Hoarders Pose Special Problems For Firefighters Coping With Low Visibility

NY Times – July 15, 2014


Any firefighter who’s been around a few years has encountered a few of them: homes with front doors partly blocked by piles of belongings, with curtains drawn to hide the clutter inside.

In New York, firefighters know the homes of hoarders as Collyer’s mansions, after two wealthy brothers who died in their Harlem house in 1947. More than 120 tons of objects and trash were stuffed floor to ceiling, including 14 grand pianos and more than 3,000 books.

People with compulsive hoarding disorder, a condition associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder, are often so anxious about giving away possessions that they live amid piles of collected items or trash, leaving only narrow walkways to move around. Clutter Can Kill

Such conditions are dangerous on an ordinary day. During a fire, they can be deadly.

Fire Lieut. Gordon “Matt” Ambelas was searching for trapped residents July 5 in a Williamsburg apartment cluttered with piles of stuff when he was killed by a combination of flames and smoke.

“They’re all different levels,” retired Battalion Chief Frank Montagna said last week of the severity of the Collyer’s conditions he encountered in his nearly four decades in the field. “It can be a rat warren of tunnels through stacks of newspapers that can collapse on you at any time. It can prevent you from opening doors. You don’t know what’s stored in there. It can be highly flammable, even explosive.”

During his six years working at the Fire Academy, Mr. Montagna and his colleagues made new firefighters aware of such dangers. But when searching for occupants who might be trapped and unresponsive, there’s little that can be done to mitigate the risk other than slowing down and being cautious.

Even in an uncluttered apartment, smoke quickly obscures a firefighter’s vision and makes finding survivors a matter of feeling one’s way through the dark. In a Collyer’s mansion, one retired fire officer said, you can get completely disoriented; it can be hard to find the doors.

Water Adds to Danger

People have been killed in such homes when their belongings fall on top of them. The danger is greater for firefighters crawling through unfamiliar paths, staying low to avoid the rising heat and smoke.

Once water is put to the fire, the retired officer said, the situation can get more precarious. Piles of belongings become water-logged and are not only more likely to fall over, but can even collapse the floor. A Connecticut woman with a hoarding compulsion was killed in June when her first floor collapsed into her basement, without the added weight of a firehose full of water.

Uniformed Fire Officers Association President Alexander Hagan recalled many Collyer’s calls during his early years working in The Bronx and upper Manhattan. In one apartment, the maze of tunnels a man had set up to get through to his bedroom collapsed before the fire. Mr. Hagan and his company had to climb across debris that reached nearly to the ceiling. That fire was small, and he doesn’t know if they could’ve made it in a bigger fire, with the worst of the heat and smoke rising to the top.

Many years ago, Chief Montagna encountered a similar situation at a blaze that was still smoking heavily, on the third floor of a brownstone. The debris was several feet high, and the wall of smoke was thick enough that he had to feel his way along.

A Doorway That Wasn’t

“I came to what I thought was a doorway,” he recalled. “I hesitated for a second [before stepping through] because I felt what seemed like a breeze.”

He was actually standing in an open third-floor window.

“It was early in my career also, so maybe I wasn’t being too smart,” he said. “But I got that little warning.”

In firefighting publications and online forums, people in the profession share tips on how to survive fires in Collyer’s conditions. Ryan Pennington, a Charleston, West Virginia firefighter who’s been studying fire in hoarder homes for more than two years, wrote in the June issue of Fire Rescue magazine that a very severe hoarding problem can paradoxically make fires burn more slowly, if there’s so much stuff crammed in a house that there’s little oxygen to fuel the blaze.

Risk of Flashover

But in other cases, he said, excess possessions can make for a volatile environment. If the space is ventilated too quickly, intense heat and flames that were concentrated among stacks of objects can easily spark a flashover—a firefighting term for an entire room suddenly igniting at once.

If the FDNY learns ahead of time that a house has Collyer’s conditions, officials alert firefighters when a call goes out. But Mr. Montagna said such cases are rare.

“We don’t inspect private dwellings unless they invite us in,” he said. And people with hoarding disorder don’t generally invite them in.

At the apartment where Lieutenant Ambelas died, the department was unaware of the conditions until firefighters arrived, though neighbors later told reporters the resident often had trouble even opening the door.

The department is still studying exactly how Mr. Ambelas died, but he reportedly suffered burns and smoke inhalation.

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