Often overlooked dangers of hoarding

CarolinaFireJournal - Ryan Pennington
Ryan Pennington
10/10/2014 -

While attending the 2014 Firehouse Expo in Baltimore recently, it seemed clear that first responders don’t fully understand hoarding dangers and how they can affect safety. Having the opportunity to travel and meet the brave men and women who serve as first responders is a HUGE honor. During my conversations with these first responders, it became crystal clear their lack of understanding concerning hoarding dangers. It’s like clockwork that when someone hears that I am studying responses in hoarding conditions they immediately tell me of one of their experiences. These stories always involve the words “lucky” and/or “fortunately” something happened or it could have been bad. As an educator these words are like fingernails on a chalkboard.


I would like to share two conversations that came from Baltimore. Sharing these conversations is not a judgmental or an effort to “bash” anyone, but rather an attempt for everyone to learn from their experience.

Hoarding Danger in Piles

The most troubling story was, by far, the firefighter who described a fire where they had to crawl over piles and piles of belongings to fight the fire. They described hoarding at a level three and went on to explain that the interior firefighters had to crawl over multiple stacks of belongings to access the fire, which sounded rather small.

The conversation described the difficulties of traversing the stacks and how “lucky” they were to make the fire room and have a successful firefight. With the hair standing up on the back of my neck I began to question them and after some time I heard, “I never thought of that.” Often we don’t think of a situation as dangerous until someone exposes us to it. This response is common when dealing with hoarding conditions. Without being judgmental we should all be exposed to the danger possessed by the “stacks of stuff.”

Here are some factors to consider:

  • Stability of the Piles
  • What are the Stacks Comprised of — magazines, books, glassware
  • Collapse Risk
  • Entrapment dangers — wires, yarn, extension cords
  • Weight of the firefighter
  • Need for rapid escape
  • Height of Stacks —putting firefighter closer to the ceiling and hotter temps

Each of the above dangers can place a firefighter in a life or death situation at a moment’s notice. Mix one with another and you have a recipe for disaster on the horizon.

Example: Firefighters making an interior push choose to crawl over a stack of glassware. The weight of each firefighter, plus gear added to the instability of the stacks, causes a collapse of the stack downward then adding a side collapse covering the firefighters with sharp glass.

You can see the dangers in the exampled listed above. Not knowing what is in the piles of belongings should be the number one reason why we should NOT crawl over stacks of belongings. Adding the weight of a firefighter to an unstable situation can lead to a mayday situation. Do the occupants crawl over the stacks or walk around them?

Occupants use the pathways to access the usable space inside the house and so should we. Using the “goat paths” for interior access is the safest way to gain interior access without collapsing piles of belongings beneath the firefighters. Think about walking to the stage of a theater, would you crawl over the rows of seats or use the isle to access the stage?

It Was a Clean Hoarder House

Another hoarding story from this trip was an assistance call where they described a Clean Hoarder Environment. This mindset is troubling because of the hidden dangers that may not be seen due to the accumulation of belongings.

How Clean Can it Be?

While the environment may look “clean” from the viewpoint of a responder, do we truly know what lies beneath the hoard. Without access to walls, rooms, and the inability to see the floor do we truly know what’s underneath the stacks of stuff. The answer is NO.

Stacks of belongings in the home can hide dangers for first responders. Rodents, insects, mold, and animal excrement can all be dangerous to responders and all can be hiding beneath stacks of stuff that appear to be clean. Without the ability to clean and maintain a home, due to the hoarding, the occupant may never truly have the ability to clean, sanitize, or remove problem areas. This accumulation can be dangerous for them and us.

If you find a hoarding condition that must be entered we MUST assume the worst situation possible and choose to wear our PPE properly. Assuming that the hoarding area is “clean” is an assumption that can lead to Bio Hazard exposure. Once discovered we should take the appropriate precautions and choose to wear ALL of our PPE to make sure we don’t carry these dangers home to our families.


Emergencies in hoarding conditions should be identified, adjusted for, and then attacked with different approaches by all first responders. Crawling over debris and not choosing to wear proper PPE are just two dangers that could cause injury or death. Make the choice to avoid them both when - not if - you are called to enter the hoarding environment.

Ryan Pennington is a leading authority and expert in Heavy Content Firefighting — also known as hoarder firefighting. Pennington has lectured and trained thousands of firefighters and fire departments from across the United States and internationally. He is the founder of ChamberofHoarders.com which is the leading Heavy Content Firefighting Online Training Academy for fire departments worldwide. Pennington has over 21 years in the fire service and currently holds the position of Firefighter/Paramedic in Charlestown, W. Va. For more info, visit ChamberofHoarders.com, email [email protected] and visit twitter at @jumpseatviews.

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