Compulsive hoarding behavior is a disorder that goes beyond having too many possessions stashed away in your living quarters. It’s also a public safety issue that puts homeowners and fire fighters at risk.

Tempe, AZ Local 493 faced a growing public safety concern when fire fighters responded to six hoarding-related fires over a six-month period. Two fire fighters were injured, with one fire fighter receiving first and second degree burns to the face during one of the incidents.

A rash of hoarding fires began last spring in Tempe, leading fire fighters to believe they needed more training on how to recognize hoarding situations.

The fire department conducted a special training exercise in February at the Tempe/APS Joint Fire Training Center to work on responses to hoarder fires. Fire officials set up a mock home inside the training facility, simulating a real hoarding fire situation by cramming it with aluminum cans, boxes and old furniture before filling it with smoke.

“The fire service is just starting to identify this is an issue that is not just a hazard to fire fighters, but also to the occupants who live in these homes,” says Tempe Local 493 President Rich Woerth.

In hoarding fires, there is an increased risk to the occupants and fire fighters. Search times can increase in hoarding incidents, making it more difficult for fire fighters to locate and extinguish the fire. The amount of clutter and obstacle make it more difficult for the occupants to escape on their own. The increased time to locate and remove occupants can ultimately reduce their chance of survival.

“[For fire fighters] the mentality is, if I go into a house there is at least a window that I can find and break if I need to get out,” Woerth said. “You are not going to think like that in a hoarding fire.”

In Wayland, Massachusetts, fire fighters reported trouble accessing an 85-year-old man’s home “due to an unusually large amount of storage throughout the entire house.”

During a hoarding fire, there is also an increased chance that falling objects will entrap or entangle fire fighters and occupants. Disorientation is likely for fire fighters when shifting through items during a hoarder incident.

Other challenges include increased fuel load, weight on structural components and increased risk of exposure to infectious disease for fire fighters.

Tempe fire fighters are now initiating a campaign to educate the public on the dangers of hoarding. The fire department has also ordered rescue lines that fire fighters can use during these situations.

The next time you find yourself responding to a hoarder fire, look for signs on the exterior during size-up. If the outside is a junk yard, expect the same on the inside. However, in many cases, there may be no indication on the exterior.

Tips for responding to a hoarder fire include:
•             Conduct a proper size up
•             Consider building construction and increased weight and fuel load
•             Be aware of disentanglement hazards and train on disentanglement procedures
•             Be aware of small hard to navigate spaces and train on low/reduced profile skills
•             Consider upper floor egress as egress through interior routes will be made more difficult with the increased clutter and train on upper egress skills
•             Know the prevention, treatment, signs and symptoms of the common infectious diseases associated with poor sanitary habits such as Hepatitis A