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The Importance of Fire Training on Hoarding Intervention

When it comes to residential fires, those with compulsive hoarding behavior pose a threat to themselves and their property. A study that analyzed fire incidents involving hoarding found that:

  • 35% of people who hoard consider their clutter unhygienic.
  • 38% admitted having fallen in the home as a direct effect of clutter.
  • 47% of people who hoard consider their hoarding to be a fire hazard.
  • 67% of hoarding-related complaints mention it being a fire hazard.1

The National Fire Protection Association estimates that 3-5% of the U.S. population are hoarders.2 These behaviors can not only endanger the resident of the home but also the public and firefighters responding to emergencies near the residence. Windows or doorways can be blocked due to clutter, making it difficult for individuals and first responders to find a safe exit. That’s why local fire departments are often called to help deal with hoarding problems and mitigate risks in their community.

Those further into their firefighting career may have encountered those with hoarding behaviors, but even professionals currently undergoing fire training or studying fire CE should be aware of the risks caused by hoarding. 

Signs and Symptoms of Hoarding

The American Psychiatric Association defines hoarding as “a mental disorder characterized by the accumulation of clutter to the point where it interferes with the functional use of the home.”3 It’s estimated that 2 to 6 percent of the population suffers from hoarding problems.4

Hoarding is common among older populations, most heavily affecting those from age 55 to 94, but it can affect adults of any age.4

There are very strong differences between hoarding tendencies and collecting as a hobby. Collectors seek out particular items or themes like vintage toys or cookie jars. Typically, they care for these items, organize them in some way, and put them on display. Hoarders, on the other hand, have difficulty throwing away even random items. They store them in an unorganized and often illogical manner. 

Signs and symptoms of hoarding disorder include:

  • Seeking out items or holding onto items that aren’t needed or for which there isn’t any clear storage space
  • Difficulty throwing out or giving away items regardless of lack of value (i.e. old newspapers and magazines or junk mail)
  • Becoming irrationally upset at the thought of discarding items
  • Clutter growing to the point where it covers surfaces and fills rooms, making the space unusable 
  • Mental problems with planning and organizing as well as an increase in indecisiveness and procrastination

Hoarders save items for a variety of mental reasons, like feeling safe by being surrounded by things, a desire to not waste, a feeling that things may be needed in the future, or attaching emotional significance to insignificant materials. 

The Dangers of Hoarding

Hoarding increases the risk of home fires. Commonly hoarded items also happen to be combustible — papers, reading materials, clothing — and are often stacked on or near sources of heat and electricity. In addition, all the hoarded items make it difficult to evacuate in case of an emergency. 

Hoarding fire risk aside, this disorder often creates unsanitary conditions that can negatively affect homeowner health, as well as anyone else residing on the property. Additionally, hoarding creates a greater risk of: 

  • Falling injuries
  • Mold or mildew accumulation
  • Pests
  • Dust and respiratory issues
  • Plumbing issues
  • Structural damage
  • Cyclical depression
  • Property condemnation and eviction
  • And more.5

Tips for Hoarding Intervention

Home visits can be the perfect time to identify potential hoarding risks in your community. Learning how to approach these types of situations should become part of your fire or EMS training. 

Working with someone who suffers from hoarding disorder can be challenging. These residents can be embarrassed by their behavior, be overly attached to their belongings, and lack the skills necessary to make healthy changes. Many reject the authority of firefighters and law enforcement officials in their homes, and if they move, they may just revert to the same behavior.

In 2012, the City of Vancouver worked with local agencies to form a multi-agency response team to identify and treat hoarding cases in the community. The task force shared the following recommendations from their experience: 

  • Build a relationship of goodwill. Work to develop a positive relationship with the resident. Ideally, they will grant entry for fire inspectors and other officials voluntarily. Everything will work better if you have the resident’s cooperation. You might try offering free services like smoke alarm installation to initially get into the home. 
  • Train staff in mental health. Team members should be trained to understand that hoarding is a mental illness and should be provided with strategies for effectively communicating with individuals in their homes. They should also be trained to recognize if the hoarding poses an imminent danger or not. 
  • Communicate clearly. Remember that individuals with hoarding disorder may not recognize that they have a problem. Explain clearly the dangers you see. Give them clear and manageable goals for eliminating the problem. 
  • Be patient. Hoarding cases aren’t solved overnight. It’s not as simple as barging in and throwing things away. In Vancouver, each hoarding case took an average of 4 to 5 months to be resolved. If safety allows, tackle projects a little at a time, focusing on improving the mental health of the resident to prevent relapse.3

For additional resources on fire prevention tips and emergency response support, check out our catalog of CE courses or the free resources on our blog.


Sources

  1. Lucini G, Monk I, Szlatenyi C. An analysis of fire incidents involving hoarding households. WPI. May 22, 2009.
  2. National Fire Prevention Association. Hoarding. NFPA.com. Accessed Feb 27, 2020. https://www.nfpa.org/Public-Education/Fire-causes-and-risks/Behavioral-risks/Hoarding.
  3. U.S. Fire Administration. Takeaways from a hoarding intervention strategy. FEMA-NETC Library. Mar 14, 2019. https://www.usfa.fema.gov/current_events/031419.html.
  4. Parekh R. What is hoarding disorder? American Psychiatric Association. July 2017. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/hoarding-disorder/what-is-hoarding-disorder.
  5. MayoClinic Staff. Hoarding disorder. Mayoclinic.org. Feb 3, 2018. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hoarding-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20356056.
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