The dangers of too much stuff: NFPA Journal feature examines fire and life safety issues around hoarding

Blog Post created by scottsutherland Employee on Jan 9, 2012

In hoarding households, blocked windows and exits can make fire attack and rescue difficult for the fire service.

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)

The cover story in the January/February 2012 issue of NFPA Journal® takes an in-depth look at the fire and life safety issues related to compulsive hoarding, an important social problem that has received a lot of attention recently. In "The Dangers of Too Much Stuff," writer Stephanie Schorow reports on how the fire service is teaming up with a range of human service agencies in communities across the country to address the issue of compulsive hoarding, a psychological disorder that studies suggest could afflict as many as 15 million Americans. Here's a snippet:

Compulsive hoarding isn’t new, but a growing awareness of the problem — and changing public attitudes toward it — may allow firefighters to play a significant role in recognizing and even ameliorating dangerous hoarding situations. "Firefighters and public fire safety educators in the United States and Canada are often faced with challenges on the best ways to prevent fires related to hoarding,’’ said Sharon Gamache, NFPA’s program director for high-risk outreach programs. "No one wants to see injuries or loss of life among civilians or firefighters as a result of fire hazards that may exist in hoarding situations."

And here's another:

While the relationship between hoarding and fire safety has yet to be fully documented — NFPA, for example, does not maintain specific data on hoarding-related fires — the work of social scientists and the anecdotal reports of the fire service are gradually combining to reveal an important fire threat.

A 2009 Australian study found that hoarding fires are tougher to fight, and are far deadlier, than other types of residential fires. The data show that fires in hoarding homes have similar ignition sources as other fires, but that packed rooms can significantly complicate the fire attack. Basic rules of firefighting may not apply; firefighters are trained to look for the seat of the fire, but a hoarding household may present firefighters with a logistical nightmare, forcing them to wade through or crawl over stuff in an effort to find the ignition source. "You can’t search the normal way," noted Bill Cummings, a captain in the Shrewsbury (Massachusetts) Fire Department and a 35-year veteran firefighter. "You can’t find the walls because there’s too much stuff. You wouldn’t even know where you were if the place were filled with smoke."

The package includes a nine-step "clutter image rating scale," findings from the eye-opening 2009 Australia study, and much more. See the full article.  

-Scott Sutherland, NFPA Journal editor