Since attacking the problem of emergency responses in Hoarding Conditions, from the perspective of first responders, the questions from the family members of people who are suffering from Compulsive Hoarding Disorder keep coming in. How can I help my family member? How do I make their home safer are a small examples of the questions that are commonly asked.
Hoarding Fire Safety Should include a Escape Plan
Answering these questions is complex and has no one simple answer, but there are some steps to help protect your loved one from the dangers of fires in hoarding conditions. While these simple steps may not eliminate the risks to them it can improve the chances of survival if a fire were to happen. Since starting the research into hoarding fire safety many common causes have been identified. Sharing these common causes will help family members protect their loved ones until they can be treated by the mental health professionals.
Cooking fires are commonly seen in the fire service today. Hoarding conditions complicate these types of fires because the clutter has accumulated to the edge of the heating source. When the belongings are allowed to invade the space adjacent to the stove the potential for cooking fires goes up. If you add ordinary combustibles to a heat source the resulting fire can spread fast and trap the occupant who is in the kitchen.
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Fire proofing your family member’s kitchen may be a huge undertaking, especially if the hoarding level is at or above waist level. Compulsive hoarding disorder prohibits the occupant from distinguishing between things that have great or little value. If you were to try and move their “treasured” valuables you will be met with passionate resistance. Being understanding and compassionate in your response will keep the family member at ease as you try to explain the risk for fire.
Approaching them with some tradeoffs will allow them to move their belongings away from the heating source, thus reducing the risk for a cooking fire. Example: “Can we take the belongings from the counter and move them over to the table, away from the stove.” If the family members understand how the thought process works they will focus on a positive solution to this problem.
This approach may be met with resistance and take time to explain the risks of cooking fire inside their environment. Persistence with this process will be needed and the kitchen may need to be revisited multiple times as the family member replaces the belongings that have been moved.
Another leading cause of fires inside hoarding conditions are electrical fires. Having stacks of belongings closely placed near electrical outlets increase the risks of fire from a sparking electrical outlet. Much like the cooking fires the ordinary combustibles, newspapers and like materials, can make a fire more likely and increase the burn rate trapping occupants.
Moving the stacks of belongings away from the outlets is a simple solution to this problem. Approaching the family member with the example of electrical outlet malfunction and explain that you are not asking to throw anything away, just move it away from the outlet will ease the pain felt when approached with the thought of losing their “treasures”. Explaining the process of “moving” not “removing” the items can reduce their anxiety.
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A blaring similarity, in electrical fires, seen in the hoarding environment, is caused by extension cords. They are commonly stacked one on top of the other as electric outlets become unusable. If an electric outlet becomes non-functioning the occupant often just runs an extension cord from a functioning one increasing the chance of overloading one outlet. When you enter the family members home you should take time to investigate the status (usable or not) of all the outlets in the home. This access can be difficult as the access to them can be blocked with the hoard. Use the pathways established by the occupant to access the points available first before trying to go through the stacks.
Much like the education given to elementary students in fire prevention month family members afflicted with compulsive hoarding disorder should be exposed to the exit their home plan. Fires today are known to double every thirty seconds, offering less time for occupants to escape. Taking the time to explain this danger to your family members will help offer some simple solutions, while starting the treatment plan.
Taking the time to explain this danger and evaluate the presence of multiple exits paths is paramount for their safety. Example: “If a fire were to happen in the current condition blocking this only exit, you will burn to death” While this sounds somewhat extreme it may be necessary to bring home the dangers presented by not having multiple exit points in their home.
Ask your family member “What is your plan in the event of a fire and this pathway is blocked?”
By far the most important part of the visit should be the instillation of smoke detectors in EVERY room. When hoarding conditions are present available airflow for smoke can be restricted. This restriction can delay the time needed for a standard smoke detector to be alerted. Delayed alerting can lead to less time for escape of an occupant. Expecting this delay should lead family members to install more smoke detectors, one in each room. Mounting them on the ceiling in the center of the room is a best option, if the stacks of stuff allow. If not the closest proximity to the center ceiling will allow for the most coverage.
Hoarding Fire Safety Conclusion
Dealing with loved ones that are dealing with compulsive hoarding disorder can be an emotion filled challenge that takes years. Keeping a positive, reassuring approach that always keeps in mind the complexity of Compulsive Hoarding Disorder can lead to a successful safety intervention. While this is not a cure it is an intervention that could save your loved ones life. Make sure to reach out to your local fire departments, hoarding tasks forces, mental health professionals, and health officials for resources to help in your journey.