Searching inside hoarding conditions
First-arriving officers need to complete a walk-around of the structure to determine the points of entry—often NOT the front or back door to the home. (Photo by Chris Tompkins.)
The priority of any emergency response is to protect life first. No matter what the type of emergency, it should remain as the number one tactical objective for the first-arriving firefighters, officers, and chiefs. When faced with hoarding conditions, this priority does not change, but rather it requires some adjustments for carrying out the task of searching the inside of a cluttered environment. Compulsive hoarding eventually takes over the house until the rooms cannot be used for their primary intent.
Examples of this include when bedrooms become so full of belongings people are unable to occupy them to sleep or even for day-to-day living. As the compulsion to collect continues, the entire home will become full. Commonly, this collection starts in basements and attics while leaving the kitchen and bedrooms as the last rooms to become full. The kitchens and bathrooms quickly become rooms of refuge if the home catches on fire. Depending on the use of smoke alarms and time of the fire, these rooms should move up the decision-making process of firefighters who establish the presence of heavy content.
Establishing the search plan begins with a tactical 360° size-up from the exterior. First-arriving officers need to complete a walk-around of the structure to determine the points of entry—often NOT the front or back door to the home. During this process, a thermal imaging camera (TIC) should be used to determine the location of hot and cold areas. Hot will be the fire’s location while the cold areas will show pathways to the home if exterior clutter is found. Often the pathways will insulate and cause the bottom of the pathway to show cold on the camera.
Some common things seen when completing a tactical look at a cluttered home include multiple padlocked doors, blocked windows, potential weakened structural members, and multiple entanglement hazards. Assess each of these issues when determining the proper point of entry into a heavy content environment.
Some common things seen when completing a tactical look at a cluttered home include multiple padlocked doors, blocked windows, potential weakened structural members, and multiple entanglement hazards. (Photo by Chris Tompkins.)
Searching with Three Layers of Orientation
Once an entry point has been established and a potential victim location has been identified, first the interior crew needs to use a three-layer safety system to begin their search. Cluttered environments provide “goat paths” for the occupant to travel between rooms. These pathways are where an interior team should enter and stay. Using a three-level orientation system should begin with a high-heat rated search rope. It should be connected to a fixed external point and made of fibers that withstand any exposure to smoldering debris as the search is carried out.
Second, searching firefighters should use a TIC to scan the pathways and evaluate as they move. Constant situational awareness is enhanced with the camera, and it also allows firefighters to see the pathways, which usually show colder near the bottom. Firefighters should not blindly follow the TIC; rather, the TIC should be used in combination with other orientation methods in the event of camera failure. Scanning low and high will help firefighters evaluate the evolving conditions of the fire and the clutter.
Third, firefighters should stay oriented to the current room they are operating in; using the situational awareness to realize you are operating in a bedroom, kitchen, or bathroom is paramount for a searching crew. Using the TIC, counting door frames, and noticing furniture while crawling through the pathways will aid in staying aware. If at any time the crews are confused about their current location, they should stop and take a moment to orient. Aiding in this orientation is crew communication. Constant, direct communication with the searching crew is mandatory.
Dangers of Search
Once the search has commenced, one of the most dangerous conditions faced is the searching firefighters crawling over debris. If firefighters are to go over the top of stacks of stuff, they are exposed to higher temperatures, unstable belongings, and possible collapse of the contents. Climbing over stacks should be limited, if not eliminated. Causing the belongings to collapse can cover unaccounted-for victims and even block firefighters’ egress paths.
Above: You can see the pathway inside this cluttered condition through a TIC. (Photo by Kill the Flashover.) Below: You can see where the hottest part of this cluttered house is and where the colder spots are through this thermal imaging video. (Photo by Kill the Flashover.)
Determining if the area is storage or a usable space begins with the presence of a pathway into the room. Often rooms become so full they become a storage area. If a pathway is not present, a risk assessment needs to be completed to identify the potential of a victim being in that room. Remember, if a pathway is not present, a potential victim will have to have had time to crawl over the stacks in the high temperatures and toxic gas.
Scanning these areas should be completed with a TIC. Scanning the tops of the contents may require the firefighter to raise up over the current stacks. This can complicate things as the firefighter will be out of the heat shielded area of the stacks and into the hotter atmosphere.
Firefighters should make this scan quickly and assess the tenability of raising up. If the temperature is around 400°F, the firefighter should not raise until the area is cooled. Once the scanning has started, firefighters should look for the outline of feet, fingers, and faces. Victims inside a house fire with cluttered conditions may not show cooler on the TIC and can easily blend into their surroundings. Understanding this, TIC users should look for the outline of the person and pay close attention to the pathways and the coldest parts of the room, as these are the most survivable spaces.
If the heat is above the 400°F range and there is no pathway, this room needs to be considered a storage area. Firefighters should approach searching it with extreme caution as those who crawl over debris can easily receive burns from the heat of debris.
Searching inside heavy content environments requires adjustments from searching firefighters and should be practiced during training. Simple drills can lead to success inside the clutter. Setting up narrow pathways with overturned tables or other solid surfaces can create pathways for training. Make them of varying width, from 15 inches to 36 inches, with varying pinch points. Start wide and have them narrow until the pathway has become nearly impossible to continue. Set the four-foot rule in place and have your firefighters practice the search using the three-layer safety method. Add in some slick surfaces and clutter along the way, and you have firefighters who have begun to prepare for a search inside heavy content.
Ryan Pennington is a firefighter-paramedic with the Charleston (WV) Fire Department. He has more than 20 years of experience in the fire and EMS service, having served in a number of departments. He is assigned to Engine 8-Medic 8 on Charleston’s West Side. Pennington travels North America lecturing on the dangers created by compulsive hoarding disorder. He also maintains the “Jumpseat Training” blog at http://www.jumpseattraining.com. Pennington is an adjunct instructor for the West Virginia RESA 3 with certification to the Instructor 2 level, a member of the West Virginia Task Force 1 USAR team, and a hazmat technician with the West Virginia Regional Response Team. He can be reached at Ryan33@suddenlink.net and has an active twitter feed @jumpseatviews.