Hoarding Presents a Particular Issue for the Fire Service

At Hoarding Help Central, we are well aware that compulsive hoarding behavior presents a particular issue for many fire departments. After all, the excessive accumulation of items in the homes of hoarders present a significant threat to firefighters fighting fires and responding to other emergencies in these homes as well as to residents and neighbors. More often than not, fire departments are recruited to lend a helping hand in dealing with this serious issue. Considering the fact that studies suggest that somewhere between 3 and 5 percent of the population are compulsive hoarders, it is vital that fire departments become familiar with the issue of compulsive hoarding as well as how to best address it when they are called.

Today, Hoarding Help Central will be outlining what hoarding is, why hoarding is a particular issue for the fire service, and how the fire department can best navigate the issue of dealing with the home of a compulsive hoarder. With this information, it is our hope that fire departments will be better equipped to handle such a situation when it arises. Let’s get started!


What is Compulsive Hoarding Disorder?

In order to understand the particular issue that compulsive hoarding behavior is for the fire service, we must first understand what compulsive hoarding disorder is and how it manifests. According to the American Psychiatric Association, hoarding disorder is defined as a person’s “persistent difficulty getting rid of or parting with possessions, leading to clutter that disrupts their ability to use their living or work spaces”. It should be noted that hoarding is not the same as collecting because, while collectors look for specific items in order to organize or display them, people with hoarding disorder often save random items of little perceived value and store them haphazardly. So why do people become hoarders? Put simply, there are a variety of reasons that someone may begin to display compulsive hoarding behavior. Hoarding is a mental disorder that can be genetic in nature, passed down from one family member to the next, or it could be triggered by traumatic life events. Hoarding may also be a symptom of another mental disorder such as dementia, depression, or obsessive compulsive disorder. That being said, studies have shown that hoarding most often begins in early adolescence, worsening in severity as someone ages. Hoarding is most common amongst older adults. Hoarding disorder occurs in an estimated 2 to 5 percent of the adult population and can often lead to problems functioning in everyday life as well as substantial distress. Some research shows that hoarding disorder is more common in males than it is in females and it is also thought to be much more common in older adults- three times as many adults 55 to 94 years are affected by hoarding disorder compared to adults 34 to 44 years old.

Why is Hoarding an Issue for the Fire Department?

Now that you understand what compulsive hoarding disorder is as well as a few of the possible reasons that someone may start to display compulsive hoarding behavior, you may be wondering why hoarding is such a large issue for the fire department. Put simply, there are a variety of reasons that hoarding presents a particular issue for the fire service. For one, hoarding creates a fire hazard. In the homes of hoarders, many occupants die in the incidence of a fire in the home. This is due largely to the fact that the homes of hoarders usually contain blocked exits that act as means of escape from the home. In addition, many people that hoard are injured upon trying to escape from the home in the event of a fire as they typically trip over items or materials stacked up may fall on them.

Additionally, firefighters can be put at huge risk when responding to a fire at the home of a hoarder. This may be due to obstructed exits, excessive fire loading that may lead to collapse, and falling objects. Hoarding makes fighting fires and searching for occupants in order to rescue them from the fire extraordinarily difficult. As another concern, those living adjacent to the home of a hoarder are at a particular risk when it comes to fires. This is because their home can be quickly affected when a fire occurs due to fire conditions and excessive smoke.

In an effort to get ahead of the issues presented by compulsive hoarding, some officials in local communities are asking landlords and property owners to make the local fire service or building commissioner aware of suspected hoarding situations in their neighborhoods. In doing so, it is their hope that fire services can be made aware of possible hoarding situations ahead of time and work proactively to prevent serious injuries and even death.

What Can the Fire Service Do?

Considering the extreme difficulties presented by compulsive hoarding behavior, it is important that fire services know how to respond appropriately to such situations in order to reduce the risk of serious injury and death for occupants, residents, and neighbors. So what can the fire service do when responding to the home of a hoarding individual?

The fire service may become aware of a hoarding situation either through emergency response or notification by another agency, family member, or neighbor. It is crucial that the fire service know the best way to interact with a hoarding individual as well as how to most effectively work with other professional groups and organizations in order to help the individual and address the hoarding behavior.

It is important to keep in mind that people with compulsive hoarding behavior are intelligent and care deeply about their possessions. For this reason, it can be especially challenging to provide effective intervention and convince them to part with their belongings in order to reduce fire hazard risk. For this reason, it is crucial that fire services follow suggestions adapted by Oxford University Press’s The Hoarding Handbook: A Guide for Human Service Professionals.

How the Fire Service Should Interact With Someone Who is Hoarding

The first step that the fire service should take when interacting with a compulsive hoarder is to be respectful and show genuine concern for the person’s safety. It is crucial that the fire service demonstrate their sincere concern for the safety of a hoarding individual in order to build trust with them. It is also important that the fire service match the language of the hoarding individual. If the person talks about “their collection” or his/her “things”, the fire service should respond using that same language. Using derogatory language such as terms like, “hoarding”, “junk”, or “trash” should be seriously avoided.

It is also important that the fire service make it a point to focus on safety issues, such as fires, avalanche conditions, and falls when addressing the hoarder. Make the seriousness of the situation known by pointing out possible ignition sources or trip hazards as well as trying to build support for addressing these issues rather than insisting on immediate cleanup of the home. This will allow you to further build trust with the hoarder rather than scare them and cause them significant distress.

Finally, when interacting with a hoarder, the fire service should focus all of their efforts on remaining empathetic by indicating that while you are well aware that your presence is upsetting for the person, change is needed. By recognizing the fact that you know that your presence is not an easy thing for the hoarder to deal with, you build rapport and will have a much easier time convincing them that drastic measures need to be taken to ensure their safety and the safety of others.

The Fire Service Should Develop or Join a Hoarding Task Force

As a member of the fire service who wants to learn how to effectively handle hoarding situations, it is a good idea that you either develop or join a hoarding task force. Hoarding task forces are currently developing all around the nation. In fact, your community may already have one! If not, you can begin to open the conversation surrounding the particular issue presented by hoarding for the fire service by communicating with other agencies impacted by hoarding in order to discuss collaborating with them on future cases.

Hoarding task forces are usually established by service providers in order to gain both knowledge and insight into the problems presented by compulsive hoarding behavior. They are also established in order to share case information and develop effective intervention strategies. Some hoarding task forces even serve as the primary intervention or response mechanism for local hoarding situations.

So who is usually a part of a hoarding task force? Most commonly, hoarding task forces are made up of mental health providers, community service providers, faith-based organizations, building representatives, family members, public health representatives, the fire service, and many others. Interventions that are effectively coordinated and collaborative stand the best chance of bringing about a positive outcome than individual agencies working on their own or in conflict. When organizing a hoarding task force, teamwork is an essential component and mental health intervention is vital to effectively address this commonly dangerous behavior.