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Monday, August 22, 2011

Basement fire in the house of a Hoarder

I was up late working on a project at home when we were dispatched to a house down the block from my own for a "fire in the basement." When we got on scene, I sent two of our younger members to tag a hydrant, and I jumped off with my crew and left the engine to establish a water supply. When I got to the front of the house, there was heavy smoke coming out of the front door and windows, and I saw a hoseline was already stretched into the front door. I took my crew and went to the back of the house, put my mask on, grabbed my ax and partner and crawled in.
Me getting ready to enter the fire building
We found the stairs to the basement immediately and followed the hoseline in. I had a thermal camera in my hand, and scanned up around me before we went any further down the stairs. I slid on my ass down the stairs with my feet out, just in case the stairs gave way or there were missing stairs, I'd prevent myself from taking a nose-dive into god-knows-what.

When I reached the bottom of the stairs, it was absolutely pitch black, no visibility at all. I felt the hoseline stretch to the left, so decided to take my partner and do a search to the right to make sure there were no victims. Immediately I hit what felt like a wall when i turned to the right, which was odd since the stairs ran down the center of the house. I stopped and looked around using the thermal camera, which can see through smoke and uses heat of the objects in a room to paint a colorful picture for a firefighter. I was amazed at how confusing it was, it almost seemed like there were walls all around us, almost as if we were in a bathroom, yet we hadn't moved from the staircase we came down. I found a small space closer to the stairs, and pushed my way through it. Reaching down, I pulled a 25" piece of webbing (flat rope) from my pocket which I intended to tie onto the staircase railing so I could do my search and find my way back. I finally saw what looked like a boiler, but besides that I still saw a confusing mess of objects towering over me.
What a structure looks like through a thermal imaging camera (TIC)
The chief finally made his way to the staircase and asked how many guys we had downstairs, I was surprised to hear about 5 voices from the other side of the basement - way too many people for a basement fire which we still hadn't located. I took my crew and we decided to leave, go upstairs and do a search of the first floor.
Getting to the first floor, thigns were much cooler yet visibility was still near-zero. We were able to walk some of the time, and crawl others, and did a search of the kitchen, living room, 2 bedrooms and a few closets. Closets are always an important part of a search, as scared children will sometimes retreat to them in sticky situations like a fire.

All searched were negative, so I radioed this out to Command. At this point, the back door and kitchen, next to the stairwell, were getting overloaded with firefighters. There was probably 4 still in the basement, another 6 in the kitchen and probably another 5 outside the back door about to come in. The chief and I backed everyone out of the building and told them to wait in the back and Do Not Enter until asked to do so for relief for the basement crews.

This was a case where we haven't had a fire in a long time, so when one finally came in, every fireman and his mother showed up, every apparatus was overloaded with guys, young and old, who haven't gotten dirty in a while and were just way too anxious, creating a recipe for disaster in a crowded house where the fire still hasn't been located.

This is the point where I walked to the back door and noticed someone had set up a fan blowing directly into the basement where the attack crew was still working. I had not heard any call on the radio for this vent, and being that the fire hadn't been found yet I dismantled the fan. This turned into a fight with a few Chiefs later, and is still up for debate, but in my honest opinion, in an enclosed basement with no windows, when a crew is pretty far in and doesnt know where the fire is, pumping air into it without them knowing is like lighting a fuse. There's just way too many problems that this can cause, like drawing fire behind the attack crew or accelerating it where it is, and these downsides just totally outweigh the advantages in my opinion.

Once they found the fire, they called up for a relief crew to follow the hoseline down there and replace them. The fire ended up being in the rear of the basement, behind a makeshift wall. When we finally cleared most of the smoke, it was apparent why I was so confused at the beginning of the fire - there were stacks of at least 50 suitcases and boxes full of clothing, newspapers, comic books, DVDs, blankets, etc. from the floor to the ceiling, from one wall to another. The entire basement was loaded with contents, and just had a few narrow walkways through the crap for people to squeeze through. Had we known this, no one would have entered and it would have been a defensive fire attack from the start.

Needless to say, overhaul took about 3 hours to move the now-melted-together mounds of garbage, and even after that extensive overhaul, there was still a rekindle about 10 hours later, rather small but flames were visible.

The more we go into houses on activated alarms in my town, the more hoarders we're coming across and it's just a scary sight once you realize you're in a hallway where 6 foot towers of contents surround you. Not a place any firefighter ever should be, no matter what. Sometimes you don't know what you're up against until the smoke clears, but there are a few ways to prepare for this.

