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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.