Related InformationMental health professionals treating hoarding as mental disorder
A fatal fire last week in Warren County prompts action to make residents aware of hoarding's dangers
By Joe Beck
Warren County fire officials are planning an education initiative about the risks of hoarding in the aftermath of a fire in which a 72-year-old woman died as firefighters struggled to locate her amid a vast amount of stored items in her large home.
Firefighters arrived at the home of Pauline A. Hockett, 72, of 220 Locust Dale Road, Front Royal, at about midnight Thursday and found their efforts to rescue her slowed by a considerable amount of clutter, some of it reaching as high as 6 feet.
"Throughout the first floor of the home, these guys were actually walking or climbing over material in the home trying to locate the victim without knowing a definite area where the victim was at the time of the 911 call," Fire Marshal Gerry Maiatico said.
Maiatico estimated it took about 25 minutes to find Hockett in the basement where she had died from smoke inhalation and thermal inhalation.
He said it was impossible to know whether she could have been saved had the fire crew reached her sooner, but there was no doubt that "conditions in the home greatly hampered rescue efforts."
"They were tripping and falling over these items, they were running into roadblocks every couple of feet," Maiatico said of fire crew members.
Hockett's death was the first by fire in Warren County in five years. Fire Chief Richard E. Mabie has ordered his department to begin contacting several agencies in the county that would work with the Fire and Rescue Services on educating people about fire risks associated with hoarding.
Maiatico said Mabie is committed "to preventing the loss of life in the community and making sure this type of thing doesn't happen again."
Hoarding's dangers extend to emergency calls for medical attention when every second counts for paramedics trying to save a patient's life, Maiatico said.
"They cannot get in, and they have to remove the patient from the environment before they can start the treatment process," Maiatico said, adding that hoarding can also imperil first responders.
"We don't want to commit people to areas where we don't know what conditions they will find," he said.
Hockett's sons, Glenn, 40, and Jeff, 46, will be joining the education effort.
"I told them I'd be happy to be of assistance in any way we could," Jeff Hockett said of Fire and Rescue Services. He added that the family is asking that people donate money to the department's smoke detector program in lieu of flowers.
Maiatico said the smoke detectors functioned properly during the fire at the Hockett home. He elaborated on the source of the fire, which began with improper disposal of smoking material.
"Basically, this fire stemmed from cigarettes being placed in a trash receptacle, dumping ash trays into a trash can" he said. "The Department of Fire and Rescue Services wants to remind everybody to fill ash trays with water, then dump them into a receptacle to make sure all smoking embers and cigarettes themselves are extinguished."
Maiatico said all cigarettes are required to be fire safe, which means they carry an additive that allows them to extinguish themselves if no one draws air through them.
"Even though that is a safety measure, it's not 100 percent," Maiatico said. "So we still say before you discard a cigarette, soak it with water."
Maiatico said the department's response to hoarding problems will focus on education and obtaining mental health support when hoarders are posing risks to themselves and others. No new enforcement actions or laws are planned, he said.
"We want to be respectful and focus on safety issues, not judge people on how they live and why they do the things they do," Maiatico said.
He said he was especially pleased that the Hockett family is prepared to participate in the education campaign.
"The family is taking the position that if the story of Pauline can save someone else's life, then potentially some good can come out of something like this," Maiatico said.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org