Refusing to search for occupants in Collyer Mansion conditions
By Gabe Angemi
Originally published 12 December 2011.
While the list of faux pas fire service no-no’s grows larger and longer, consider why you felt the need to become a firefighter in the first place. Then, think about what you would or wouldn’t do on the fire ground once you arrived to handle your business. Keep that notion in mind.
Recently, hoarding has been labeled by some as one more reason to abandon an interior attack. Admittedly, when I was reading some of this online banter on a popular social networking site, I immediately wondered why someone associated with fighting fire would think this way. What constitutes a hoarding condition exactly? Let me clarify the term too, because I knew it previously as a Collyers’ Mansion condition.
Surely you’re not confused here, assuming that every mildly cluttered house is akin to those you’re seeing on the self titled TV show. Be it not for said show however, I suppose I would have had to think of a witty name involving Collyers’ Mansion instead of hoarder. How would you even know that a property was in fact the quintessential hoarding condition without at least making an attempt at entry? The thing that really bothered me was the blanket statement, something to the effect of “I wouldn’t let my guys go in on that, absolutely not”. Well, I let the poster know that I was glad he was not a member of my fire department or the one that is responsible for my residence.
Some perspective ensues… and since I can only relate to what I see at my own job, and what conditions I have operated in the past, I’m officially here to get you out of that “there’s no entry if” mindset. A mindset which is just another one of those predetermined no-go fraudulences. Listen, we’re firemen and by the way, that means we go inside burning buildings. We bring with us the tools and equipment necessary to put fires out. In a hoarding condition, you bring hose and tools just like you would any other fire, it’s that simple. For a second I thought about ending this writing right there. But, as the case may be, it is not that clear cut of a case.
The modern fire service has by no fault of its own let people dictate our actions depending on preconceived notion about conditions, and held up some standard for us all to be reckoning with instead of letting the ones on the street try as they might to do their jobs. We may have to decide not to go in sometimes once we see what’s going on inside, I understand that. Ironically, these people who are channeling their own fear, and projecting their own lack of confidence into predetermined trains of thought are usually not working fires actively. We, (my department) have operated in these conditions with much regularity. Going back before I was a fireman, or even born for that matter, firefighters in the nations urban areas just tackled what was put in front of them. They did it in overcoats and boots! The terminology was not an issue. Catch phrases and key words were not as popular (or even drummed up) then as they are in today’s fire service pop culture. Having said that, the fires are tougher because of the materials involved, I get it. Nowadays there’s just more clutter to circumnavigate while you stretch your lines in. Walking, searching, crawling, forcing, operating… everything is more difficult where we operate and with what were wearing, we can agree on that. The tasks are difficult to begin with even before a hoarding condition is encountered.
Why would we as a service want to write off folks with a tendency towards hoarding or because they are known packrats? Are they bad people? Have they done something to us personally? Is it our job to judge them when we show up or to help save them? Liken it to an obstacle course, some are harder than others, but as you gain skills and experience you are more prepared to handle the situation presented to you. Maybe that’s the problem, the inexperience. Is that the issue leading to inaction, because we have never done it before? Well guess what, everybody that’s ever done it, has never done it before!
Indulge me a scenario for a minute… A fire department is dispatched to a dwelling fire with a report of a person trapped. Arriving to an incident with a medium instance of “stuff all over the place” on the first floor, the first due Engine Co. is pushing in with a handline. Slowly, the debris is pushed aside and navigated cautiously with some effort, and a few experienced firefighters who have dealt with this situation before rise to the occasion. The clutter gets thicker and higher. Understanding that, two searching FF’s make use of the open interior stairs ever mindful of the possibility of failing high stacks of material. These FF’s are aware of the possibility of “junk collapse” and that it may involve their person and/or prohibit them from finding a hoseline to follow back out of the structure. It is a risk worth taking however, and they have trained on emergency procedures relative to this situation. Confident in their ability to self rescue, rescue one another or transmit an urgent or mayday message for help, they press on, meeting up with the team conducting VES on the second floor. An unconscious man is discovered there, in a wheel chair. Struggling somewhat to remove the victim, the foursome hears over the radio that the bulk of the fire has been knocked as they team up to remove the man safely albeit with a broken arm incurred in the removal process and some slight burns. You’re right, it wasn’t easy. Sure his arm will heal but he’s alive and those on the fireground did their job.
The flip side to that coin is to show up and let that man asphyxiate, and then burn-up because no one went in to search for occupants or put out the fire much less size up the conditions. Why you ask? Because the dwelling had previously, or on-the-spot been declared a no go by a policy maker; a policy maker who has perhaps been buying into the dictated misgivings of men who have not been in a fire in years if not decades. Selfishly, these men use fear, projecting it from a platform from which to preach their non action and safety quotas, gaining themselves notoriety. Perhaps it’s all about extending their careers once the riding backwards is over? I can’t speak to what a man has or has not done in his career path but I know that I go into fires often at work, and that with a little know how, some motivation, discipline and will power, just about any circumstance that’s encountered can be rectified safely.
Our service has done that for years, why are we letting people tell us not to anymore? The blanket statements about “were not going in there” because of this or because of that have got to stop as they are highly counterproductive to what our service is all about. I can tell you from real world situations that working fires presenting mild, moderate or extensive “hoarding” conditions (or a combination of all three depending on how they are encountered in each part of the dwelling) are fires that can be safely and effectively mitigated from the interior. If you haven’t done it because you’re not allowed to, or if your SOP/SOG’s say you can’t then how will you ever decide for yourselves, as a Company or a Battalion what is or isn’t possible? You also deny yourself the experience of interior firefighting in these conditions, which may come in useful sometime one, would think. You feel comfortable role playing god and saying this is out of the question? Then god Bless you. Writing off jobs, property and lives before you even try? A lot of folks in these living situations are perhaps invalids and are the very people that I signed up to help when they are not able help themselves. Is it not our job then to afford them the same chance at surviving a fire in their home as a person who is anally retentive about their living space and resides in a pristine situation? What’s next, “Upon entry, firefighters encountered a heavy exposure to furniture covered in plastic, shag carpet and ceiling mirrors coupled with wallpaper that’s been painted over so they opted to back out citing bad taste as an overwhelming reason to dismiss the potentially trapped homeowners.”
You have all heard the “we are our own worst enemy” line describing any and every aspect of the fire service from the stuff we do to one another in quarters to the nonsense you see on the street. That quotable line will be the definition of backing down from a tough situation because you’re scared or worried about your own safety. Doing so leads me to assume you are not up for any challenge in the fire service whatsoever, and you might want to leave it to the folks who are willing to try. So what, there’s more debris to crawl over. You can’t handle that? I get it, the risks are higher. What house fire is not dangerous? Do we want every fire we show up to be absolutely perfect for us to operate in? If we keep letting people dictate that things are too dangerous, than that’s where we’re headed. Do we really want to become a service that picks its battles dependent on the degree to which we have to exert ourselves? That makes the title firefighter a sham.
Firefighters are indelibly realistic people, and if you’re reading this you should know that that’s just not going to be an option, regardless of where you’re working fires at. From urban to suburban, peoples’ living conditions vary greatly. Needless to say, a policy depicting a certain circumstance as not possible because it is too dangerous may eventually lead us to litigation over why we did nothing while we claim to have showed up to help. They never call us when things are good right? Having a set policy in effect that states you do nothing while people’s lives are hanging in the balance once your department arrives is lacking a certain initiative on our part and highly indictable negligence.
We have a job to do! Granted, it is an awesome responsibility to bear but no one else is going to shoulder that weight but us.
Photos courtesy of author.