This article originally appeared in the January 2014 edition of Fire Magazine. To subscribe to the magazine visit

The hidden problem of hoarding

US Correspondent Catherine Levin reports on the growing problem of hoarding fires and what is being done to tackle the issue on both sides of the pond:

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There is a small park on the corner of 128th Street and 5th Avenue in Harlem, New York. It is on a fairly quiet residential street but not far from the hustle and bustle of 125th St, a major transport hub in northern Manhattan. The park marks the footprint of the house that until 1947 was the home to the Collyer brothers and bears their name. The park is dark, dank and unloved; and often under threat of being renamed. This is not a surprise considering what happened to Langley and Homer Collyer, who were found dead in their home amongst 130 tonnes of junk including, famously, 14 grand pianos and a model T Ford car.

Fast forward 66 years to the present day and you will still find firefighters in the US and in the UK entering homes stacked to the rafters and inhabited by those suffering from hoarding disorder. Back in 1947 it would not have been categorised as such and indeed it was only earlier this year that hoarding was defined as a mental health disorder by the American Psychiatric Association.

It is possible that the only reason anyone is interested in hoarding right now is because of the power of television. In the UK and in the US, reality TV shows about hoarders are popular and have given a wide audience to this hitherto hidden phenomenon. London Fire Brigade has worked with the TV presenter Jasmine Harman. It was her programme, ‘My Hoarder Mum and Me’, which brought the problems of hoarding to a wider audience on the BBC back in 2011. As a result London Fire Brigade has developed its own training and awareness package for operational staff.

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