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Hoarding, squalor a challenge for first-responders

Saturday, July 12, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
A firefighter sifts through the debris, trash and hoarded items in April at a Springfield house that caught fire. Sometimes Springfield firefighters find themselves in homes with extreme squalor and hoarding conditions that make it difficult to remove people in medical crisis.

SPRINGFIELD — Fire Capt. John "Rosie" Grier was atop a ladder entering a burning Springfield home to save a man's life.

It was Oct. 12, 2012, Grier's 48th birthday. Contrary to Hollywood portrayals, Grier said, firefighters rarely can rescue people trapped in a fire. If you can't save yourself you're likely to die, he said.

Grier pushed in the window air-conditioning unit. But for some reason, it did not drop to the inside floor.

What Grier would soon learn is that the man he was trying to save apparently was a hoarder. In the heat and smoke, Grier, a 15-year veteran, could not see what he was up against — trash and possessions stacked high throughout the room, impeding his progress.

He could not see the victim but heard him gasping.

"I tell people it's like being in a fog in an oven," Grier said. "It's the darkest, hottest place you've ever been."

Too often, Springfield firefighters and rescue personnel encounter conditions just like this, said Cara Restelli Erwin, fire department spokeswoman. They find themselves in too many homes with extreme squalor and hoarding conditions that make it difficult to remove people in medical crisis.

"It is a lot more common than a lot of people realize," Erwin said. "It is a pretty serious issue here in Springfield."

Grier, who for 15 years has responded to calls across the city, estimates 30 percent of the homes he has entered as a firefighter have hoarding and squalor conditions that impede saving lives.

"I have seen cockroaches running around, animal feces and, in a lot of places, human feces," Grier said. "This is our own community. I am sure that a lot of it is education. A lot of it is economics. They don't think about letting the animals out. We have seen people use the water bed frame — with the mattress drained — for a cat litter box."

With the Springfield Fire Department leading the way, a task force composed of representatives of various social-service agencies was created last year to help people whose homes are overrun with debris and trash. It includes the Rev. Mark Struckhoff, executive director of the Council of Churches of the Ozarks.

"I do not know a clergy person in this community who does not want to see the quality of life improve for people who are suffering," Struckhoff said.

The task force only now is gaining momentum, Erwin said. That's because in May the Safe and Sanitary Homes Collaborative joined forces with the Community Partnership of the Ozarks. The partnership provides staffing and funding assistance. Last week, the collaborative received a $2,000 grant from the O'Reilly Foundation. The grant application was submitted through the Partnership.

The objective is to improve the health and safety of residents and first responders, to reduce fire hazards and to address the growing problems of hoarding and squalor, Erwin said. Generally, she said, hoarding is a mental health issue, and living in squalor is a socioeconomic issue that, for example, includes people unable to afford trash service.

"Mitigation may include trash disposal, extermination and even mental health counseling," Erwin said.

It's a national problem, Erwin said, but it is more prevalent in Springfield because of the community's pockets of poverty.

"And I lost him"

Grier fumbled through the darkness, disoriented not only by the smoke but by the junk and trash. He managed to locate Ronald G. Moore, 39, near the door to the bedroom. Grier tried to close the door to seal off the fire. He couldn't. Debris was in the way.

Moore, gasping, slumped to the floor.

"He was kind of curled up in the corner in kind of a fetal position," Grier said.

To save him, Grier would have to pull Moore several feet to the bed — which consisted of several mattresses stacked almost to the height of the window — and then several more feet to the window.

Moore weighed about 215 pounds. He could no longer assist in his own rescue.

"I'm 6 foot 3½ and 280 pounds," Grier said. "The guys will tell you I'm a pretty good horse. I am pretty good about moving people and breaking stuff."

But he was working in an oven and moving someone whose body was limp.

"I got one of his arms on the bed and I tried to pull him onto the bed," Grier said. "And something fell nearby. I don't know what it was. And I lost my grip and I lost him."

Chris Straw, Springfield's director of building development services, doesn't know how many complaints the city receives regarding hoarding and extreme squalor. The problems are not considered a primary cause for city enforcement, he said. As a result, they are not tallied.

For example, city inspectors might question how sound a home's exterior wall is. If the occupant is not cooperative, he said, the city must ask a judge for a search warrant. If granted, only then would city inspectors discover horrific conditions inside the home.

Hoarding is a mental illness often rooted in obsessive compulsive disorder, depression or both, said Pamela Stoelzel, who directs the senior services department at Burrell Behavioral Health. She said hoarders attach distorted significance to possessions based on irrational thoughts that, for example, might include the belief that keeping everything ever owned by one's mother is a way of connecting to one's mother.

"It would surprise you some of the places where we see this," Grier said. "We go to places on the south side of town. They are chock full of stuff. Some of it is how the college kids live. People who have obvious mental impairment. And some people who have just not been taught that this is not a normal way for people to live."


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