Hoarding’s Dangers to Firefighters
Hoarding is a growing problem that affects every community and the fire and EMS departments serving them. Excessive clutter of any kind poses direct threats to the health and safety of not only the residents but firefighters as well.
Most fire departments have few or no procedures to handle hoarded situations, and if they do, it is usually to just report the situation to social services. This does little to remedy the problem, especially in rural communities, because agents may not even visit. If they do, they are often turned away by the resident out of fear of eviction.
Hoarding is a progressive affliction, meaning that the behavior increases in intensity as a person ages. This means that walking away from a hoarded home will only allow that home to become filled to a greater degree with time. This in turn only increases the safety risk to firefighters should that home ever experience a fire.
Hoarding in the elderly is an especially growing risk to firefighters because of the current boom in the elderly population. The number of elderly hoarders alone in the U.S. is projected to increase by over 3 million people by the year 2030.
Allowing cluttered situations to continue results in repeat runs, elevated fire hazards, a financial cost to the community, and a greater safety risk to firefighters.
The Cost to Communities
With decreases in government funding to public programs, many communities are looking for ways to provide services to their residents at a minimal cost. Most communities have no resources or services targeting the remediation of cluttered or hoarded residential homes. Many small and rural communities receive little support from social services in regards to hoarding because state governments don’t have programs in place to address the problem.
Many firefighters report that after having placed a call to social services about a hoarded home, nobody ever shows up to investigate. Even if someone shows up, the resident is not obligated to let the agent in unless there is a child involved. Usually, the reason for resistance is fear of eviction.
It is common for people to think that what they do on or in their own property does not affect other people, but in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. The cost of hoarded homes to communities is high:
Owners of apartment buildings must raise the rents to help cover the costs of maintenance and remediation.
Severely hoarded homes are likely to end up as abandoned properties, costing property taxes for the county, and decreasing home values in the neighborhood.
Animal hoarding drains the community by overburdening the local shelters and exhausting volunteer resources.
What Can Firefighters Do to Help?
After spending a great deal of time talking with firefighters about their experiences with cluttered homes, the statement I get most often from firefighters is “There isn’t anything we could possibly do to help residents with clutter.” There couldn’t be anything further from the truth. In fact, firefighters are an untapped, deep well of inspiration, motivation, and resources for residents struggling with hoarding or chronic disorganization.
This may be hard to believe if you are a firefighter, but it’s all about perspective. As someone who isn’t in the fire service, and who works hands-on with residents who suffer with hoarding and chronic disorganization, I have the ability to see things from a different angle. I’ve come to believe, in fact, that firefighters and paramedics are the single biggest missing link to getting people help with clutter remediation.
The vast majority of people in our society view firefighters as “good guys,” and everybody else (police officers, code enforcement officers, health department officers, etc.) as the “bad guys.” With a few exceptions, firefighters are not known for issuing fix-it tickets and fines or evicting residents from their homes. Therefore, the average citizen doesn’t fear firefighters or view them as a threat. In fact, most people view firefighters as heroes, as someone who will save them. And sometimes, what a person needs to be saved from the most is themselves.
Fire and EMS departments are often hesitant to get involved in a situation like this. However, they are in a unique position to exert positive influence over community residents because they are perceived as being helpful. Firefighters and paramedics are also often the first people in many years to view a resident’s home environment.
Many residents who struggle with clutter are receptive to help but don’t know where to start or who to ask for help and are willing to follow up on resources provided to them. Most residents would also be more likely to take the advice of a firefighter than any other type of government employee.
Fire departments have the ability to conduct the first home assessment, make the resident aware of hazards, and provide resources for help. This can be done without burden to the department by providing training to personnel and building a community resource list. Implementing one or two small changes to the procedure of dealing with cluttered residents may result in:
- Increased number of hoarded residents seeking help with clutter remediation.
- Reduced number of medical calls from clutter-related accidents.
- Reduction in the risk of hoarding-related fires.
- Reduction of hoarding-related dangers to first responders.