Hoarder Fires: Dealing with the Occupant’s

 

From the studying of Compulsive Hoarding Disorder and the effects that it has on today’s first reponders one common problem keeps coming up.  Dealing with the occupants of these homes can prove to be a challenging problem if we are tasked to deal with an emergency y inside their Hoarded Environment.  Interaction with the people who collect, accumulate, and acquire this massive amounts of belongings can place the first responder in a different type of danger. Physical danger from the anger that someone can experience when someone touches his or her treasured belongings.  Let’s look at a few common tactics to diffuse the tension and protect ourselves from the dangers faced when interacting with the people who hoard.

Photo Courtesy of Keven Smith  SDfirephotos.com

Photo Courtesy of Keven Smith SDfirephotos.com

Do not be judgmental

One of the hardest things to do as first reponders is to leave our values and opinions that we have established over the years behind when we discover a hoarding environment.  I have seen many first responders find these conditions and immediately become aggressive in telling the occupants that “this is the filthiest house ever” and “this place stinks” as they pull their shirt over their noses.  While this can be a very hard to resist it will put the occupant in a heightened state of sensitivity and can even evoke a response of anger or violence to the first responder.

By being non-judgmental and aware that hoarding is becoming a diagnosable physiological disorder we can further understand their deep attachment to their belongings.  Hoarding is not a choice and the inability to “let go” of their belongings that seem to have no apparent value to you and I can cause them be defensive and take offense to such statements if we were to make them.  Compulsive Hoarder’s have a hard time distinguishing between an object of great value, such as child’s baby pictures, and an item that has little apparent value, such as a stack of coupons.  This attachment may seem unimaginable by us but by understanding how they process this information can give us, the responders, the knowledge to be sensitive to their conditions when interacting with them.

Explain what is happening

While interacting with a person suffering from this affliction during the process of mitigating their emergency we have little choice but be direct sometimes, especially when dealing with a life or death emergency.  An example would be in the case of a medical emergency where we need access to the patient fast.  One problem with our aggressive nature is in the process of accessing the patient we may disrupt their world.  With the assigning of value to items folks who suffer from this also get angry at anyone who touch or “disrupt” their stacks of belongings .  If they watch you moving, touching, or tossing their treasures aside they can become angry with you and may even become violent.

One way of lessoning this potential is to explain your actions to the person in a sensitive manner before or during the actions.  Ma’am or Sir, I understand that this may upset you but we need to get you to the hospital as soon as possible, would be a direct statement to use in these circumstances.  While this is not an end all cure all it will help ease the tension felt by your patients in the case of removing them to an awaiting ems unit.

Move them away

One type of response may require you to relocate the occupant to another location.  In the event of a fire, we may not have time to interact with the occupant. Before making this decision you will need to conduct an interview to determine if all occupants have exited the building, and which entrance do they normally use to access the building.  When hoarding takes over an occupancy it often blocks means of entry and exit causing the occupant to use a different means of access, such as a window or ladder.

Once the interview is over and the firefight has continued you may experience the occupant going through an emotional emergency.  Remember that as our firefighters are removing, throwing, and breaking through the piles of belongings the occupant sees you as hurting their treasured items.  Anger, yelling, or even physical violence can result due to their deep emotional attachment.  This is where we may need to involve neighbors, bystanders, or even the police department to help remove the occupant to insure their and our safety.  Understanding the nature of Compulsive Hoarding Disorder will allow us to understand their emotions when dealing with their stack of stuff.

 

Conclusion:

Understanding the complexity of Compulsive Hoarding Disorder will allow you insight into dealing with the men and woman who suffer from this disorder.  It has proven that hoarding can lead to a multitude of problems from health concerns to working house fires.  One problem that we should prepare for is interacting with the people who live inside these cluttered environments and develop some strategies to deal with the potential for danger to them and us. We are sworn to protect life and property our safety is always first on the list.  By safely developing a means of interaction with people who has this disorder will allow us to help everyone in and around the hoarded environment.