of the interior conditions.

Long Burns & Ventilation-Limited Fires
Many firefighters think that when hoarding conditions are present, the fire will be large due to the fuel load. The fuel load may be there, but fire needs two other things to burn: oxygen and a heat source. Considering how some hoarder homes are situated, with “stuff” filling the entire area, the fire may lack airflow and therefore remain small. The result: The fire can smolder for a considerable time, with no visible signs from the outside. And if the fire continues to be deprived of oxygen, it may eventually snuff itself out.

Now that we have established that hoarding can produce a “ventilation-limited” environment, we need to use some of the principles learned from the latest UL studies for tactics. During a presentation on this subject, Steve Kerber, director of the UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute, explained that the smoke conditions in ventilation-limited situations may not provide a true representation of the fire conditions—for example, smoke coming from the eaves and it is not an attic fire. In ventilation-limited fires, smoke can be found coming out from eaves because the attic space is an open area space that is ventilated. Steve further explained that leaking smoke can find its way into this open area and out the eaves. This doesn’t automatically indicate an attic fire; rather, it’s an indication of a ventilation-limited fire in the living space.  

Adjust Your Tactics
Now that we have reviewed some tips related to ventilation-limited fires and size-up, how should we adjust for fires in a hoarder environment? First and foremost, if you suspect that hoarding is present, call the second alarm—NOW! The workload that your firefighters will experience is greatly increased due to the sheer amount of stuff you’ll need to work around or through. You’ll need the additional resources to rotate crews, extend rehab times and reduce the strain on your firefighters.

Once you’ve called the second alarm, it’s time to fight the fire. Using the principles of ventilation-limited fires to achieve the initial knock down applies to the hoarding environment.  Using the reduced airflow and keeping the fire in a ventilation-limited state will allow applied water to become more affective smothering the fire. It is commonly thought that fires in hoarding conditions need deep penetration into the stacks of belongings to extinguish the fire, but most often it is only the top layer of stuff that is burning. Using an illustration of a rolled-up newspaper burning, the inside of the paper doesn’t burn initially. This principle is an example of the conditions inside the hoarder environment.

The most effective use of these principles is during a transitional attack. Using the reach of the streams from outside the structure combined with the limited ventilation will allow the fire to be knocked down without exposing the firefighters to the challenging environment inside. 

Once the initial knockdown is made and all life safety issues have been removed, firefighters can open up the structure to allow for a safer entry. If the decision is made to open up the windows from the exterior, firefighters MUST use extreme caution and look for signs of a potential backdraft and flashover caused by the sudden rush of air. This danger can also be present inside the home as firefighters enter. The stacks of stuff can make a container inside a room, thereby providing the perfect environment for backdraft/flashover. Advancing firefighters MUST continuously evaluate the conditions and maintain situational awareness when opening up the structure and even during the overhaul process.

An additional point to consider is the need for proper coordination of ventilation, all while understanding that we:

  • Never vent behind an advancing hose team
  • Vent nearest the seat of the fire first
  • Vent away from the seat of the fire last

Opening the structure can relieve the pressure and transition the fire into a free-burning phase. Using a transitional attack and resetting the fire from the outside can keep it in check until a proper route of entry is discovered/created, exit paths are established, and additional resources have arrived. Hoarder fires are NOT bread-and-butter fires; they are complex incidents that need to be identified and adjusted to before firefighters make entry or commit resources.

To go one step further, you might also consider using tactics such as windowsill removals (converting windows into doors), which are commonly reserved for rapid intervention operations. This will allow debris to be quickly removed and access/pathways to be established for fire attack/extinguishment operations. This tactic begins a “pre-overhaul” process of removing debris before crews mount an interior attack. Coordinating this procedure requires the same caution as outside ventilation, as it will bring fresh air into the structure and need to be coordinated with the fire attack

We all have a chance of responding to a hoarder fire, particularly as the number of people afflicted with compulsive hoarding disorder increases. And with their numbers growing, so should our understanding of fire dynamics, operational procedures and prevention strategies related to these unique incidents. Although we might occasionally get lucky in our choice of tactics at some fires, we can’t rely on luck; we must be proactive and pursue training/education, capitalize on our experiences and never lose sight of the importance of prevention. As such, take the time to review hoarder fire basics with your crew and explain the necessary tactical adjustments.

Author’s note: Attend an online class on hoarder fires at ChamberofHoarders.com.

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