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The fire risks of hoarding
Can you remember an incident when you may have thought someone was living among mounds of ‘junk’, ‘rubbish’ or items that no longer serve the purpose for which they were intended?
Situations where items have been piled up creating incredibly high fuel loads? Instances when it has sometimes been cluttered to waist or even roof height making it difficult or near impossible to gain access to the residence and move around once in there; and making fighting a fire far more difficult? Chances are you have come across someone with a hoarding disorder.
Over the past few years, fire services around Australia and the world have been increasingly recognising hoarding and squalor as a common feature in fire and other emergencies.
So what is hoarding? Hoarding is a disorder defined as the persistent accumulation of and lack of ability to relinquish large numbers of objects or living animals. It results in extreme clutter in and around premises, compromising its intended use, threatening the health and safety of the residents, animals and neighbours. It is a progressive and chronic condition.
Hoarding can exist in isolation, but in some cases squalor may also be involved. This is when an unsanitary living environment has occurred due to extreme, prolonged neglect. It poses substantial health and safety risks to people and animals residing in the premises and to others in the community.
There are no particular living circumstances which make people more prone to hoarding disorder. People of all ages may hoard or live in squalor, although many cases become more apparent in those aged over 50 due to the accumulation of items over a longer period of time. People who hoard can live in any type of housing and be from any socio-economic or cultural background.
It is important that CFA members are aware of hoarding and the associated risks because high clutter and hoarding conditions can pose significant risks not only to the resident but also to our members during emergency response efforts or when attending a residence for other work purposes. Some of these risks include fire, falls, collapse of accumulated items, structural collapse, poor sanitation, delayed/hindered entry for rescue or exit for evacuation, in addition to other health and safety risks.
The Metropolitan Fire and Emergency Services Board (MFB) has undertaken a number of research studies into incidents involving hoarding and squalor and have identified the most significant fire risks within hoarding environments and how to reduce them. Their latest study in 2015 looked at statewide incidents, within both the MFB and CFA areas. Other fire services from NSW, Canada and the US have also undertaken research with similar findings, supporting consistent advice across fire services.
So what are the fire risks of hoarding?
- Accumulation of items not only increases fuel load to abnormal levels but also ignition opportunities due to unsafe or non-functioning utilities and unsafe practices for heating, cooking, lighting and electrical use.
- Blocked exits and narrow or non-existent pathways result in hindered or blocked escape for occupants and access and egress for firefighters.
- Smoke alarms are often not used or working affecting a residents response to fire.
- Due to abnormally high fuel loads these fires:
- create excessive smoke and fire conditions
- can quickly affect neighbours, particularly in adjoining properties (such as units or apartments).
- can be more difficult to fight
- are much larger events requiring more firefighting resources
- result in significantly increased levels of structural damage
How can the fire risks be reduced? It is recommended that in the first instance, individuals or other agencies assisting those affected by hoarding are encouraged to:
- Install smoke alarms and test them
- Unblock exits
- Widen internal pathways
- Check utilities are connected
- Remove clutter from the stove top and cooking area
- Remove clutter around heaters and electrical items
- Discourage the use of open flame
In early 2015, CFA contributed to the most recent study commissioned by the MFB with the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (US) ‘An analysis of hoarding and squalor incidents in Victoria’ to get a greater understanding of the issue state-wide and to determine whether there are any significant differences in risk specific to the CFA area. The findings confirmed that there are no significant differences between the MFB and CFA areas in incidents involving hoarding. The study found that CFA member’s awareness and reporting of the issue could be improved with the provision of appropriate reporting mechanisms and advice. Improved reporting of the issue will provide us with a greater opportunity to understand the extent of this issue within the CFA area over time.
At the time of this study CFA created a project to understand what the fire safety risks are to; residents and their neighbours; and to CFA emergency responders when hoarding conditions are present and how we will manage those risks within the CFA area.
The projects activities include:
- Developing CFA's internal policies, guidance materials / processes and tools for the recognition, reporting and referral of hoarding conditions - to increase awareness, preparedness and safety not only for residents but also for CFA members (career and volunteer firefighters).
- Creating guidance materials and tools for specific CFA members; undertaking residential inspections (requested only by VCAT or Victorian courts) and; participating in local hoarding networks or groups.
- Exploring a process for external agencies to notify CFA of known addresses where hoarding is present, for the purposes of improving the preparedness of our firefighters, therefore increasing the safety of the residents and the firefighters. A process will be implemented if deemed suitable and appropriate.
- Development of fire risk reduction advice for the general public as well as external agencies working with those affected by hoarding, including; website information, publications (brochures) and presentations.
CFA will not be addressing the underlying behavioural issues of this mental health disorder.
Guidance materials, etc., will be made available to all CFA members once completed.
Basic information on the fire risks of hoarding and how to reduce them can now be found on CFA’s website. See the CFA website hoarding information here: http://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/plan-prepare/fire-risks-of-hoarding/
For further information about this project or any enquiries about hoarding please contact: