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Firefighters train for dangers faced in hoarder homes

Local firefighters are getting specialized training to deal with a growing problem - fires at the homes of hoarders.
Hoarded items in hallways and open spaces hampers firefighters' efforts.

Local firefighters are getting specialized training to deal with a growing problem - fires at the homes of hoarders.

Houses that are packed with items are extremely dangerous, especially when there's a fire. They increase a fire's intensity and make it harder for crews and the people who live there to get out alive.

After battling several of these fires, the Greenwood Fire Department decided to host specialized training to make sure firefighters know how to recognize a hoarder's home from the outside and how to fight a fire there once inside.

It's an increasingly common danger that crews are seeing more often.

"We have little telltale signs here, telltale signs there," a Greenwood firefighter pointed out to the trainees. "Look for items piled up in the shed, overgrown shrubs or a tall privacy fence to hide things. Look at the windows."

Hoarding is a psychological disorder, where belongings are collected until rooms in the home can no longer be used for their intended purpose.

"To them, it's not trash," explained Greenwood firefighter Bryan Johns. "These people are not collecting stuff like that. It's their treasures. It's sad."

But those "treasures" are obstacles that make it more difficult to save lives.

"They add not only to the fire load, but also the weight it adds to the structure. The structure's not designed for, you know, floor to ceiling of newspapers and magazines and all the items that they do hoard," Johns said.

Imagine that house full of stuff on fire. Crews have to navigate not only smoke and flames, but also a tiny, narrow pathway to walk through and potentially wall-to-wall items ready to burn. 

A simulated hoarder house that firefighters loaded with items on Main Street in Greenwood gave Greenwood, White River Township and Bargersville fire crews a feel for the real thing.

And it's not easy.

"We pretty much created a pathway through the house," Johns explained. "They have to make their way through that. In their way, they'll have anything from car tires, furniture, toys bottles, cans, clothing."

That heavy content adds a layer of risk to an already dangerous job.

"A lot of times they have pathways through the house, so most of the exits are blocked, so if we do get in trouble and we need to get out quickly, a lot of times we can't," Johns said. "It's also hard for us to search the house effectively. We have to advance the hose so slowly through there and it's hard sometimes to find the seat of the fire."

In Wednesday's scenario, crews had to rescue a "victim" from the second floor. Crews learned right away, they couldn't just drag the hose inside the home as they usually do. It was easier to carry on their shoulders, since the pathways were so narrow and covered with clutter.

"They have to work together and communicate well to move all those items out of the house and then work together to get that line up to the second floor where the fire is going to be," Johns said.

It's a scenario many of these guys have already dealt with in the community. Greenwood firefighters had to deal with a hoarder home just a few months ago. But this specialized training gives them practice and new tactics to make sure victims and firefighters get out alive.

They'll continue training in Greenwood later this week.

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