1. Preplanning - we go on a lot of alarms that some might call "bullshit", these are the dead batteries in detectors that alerted a nervous homeowner, or possibly a leak in the attic that made a hard-wired alarm go off. Do not waste these opportunities to enter a dwelling, whether it's commercial or residential, and take note of what you're up against. Who lives there? What's the fire load? Are there any things that the rest of the department should know about, like oxygen / acetelene tanks, wheelchair-bound residents or a hoarding situation?

2. Speak to the homeowner - a lot of fires we go to, the home owner is impatiently waiting outside the house and very often they're anxious to pass on info to anyone on scene. A few quick questions as you're approaching the house, like "Is anyone inside?", "Do you have any pets?" or even "Where is the fire?" (duh) could be worth it's weight in gold if the answer helps you in your search / attack.

In any case, extreme caution should be used if a hoarding scenerio is encountered, and always remember Life first, it is NOT worth the risk to try to save a room full of accumulated objects if there is no life within it.


fire service recruitment said...

I always admire firefighters for their courage to go into the danger zone to save lives. They are the everyday heroes whom most people tend to ignore.

cbifflegvfd said...

wowthat could have really gotten bad quick.Glad y'all got out and noone was injured

Williams Shoe Dryer said...

Firefighters rock it!!!

Anonymous said...

In a house, possibly contained to a basement.
Why were there more than 2 people searching?
It sounded like a recipe for disaster.
Who accounts for the number of firies in the building at once? How long would it have taken to find them if one went down?
And what if that fire had really picked up, and quick. Suddenly you had over 5 people in a crammed basement with no visibility and 1 exit...
Would it not make more sense to send in 2 firies, and have 2 standing by as back up?
At tops, 4 firies. One team on left hand reference, one team on right hand reference?
Just a thought..

Jason said...

Really a great story for those who are interested in what its like to become a firefighter. If you want to get hired as a firefighter this is the type of stuff you will encounter. Great story.

Air Medical said...

That's insane, Eric. I'd never considered how adverse the situation would be for firefighters in a hoarder's residence.

Even thinking of the semi-hoarders I've known in life and the interior of their houses, I can't even fathom how challenging and dangerous it is to navigate a residence like that with no visibility. Much less, a place with towering "walls" of accumulated trash.

Thank God there are people brave enough to risk their own lives to fight fires people accidentally start through their own carelessness, even if it means taking on situations like this.

Greg said...

Sitting here at my computer reading your story put's into sharp focus how insane your job really is, firefighters are heroes.

fire simulator said...

Firefighters are the sometimes unknown heroes of everyday life. They sacrifice and train with the only end in mind is to save us and our homes. The best line used to describe is we run out of the burning house they run into it. Thanks for the great post and some really good information.

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najamonline4u said...

nice post. that was a challenge for the fire-stoppingpeople. the image from
thermal camera explained well.

Mike said...

This story is amazing. Showing the real side of fire-fighters life. you guyz are the real heroes.

Robin said...

Being a firefighter is proud in itself, I have also served as firefighter for three years, those moments are most memorable in my life. During this duration I have learned a lot, everyday I have new challenge with life. I really appreciate you for posting such a great facts about your basement operations.

bob t said...

Fire fighters deserve so much credit, what they do every day is amazing, I am learning about fire safety, I am doing my NEBOSH general, its very interesting!

Address Our Mess said...

One of the biggest physical impacts of hoarding are the fire hazards that come along with blocked electrical outlets, excessive presence of flammable liquids, gas leaks, and areas like stoves, water heaters, and other appliances being obstructed by clutter and debris. Consulting with profession hoarding cleaners, therapists, and support groups can be the first step for hoarders to cure the fire safety hazards in their home.

Kat Brennan said...

This is insane! I honestly don't know how firefighters do it, you would have to be so brave to tackle a building like that. I've always been paranoid of my house catching on fire and, although my friends make fun of me, at least I'm being cautious. My roommate was cooking and started a small fire on the stove yesterday. Luckily, I wasn't home but I sure don't want it to ever happen again. I think that getting a fire extinguisher would be a good idea for the times where I can't patrol how careful they're being.

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I heard that to be a firefighter you have to go through an extensive training. It seems to me that being well trained it's an essential requirement in this field. I heard so many great stories about these brave men all the time.

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