Near Miss in Cluttered House

Near Miss 4/2010

Report Number: 10-0000726
Report Date: 04/26/2010

Event Description

We were responding to a mutual aid fire with a neighboring volunteer department. Our first two engines were the first on scene. Upon arrival we found a fully involved attached garage. The first engine company captain made the decision to knock down the fire with a 2 ½” pre-connected attack line. I (the second engine company) made the decision to gain entry into the home and started pulling ceiling to prevent extension. We had a hard time gaining access due to heavy smoke and clutter inside the home which prevented us from going as deep as we would have liked. The ceiling came down on top of us just as we had made it to the area where we were going to start pulling ceiling. This resulted in one member of the crew suffering a line of duty injury.

Lesson Learned

Command should have set up a safety officer who could have seen the roof deteriorating. Maintain knowledge of the time spent inside a building not accomplishing a task. There was lack of communication to command about the status of our crew. (Captain, 2010)
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New Castle basement hoarding challenges firefighters

New Castle basement hoarding challenges firefighters | Local News - WTAE Home.

Nobody was hurt, but firefighters had a big challenge on their hands early Monday morning in New Castle.

They broke a basement window to get inside a house on North Crawford Avenue.

Once they did that, they found a basement that was filled with items from the floor to the ceiling, calling it one of the worst cases of hoarding they've encountered.

But according to neighbor Eric Ritter, nobody has lived at the home for several years.

Ritter said he was not home when the fire began. As he returned, he saw smoke coming from the basement and called for help.

"I hurried up and ran inside and woke everybody up and told them to get out of the house, and instantly called 911 and brought the dogs outside and everybody outside, and glad we just got out OK," Ritter said.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

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Hoarder Fire Chronicles

From a Northeastern Fire Department:

[caption id="attachment_45" align="alignright" width="300"]Hoarder Fire Hoarder Fire

It occurred on a warm summer night last year. Tones dropped to respond to a mutual aid town for a ‘special assignment’. The town we were responding town is generally an affluent community  with above average household income. Initial communications on the incident were limited, as the OEM and others running the incident did not want the local news stations getting involved. Through the grapevine, we did find out it was a hoarder situation, but nothing could prepare me for what I was about to experience. We pull up to the scene and are briefed, and before the brief is through, I can smell a very strong Oder of decay coming from the house, which was 50+ feet away. We are told “there is a 50′s year old woman on the bottom floor of a split level SFD, she is morbidly obese, has been on the couch in the basement for the past 4 years. The house has had been condemned by the health department, and this woman needed to vacate. Grab an SCBA, double gloves and be ready for orders.” … As I approached the house, I quickly realized to purpose of the SCBA.


I make entry through the door into the family room. Trashed is piled to the ceiling, and it was obvious there was a lot of effort given by the first crew just to gain access to the stairs leading down to where this woman was holding up. I make my way to the kitchen, as I scanned with my flashlight I quickly realized this was going to be far worse than anything on any TV show, this was a nightmare unraveling before my eyes.


We make our way down the stairs to find the woman, completely embarrassed and after about 10 minutes we finally create a solid working area for our feet, and I noticed that the trash had been there so long, there was a 6-inch layer of compost on the bottom. The whole time, trying to comfort this woman keeping her calm, and letting her know we were there to help… Then it happened. My partner grabs the wrong bag and heaves it far in the back corner, and the woman says, “those were my meds!!!” well needless to say, she had her meds upon exiting the dwelling. After 20 minutes of work, our vibra-alerts activated, and the EMT’s felt they had enough space to do their thing.ashamed of the situation, and a sight that will haunt me for a long time. This woman literally had not moved from this couch in 4 years. She was surrounded with soda bottle filled with urine, feces covered paper towels, empty meds bottles, food trash,… Etc… We had to clear an area for the EMTs to package her up on a reeves and bring her up the stairs. Well my partner and I begin to dig in, we start heaving trash all over the place.



The only power to the house was an extension cord weaved somehow through the debris. There was obviously no AC, and the only heat was an office space heater and fan connected to the extension cord, along with a lamp with no shade and a small TV. The daughter also lived on the premises. However, not in the house, she lived in the car, in the driveway with a similar setup for heat. Thinking back on the incident, I still cannot believe what I saw, and to think that if this place had ever caught fire, it had a fire load thatcould’ve burned for 2 days. I am glad it ended well and it was addressed before I or a fellow fire fighter had to take the risk of entering that building with a hose line.


Chambers Commentary,


Once again, the names and locations are changed for learning purposes.  The intent of sharing accounts like this one is to hammer home the truths about hoarded homes.


Conditions are different inside a home that has space that is compacted like this one.  Some common problems seen are no powers, fecal matter, urine, mix in some mold, and you have a perfect recipe for responder illness.  A key point in the above story is the use of SCBA.  Often when faced with hoarder conditions an EMS crew will enter without respiratory protection.  We need to keep in mind the risks of entering without protection.  An N95 mask should be a MINIMUM and a positive pressure SCBA is preferred.



