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Hoarding Hazards in the Home and Workplace

***First, a quick reminder that all artificial or natural trees set up at NIH for the holidays should have been removed by January 3. If you haven't done so, please take them down this week.***

The NIH Fire Marshal periodically encounters workplace situations of hoarding - collecting and retaining an excess of clutter that has little or no value. Municipal fire marshals and first responders also find severe cluttering in homes - sometimes to the point that a space is no longer able to function as a viable living space. Frequently hoarded items in the workplace include documents, magazines, journals, newspapers, personal papers, seasonal decorations, and items of sentimental value. Additional items found in homes include excess clothing, furniture, appliances, equipment, boxes, food items, household supplies, and even animals and related supplies. All of this can increase fire hazards, hinder escape in an emergency, and impede access by emergency responders.

Hoarding can increase fire and other hazards in the following ways:

  • Blocked escape paths, causing inability of occupants to escape.
  • Decreased width of escape paths, resulting in longer total evacuation times.
  • Increased fire severity due to the excessive amount of combustible material.
  • Increased risk of fire ignition due to combustibles near ignition sources such as appliances.
  • Rendering sprinkler systems ineffective due to sprinkler obstruction or increased fuel load.
  • Obstructing smoke detectors or fire alarm devices, causing delayed warning.
  • Difficulty of firefighters, emergency responders, or police to reach you or the source of an incident.
  • Risk of occupants or responders being trapped under, or injured by, falling items or equipment.
  • Risk of structural damage or building collapse, especially when soaked with firefighting water.

In many cases the workplace solution is to simply discard unneeded items, bring personal items home, or surplus excess material and equipment. In response to COVID-19, you may be ordering more supplies than usual to conduct work operations or protect staff. It is important that the storage of combustibles be in properly protected rooms. Storage in corridors is not permitted by the NIH corridor policy: https://policymanual.nih.gov/1361. Before you place storage in aisles within rooms, or in rooms other than storage rooms, consult with Fire Marshal staff to evaluate the adequacy of the sprinkler system, walls and doors, and exit paths.

In homes, people often have strong urges to save large amounts of various items – perhaps due to sentimental value or a compulsion based on future needs. Extreme hoarding can occur concurrently with psychiatric disorders. People have been injured when they trip over things or are struck by falling materials; others have been hurt or died in home fires when trapped by hoarding conditions. One of many examples can be seen in this video: https://youtu.be/Ti4wXmZSNjU.

A comprehensive Montgomery County Maryland Hoarding Task Force report on this challenging social issue can be found at: https://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/hhs/resources/files/reports/finaltaskforceonhoardingbehaviorreport.pdf. The report contains photos to illustrate the issues and resources to address them. Often family members make the difference in helping others who are unwilling or unable to help themselves. Many government jurisdictions have similar resources to assist.

If you have any questions regarding fire safety issues on campus, please contact the NIH Fire Marshal at 301-496-0487 or use their fire hazard reporting tool: https://www.ors.od.nih.gov/ser/dfm/Pages/Community-Complaint-Report.aspx. You may remain anonymous when reporting a hazard, but it always helps to provide a contact so the NIH Fire Marshal's office can obtain additional information if needed and notify you of the resolution.

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