Fire departments spread word about dangers of hoarding

The Hoarding Task Force was organized by Meredith Hawes, of the Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department. It's one of very few initiatives like his in the nation, and the only one if northwestern Michigan.

Hoarding, or the excessive accumulation of stuff, is an issue that has been around for a number of years but has gained a lot of media attention recently. Now, a new northern Michigan task force has been formed to address the safety concerns that hoarding poses for emergency and safety forces.

The Hoarding Task Force was organized by Meredith Hawes, of the Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department. It's one of very few initiatives like this in the nation, and the only one in northwestern Michigan.

"It's a pretty common problem," said Hawes. "It affects three to five percent of the population."

Hawes started the group as part of a nation-wide effort among fire departments to tackle hoarding concerns centered around emergency first responders.

"In medical situations it makes it difficult to get help in and patients out if there are very tight hallways or paths in the home," said Hawes. "It's a concern for residents in their ability to escape a fire if they should need to and it affects our firefighters' safety when they're going in to fight a fire."

In October 2013, A Grand Traverse County man lost his life during a mobile home fire at the Cherryland Mobile Home Park due to a hoarding situation.

"The resident had a back door that was blocked by some heavy items and then the front door was blocked by the flames in the fire," said Hawes. "So we had difficulty getting in, gaining access to the home to help the resident and it was evident that he had tried to escape and had essentially blocked his escapes."

The goal of the task force which is made up of nearly 30 agencies is to stop situations like this from happening by alerting each other to homes where hoarding exists. They will be using a rating system to determine the extent of the hoarding.

"It's important that people who get into these homes know what the age of the person is, disability of the person, what the home atmosphere is like, are they going to have a lot of blocked doorways..." said Bob Schlueter, Executive Director for Area Agency on Aging Northwest Michigan.

They would also like to be able to get impacted by hoarding help, in order to make the home safe for them to live in.

The Hoarding Task Force is starting their efforts in Grand Traverse County and plans to expand to surrounding counties soon. They do not have a direct connection yet, but anyone with questions can contact the Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department, 231 947-3000.

The next meeting for the Hoarding Task Force is scheduled for Friday June 13 at the Area Agency on Aging. It's an open meeting and anyone interested is invited to attend.