Sizing up a HOARDER HOME

CarolinaFireJournal -

07/15/2014 -

Stations and units respond to #1 Main Street, be advised that this is a hoarder house. Do you think that receiving a dispatch would make you take a moment to slow down, become more defensive, or choose a defensive posture before arriving on scene. The answer should be an overwhelming YES. But this “perfect dispatch” does not exist in the real world. Truth on the matter is you may not know that a house is full of clutter to the point that the occupant cannot use rooms for their intended purpose. A person that is afflicted with Compulsive Hoarding Disorder causes these conditions. Randy Frost defines Compulsive Hoarding Disorder as the accumulation of and failure to discard a large amount of belongings that have no apparent value. This collection of belongings begins to fill their homes to where they may be so full of stuff that the rooms cannot be used for the intended purpose.


So how do we size up a home differently for hoarding conditions? That’s the funny part, our size up, IT DON’T CHANGE. A solid foundation and system of evaluating the conditions found upon arrival should be standardized and repeated over and over again. Simple steps to identify fire conditions, building construction, points of entry and exits should be a part of this size up every time. During this evaluation is where a first arriving unit should have their eyes wide open for signs of a hoarded environment. Many of these homes can be evaluated and determined from miles away as the clutter is noticeable. In many cases these conditions are hidden inside the doors waiting to add dangerous variables to your fire attack. Let’s take a look at some variables that all firefighters should be looking for when performing a size up while looking for cluttered conditions.

Cluttered Exteriors
Without a doubt the number one cue, or clue that the interior of a home is full, is noticeable clutter around the exterior of the home. From the various collections of children’s toys to stacks of belongings scattered around the yard, noticing these conditions can make the assessment easy. If this clutter goes unnoticed the surprise could shock you when entering the home.

One complication that needs adjustment is the type of district that the home is located in, rural versus municipal. In the rural areas homes do not have building codes to restrict the location of clutter around the exterior. Being outside of these building codes a person can collect an unlimited amount of stuff and store it all the way around the home. These are the easiest to locate and assume the interior is cluttered. They also can be some of the most difficult to maneuver through to access the home. Making for longer stretches, firefighters injury by falling debris, and increasing the workload on advancing firefighters are a few complications that you will experience when making you way through a hoarding environment.

In the municipal districts, or areas with building codes, identifying hoarding conditions can become more complex. Most building codes limit the amount of clutter in the front yard areas. The storage of stuff cannot extend beyond the front porch. If it spills into the front yard from the porch the code enforcement officials can force the occupant to clean it up. While the front yard has regulations the side and back yard do not. Many folks that collect massive amounts of belongings will utilize these areas to stack stuff up. Building privacy fences to help conceal the collection of stuff is a common practice to keep the belongings safe and unnoticed.

The solution to these issues is simple. First arriving companies should perform a 380-degree walk around of the building. Where does the extra 20 degrees of size up come? It comes from taking the time to look inside their vehicles and look for cluttered conditions. Commonly the occupant will use the car to either transport all the stuff coming in or as a mobile storage unit that they often fill up. Many of these types of cars can be seen driving around in your neighborhoods. Taking note of these filled cars and notice where they live. This can be a huge clue to the inside of their homes. What fires receive a 360-degree size up? They all do. It is essential that when performing these size ups the officer must look above, around, and completely cover all four sides of the building to start the assumption that the home is filled up.

Overgrown Bushes and Shrubbery
Finding a home that has an unkempt yard with large trees and bushes scattered around the yard should start warning flags a flying. If the occupant has let these bushes get this overgrown, what is going on inside the house? What type of up keep has been applied to the home? Most “normal” homes keep these concealed conditions to a minimum, as they are not trying to hide anything. In my area I teach everyone that it could be, which is usually one of three things; a pot growing operation, meth lab, or they need to suspect a hoarding condition. Put all three of these together and you have an interesting condition that may require lots of taco bell and cancelled drug testing.

If you see overgrown hedges you immediately should start suspecting that a Compulsive Hoarding Condition applies. Many of the people affected by this disorder feel embarrassed and ashamed of their condition and go to great length to protect their “secret” from the neighbors. This is the reason they will let their homes become covered with these trees and bushes. These folks also feel their belongings are very valuable and use these concealment methods to protect their “valuable” belongings from being stolen.

Blocked Windows and Doors
Once you have arrived on the scene and started working your way around the home you need to pay particular attention to the windows, looking inside for stacks of belongings and blocked access points. This cue and clue can be a tell-tell sign of the cluttered environment, even if the outside of the home is not cluttered. As you walk around the home take the time to look inside the home, especially the ones that are not showing significant smoke. This will allow you to find the cluttered areas or uncluttered areas of the home. Often, firefighters don’t take the amount of belongings into their assessment of risk versus reward. We also don’t take this cue and clue into consideration to make an announcement over the air of a “Heavy Content” environment.

The reason for using the term “Heavy Content” is a best practice term used to describe the conditions of the environment, not the occupant and their condition. Folks afflicted with compulsive hoarding do not want to be called a “Hoarder,” “Pack Rat” or “Trash House.” These terms can trigger very emotional responses from the occupant, to the point of physical harm. By using this term we can reduce the chance of these adverse reactions.

From the moment you finish this brief article you should be including the cues and clues of hoarding into your size up system. If you arrive on scene, walk around the house, and notice one or more of the above conditions and make the announcement of a “heavy content” environment. The next step is to call in extra manpower. Fighting fires in hoarding conditions will stress your firefighters to their max, thus requiring more firefighters on scene to reduce these harmful conditions.

Add these variables to your size up and you will reduce the surprises found inside a hoarder home.

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