Hoarding and fire safety

The dangers of hoarding
A particular concern of the fire service is the chaotic nature of the material in many hoarding households, where blocked windows and exits can make fire attack and rescue difficult. (Photo: Newscom)

Many fire departments are experiencing serious fires, injuries, and deaths as the result of compulsive hoarding behavior. The excessive accumulation of materials in homes poses a significant threat to firefighters fighting fires and responding to other emergencies in these homes and to residents and neighbors. Often, the local fire department will be contacted to help deal with this serious issue. Since studies suggest that between three and five percent of the population are compulsive hoarders, fire departments must become familiar with this issue and how to effectively handle it.

Free guide: Download NFPA's free guide on hoarding and the fire service (PDF), 930 KB

What is hoarding?
Hoarding is defined as collecting or keeping large amounts of various items in the home due to strong urges to save them or distress experienced when discarding them. Many rooms in the home are so filled with possessions that residents can no longer use the rooms as designed. The home is so overloaded with things that everyday living is compromised.

Why do people become hoarders?
Hoarding is a mental disorder that can be genetic in nature, triggered by traumatic events, or a symptom of another disorder, such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, or dementia. Studies have found that hoarding usually begins in early adolescence and gets worse as a person ages. It is more common among older adults.

Why is hoarding an issue for the fire service?

  • Hoarding can be a fire hazard. Many occupants die in fires in these homes. Often, blocked exits prevent escape from the home. In addition, many people who are hoarding are injured when they trip over things or when materials fall on them.
  • Responding firefighters can be put at risk due to obstructed exits, falling objects, and excessive fire loading that can lead to collapse. Hoarding makes fighting fires and searching for occupants far more difficult.
  • Those living adjacent to an occupied structure can be quickly affected when a fire occurs, due to excessive smoke and fire conditions.

Sharon Gamache, formerly of NFPA's public education division, talks about the fire dangers associated with compulsive hoarding. She also details several resources first responders can use when dealing with someone with a hoarding issue.

Senior social services supervisor Dina Bagues was a presenter at "Effective Measure's to Prevent Fires and Other Injuries Among Those Who Hoard, Their Families, and Fire Fighters" - an education session at the 2012 NFPA Conference & Expo. In this interview, Dina offers some suggestions on how to deal with someone who hoards.

Judith R. Dicine was a presenter at the 2012 NFPA Conference & Expo, and talks about how firefighters can cope with the safety challenges of hoarding.

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