Learning points:


  • Responder PPE choices in Non-fire conditions

  • Increased workload due to belongings

  • Exposure to Bio-Hazards

  • Using EMS calls to identify conditions

  • Informing your inter department of the conditions.

  • Give hoarder information out to EMS, Police, and Utilities.



Thanks for the visit into the Hoarder Chronicles
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Hoarder Fires:Collapse Risks

Good morning from the chamber of hoarders.

[caption id="attachment_40" align="alignright" width="300"]Hoarder Fire Hoarder fire. Picture Courtesy of

When we last were inside the chamber we discussed the choice to crawl over the piles of belongings that you can encounter while inside a hoarded home. This is a complex issue with multiple variables.  We first looked at the victim profile, now it’s time to add another variable to this discussion.  Collapse risk needs looked at every time you enter a hoarded environment.  Let’s head back into the chamber to look at the next variable to Knock it over or crawl over the stacks!

Collapse Risk:

When dealing with assessing a hoarded environment many professionals choose the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization (NSGCD) 1-5 scale to rate conditions. This scale applies to the emergency services community in dealing with the amount of belongings that you meet.  In this scale a one will be a slightly cluttered home and a five representing a uninhabitable home.  When faced with the decision to knock over a pile or crawl over the NSGCD scale will be a useful tool. If you discover a level 2 hoarded condition you will be able to crawl over the piles paying close attention to if there is burning materials.  This can be a dangerous task if the pile you are crawling over has been on fire.There have been cases of firefighters pant leg being pulled above their boot and causing burn injuries to the lower leg.  Often we learn to use our hose stream to clear the path of debris in front of us as we crawl into a fire and this would be a great method to help reduce these types of injuries.


If you decide the hoard is at a Level 4 or above you will need to consider pulling the piles over before advancing beyond them.  At these levels the piles are at shoulder level or higher and  the decision of  pulling them over needs made.  Piles of belongings at this level will make for the most dangerous hoarder fire. This task will need more personnel and longer time frames to carry out the task requiring more time to advance on the fire. Longer time to maneuver through the pathways while pulling them over can test even the fittest firefighters.  When faced with a level 4 or above the best decision might be NOT GO IN!

Making the decision to enter a hoarded environment is complex and making this decision even harder is the choice to pull over piles of debris.  Incident commanders need to consider the risk of the belongings falling and then trapping firefighters.  This consideration will help you make the call to not go in at all……
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2 Elderly Men Killed In SF House Fire

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – Two elderly men died in a fire early Friday morning that started in a bedroom of a home in San Francisco’s Excelsior District that was apparently filled with a large amount of debris, fire officials and neighbors said.


The fire was reported at 3:34 a.m. at the two-story home at 171 Vienna St.


Both men died in separate bedrooms on the second floor of the house and it was a challenge getting the bodies out because of the large amount of clutter, Acting Battalion Chief Franco Calzolai said.

Link to video 
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Next time in a Hoarder House....

Check out this video from a clean out company as they clean out a house that had Hoarding conditions.  Next time you respond to a medical or non-fire related call just think of what is beneath all of those belongings?  Notice the dust masks too.....


thanks for the stop inside the chamber of hoarders.......
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Hoarding Fires: Knock it over?

Hoarding Fire?

[caption id="attachment_27" align="alignright" width="300"]Hoarder Fire

To knock over or to crawl over is a question that keeps coming up in my research into fighting fires in Hoarder Homes. Over the past year hoarding conditions has had everyone’s attention due to a very successful television show bringing new questions around. The question that seems to keep coming up is “do I knock over the piles of belongings or crawl over them?  This is a complex question that needs  looked at from a couple different angles.  Every hoarder fire will be bringing a different set of challenges that has questions needing answered before you can make this decision.  Let’s take a look at what an aggressive interior firefighter must consider before you determine  to crawl over the piles of clutter.


Factor number 1: Victim Profile

We all are aware of saving victims being our number one priority.  This is a common statement that needs  addressed when considering knocking over piles of debris.  You should consider occupancy type, time of day, and cars in the driveway to decide chances of trapped occupants.  All three of these factors remain constant from a “normal” fire with one more consideration to add.  Hoarders are often reclusive in nature and occasionally don’t leave their home for extended amounts of time.  With this in mind you should consider that just because there isn’t a vehicle in the driveway or it’s the middle of the day a trapped occupant is possibly inside.  Let’s say it’s the middle of the day and no cars are in the driveway. Additional information needs  collected about the occupant once you have identified hoarder conditions. Most of the time there will be people who live around the hoarded home to offer information on occupancy. Interviewing bystanders will help you asses if people are inside or not. Often they will be able to tell you about the habits of the occupant and if they are “usually” there during that time of the day.


Here is the quandary about  knocking the piles over.  You run the risk of covering a victim up with the belongings.  A hoarder can have piles of belongings to the waist level making it near impossible to enter, especially into a zero visibility environment.  If there is any chance of a victim being inside you do everything possible keep the piles in place to avoid covering them up increasing the opportunity to  find  them.  Just like in any situation a Thermal imaging camera will be a high priority tool that aids in the search between the piles.

Stay tuned to the for the rest of this complex decision-making problem…..
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