By Sharon Gamache
I often hear from firefighters, fire- and life-safety educators, and other emergency personnel about problems they have encountered in dealing with people who hoard. NFPA has been working to provide more resources on this subject for the fire service.
People who hoard acquire a large number of possessions that appear to be of useless or limited value and cannot discard them. Most experts today agree that hoarding is a mental disorder that can be genetic , triggered by traumatic events, or a symptom of another disorder, such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder or dementia.
Hoarders’ living spaces are so cluttered that they cannot be used in the way in which they were designed. In a bedroom, for example, a hoarder will not be able to sleep on the bed because it is covered with stuff. In the bathroom, a hoarder cannot use the tub because it is filled with objects. In the kitchen, there is no room to cook or eat. In short, hoarding prevents or impedes the performance of normal living activities.
There are several reasons that hoarding is an issue for the fire service. First, hoarded material can be a fire hazard for both the people who hoard and those who live with them. Blocked exits can prevent or slow down escape from the home during a fire or other type of emergency. Second, firefighters who respond to a fire in a place that has excessive hoarded materials can be put at risk because the exits may be obstructed, objects may fall on them, and the fire loading is excessive. And finally, those living adjacent to a structure occupied by a hoarder can be affected by excessive smoke and fire conditions.
There are many resources on NFPA’s website to help firefighters with this issue, including:
- A free guide titled "Hoarding and the Fire Service"
- A video with a social worker from the Orange County (Calif.) Task Force on Hoarding, who talks about intervention
- A video with the supervisory assistant to the Connecticut State’s Attorney, who talks about the legal and enforcement aspects of hoarding
- A comprehensive story from NFPA Journal entitled “The Dangers of Too Much Stuff.”
Sharon Gamache is the director of NFPA's High-Risk Outreach Programs.