Hoarding Search Tips: Knowing the Difference in Storage and Occupied

Issue 3 and Volume 15.

Hoarding Disorder has many common stereotypes associated with it. The biggest being the house is going to be completely full. This is false. How long will it take someone to fill a 1,800-2,000 square foot house to head level. Often it can take many generations to fill the house to this height. More commonly buildings cluttered from hoarding will have varying levels of storage assigned to different locations. It may be a bedroom full, a living room full, with a pathway leading into the usable spaces, commonly bathrooms and kitchens.

Why are these facts important to firefighters tasked with entering the heavy content environment to perform a rescue? It highlights the need for assessment when searching for the victim. Searching firefighters should abandon the wall search and switch to an oriented firefighter search equipped with a search rope to mark the route of entry. Combine these methods with the addition of a thermal imaging camera (TIC) will give the best chance of finding a victim inside the large or small amounts of clutter.

Using the pathways that the occupant uses to navigate the stacks has proven to be the most successful tactic to locate and remover trapped occupants. As a firefighter enters this pathway he or she should use their TIC to spot points in the room that are above the content that will not move. Examples of this would be ceiling fans, large book cases, or can lights. Using the TIC to identify these objects in a secondary means of orientation due to stacks that may increase in size blocking the traditional access to windows and walls.

Using the thermal imager helps with orientation by scanning above the clutter. (Kill the Flashover and Insight Fire Training LLC photo)

This SHOULD NOT be the primary means of orientation due to the chance of TIC failure or moisture on the TIC sensor that may reduce the clarity of the screen. It is only a secondary means of orientation backed up with an oriented firefighter and a search rope.

Once inside the pathways advancing firefighters should take note where the pathway ends. This is commonly found in rooms used for storage and uninhabitable by the occupant. If there is no pathway into a room it is a storage space and the likeliness of finding a victim on top of these stacks are slim to none. Most occupants will be unable to scale the stacks physically and without experiencing a collapse of some sort. The same can be said for a searching firefighter.

A firefighter makes entry along the pathway created by the stacks. (Ryan Pennington photo)

Without using the awful term of always or never, let’s explain that even if they are located on top of the stacks the chances of a firefighter entering, searching, locating, and removing a victim on top of the stacks may be near impossible. Once a “dead end” pathway has been found simply raise up scan the tops with the TIC, sweep with your tool, and look for signs the victim may have entered that room upon discovery of the fire. Examples may be telephone cords, knocked over items, or walkers used by the occupant.

Without wasting time in the storage area direct your searching firefighters back down the pathway to continue the search. Occupants, even the severely panicked ones may not have the ability to scale the stacks of contents. They use the pathways to navigate the area, most of which can be accomplished in zero visibility areas due to the number of years they have lived in the location. Be aggressive in the search of the pathways while looking for things that look disturbed and “out of place” compared to the rest of the stacks.

Pay close attention to rooms that are NOT full. Often bathroom’s and kitchen are the LAST rooms to be filled and can become rooms of refuge for occupants that have been alerted to a fire.

Without a doubt rescues can be made from inside hoarding conditions. No matter what your staffing levels are firefighters need to adjust for the clutter and take into considerations when searching to give the occupant the best chance of survival. Using the pathways, identifying the unusable spaces, and being aggressive with orientation is the best method for searching firefighters.


Ryan Pennington is an authority and expert on heavy content firefighting (hoarder firefighting). He has more than 22 years in the fire service and is a firefighter/paramedic in Charleston, West Virginia. He has trained thousands of firefighters in the United States and internationally. He has been published in fire service magazines in the United States and Canada. He is the founder of ChamberofHoarders.com, an online training academy for heavy-content firefighting.