In the fire with hoarders

In the fire with hoarders

When a fire breaks out at the home of a hoarder, firefighters face extra challenges in battling that blaze.

The home and all of its contents become a burning obstacle course with the clock ticking.

It can be a potentially deadly situation and saving someone trapped in the clutter can be nearly impossible.

"It's a challenging thing because the fires become deep-seeded. They're inside. They smolder for a very long time," explains Captain Jamison Norris with the Elyria Fire Department.

That was the case in January 2015 in Elyria. Captain Norris and another firefighter were unable to save the woman trapped in her home.

When crews were finally able to put out the blaze and clean up the burning debris, they filled 17 construction dumpsters with things packed in and around the home.

"There was actually so much content that it was up over the windows that we were unable to make entry through the windows on the second floor. That's how much content was in there," says Captain Norris.

Ryan Pennington has been a firefighter and paramedic for more than 20 years.

For the past few years, the West Virginia man has also dedicated his time to holding training programs across the world to help educate firefighters on tactical changes they could face when dealing with hoarding situations.

He used the Elyria fire as a case study. Pennington says firefighters did everything right even though they were unable to save the homeowner.

"We've all dealt with these type of fires. the problem is the frequency in which we're dealing with them is increasing," says Ryan Pennington.

Pennington points out that there are warning signs that can help firefighters before it becomes an emergency and potentially deadly situation for crews and the hoarder.

He suggests that firefighters scan neighborhoods by using Google Earth to check for cluttered backyards, so they stay ahead of the game.

Pennington also says when there are medical calls or the cable company visits a hoarder's home, that's also an opportunity to connect with that person to try to get them help for their mental illness.

"We want to make sure that they are taking the steps to make them fire safe if they can. Extra smoke alarms if you can clear pathways," says Pennington.

Firefighters are now forced to find a different approach when called to the burning home of a hoarder. They say their mission to help others has not changed, it is just more challenging.

"It was very difficult. We did that search and moved on, went into another area and that's where we located her," says Norris.

Click here for more information on getting help for a hoarding disorder in Cuyahoga County.

You can also reach out to the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging in Cleveland, a non-profit that provides services, research and advocacy for older adults.

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