Fire Crews Battling Clutter Along With the Flames

Another danger lurked as fire and smoke swept through the upper floors of a Brooklyn public-housing high-rise: junk.

The 19th-floor apartment where the blaze started last weekend was piled with it, fire officials said, creating a minefield that's being looked at as a potential factor in the death of a New York City firefighter, the department's first in the line of duty in more than two years.

Lt. Gordon Ambelas' death July 5 came amid what some officials say is an uptick in fire calls complicated by clutter, conditions the FDNY code names "Collyer's Mansion" after the infamous 1947 case of two brothers found dead amid the floor-to-ceiling clutter in their Harlem brownstone.

Up to 5 percent of the population has a hoarding disorder, the American Psychiatric Association estimates, and firefighters say it shows up when entryways, hallways and rooms are blocked by piles of stuff — knickknacks, electronics, clothes, boxes, papers and garbage.

"We find it more common today because people have more possessions," said New York Assistant Chief Jim Hodgens, who heads the city's fire academy. "People have two, three TVs. People have more clothes today. I think as a society we have more stuff. ... It complicates the search."

The U.S. Fire Administration does not track hoarding-related fires, nor does the National Fire Protection Association. But there is no shortage of news accounts of fires where junk has played a role.

This week, a woman died in a blaze that tore through a New Jersey row house where firefighters had a hard time reaching her second-floor bedroom because of an extreme amount of clutter on the stairs.

In Portland, Oregon, in April, neighbors were unable to save an elderly man in his burning home because he had too much junk blocking the doors. Fire officials said they were hampered by "extreme clutter/hoarding conditions."

In Manchester, New Hampshire, in February, firefighters said they had trouble getting through knee-deep clutter during a blaze that killed a 72-year-old in her home.

"The front porch was loaded with things. The rear porch was loaded with things every room in the house, the stairway," District Fire Chief Mark Pelletier told WMUR-TV. "Just picture that, trying to walk in that under normal conditions but with full gear on trying to stretch a hose line. It hampered us drastically."

Privacy laws and red tape prevent authorities from fully knowing or understanding the dangers of their buildings and neighborhoods. Fire departments can inspect commercial structures but are often powerless to check residences for hazards.

"We can't just go in and tell someone to clean their apartment," said New York Deputy Commissioner Frank Gribbon.

Instead, they have focused on training firefighters for the Collyer's Mansion call, with its potential for more intense heat and faster-spreading flames.

The FDNY recreates cluttered conditions at its fire academy and updates firefighters on the latest tactics. Dispatchers also note hoarding conditions they learn about through 911 calls or other sources, though Gribbon said that happens infrequently.

Other departments have implemented similar training and protocols.

Communities from Maine to Arizona have also created task forces to develop hoarding mitigation protocols. In some jurisdictions, the panels include mental and public health professionals.

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