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Hoarding: A Public Safety Issue That Needs to Be Addressed

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By Allison G. S. Knox
Contributor, EDM Digest

Hoarding cases only come to the attention of the public when the media shines a light on the most egregious cases. To cite a few instances:

  • Authorities find 35 cats in a trailer home.
  • First responders have difficulty rescuing an elderly man, because his house is stacked high with old newspapers.
  • A run-down building is condemned because of trash throughout the property and an excessive number of vehicles on the lawn.

As the Washington Post reported last year, “Hoarding is a serious disorder that is getting worse in the U.S.” Hoarding is also a serious fire hazard that creates a multitude of potential emergencies for emergency managers to handle. The National Fire Protection Association notes that “Many fire departments are experiencing serious fires, injuries and deaths as the result of compulsive hoarding behavior.”

Public policies are mostly reactive, which makes it difficult to combat hoarding before it happens. It is important for emergency managers to collaborate with public health officials to publicize the issue of hoarding and what communities can do to resolve it. By creating a public program that focuses on hoarding prevention, local governments might prevent their citizens from hoarding before that behavior becomes a public safety hazard.

Hoarding Behavior Is Considered a Psychiatric Illness in Some States

In some states, hoarding is a psychiatric condition that is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). In Massachusetts, for example, preventing someone from renting an apartment because of hoarding behavior can be considered discriminatory and a violation of the state’s fair housing laws.

Some organizations, including the Institute of Real Estate Management, offer advice on how to handle hoarding situations. Nonetheless, hoarding as a violation of fair housing laws affects how public policies are created to combat it.

In some cases, it is particularly beneficial to work with a state’s Department of Health to create a program that teaches the community to deal with hoarding cases in a holistic fashion, rather than waiting for the problem to become a public safety hazard. The Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership’s “Rethinking Hoarding Intervention” offers ways to help combat hoarding behavior in a comprehensive fashion.

Houston City Government Developed a Multi-Prong Plan to Combat Hoarding

As Governing magazine reported, the Houston, Texas, city government passed a comprehensive ordinance in 2014 to combat hoarding. The Houston Police Department will enforce the ordinance, while other municipal agencies work to assess the hoarding situation and take steps to lessen the public safety risks.

This new policy opened a conversation between agencies and departments to resolve community hoarding problems through collaboration. Their idea could be the beginning of a more holistic approach to combating hoarding cases before they become a serious safety concern for citizens.

Emergency Managers Should Collaborate with Public Health Officials to Prevent Hoarding

Georgia State University professors William L. Waugh Jr. and Gregory Streib wrote in a 2006 Public Administration Review article: “Collaboration is a necessary foundation for dealing with both natural and technological hazards and disasters and the consequences of terrorism.” On a small scale, the same principles of emergency management collaboration apply to hoarding.

If hoarding is such a problem for public safety and the numerous departments affected by hoarding, it is worthwhile for emergency managers to collaborate with public health officials to develop an anti-hoarding program. Knowing the needs of a community is an important step to understanding how to resolve public safety issues like hoarding.

Ultimately, emergency managers must know and understand their given jurisdictions to prevent certain public safety emergencies from happening and resolve some of the issues surrounding hoarding behavior.

Allison G. S. Knox Passionate about the issues affecting ambulances and disaster management, Allison focuses on Emergency Management and Emergency Medical Services policy. Allison has taught at the undergraduate level since 2010. Prior to teaching, she worked in a level-one trauma center emergency department and for a member of Congress in Washington, D.C. She holds four master’s degrees in Emergency Management, National Security Studies, International Relations, and History; a Graduate Certificate in Homeland Security; and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. Allison is an Emergency Medical Technician, Lifeguard, and Lifeguard Instructor, and is trained in Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue. She serves on the Board of Trustees for Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society as Chancellor of the Southeast Region, Vice Chair of the Tactical Emergency Medical Support Committee with the International Public Safety Association, and serves as the Advocacy Coordinator of Virginia with the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians. She is also a member of several committees including the Editorial Committee with APCO, the Rescue Task Force Committee with the International Public Safety Association, and the Advocacy Committee with the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians. She also serves as Chair of the Leadership Development Program for the 2020 Pi Gamma Mu Triennial Convention. Allison has published several book reviews and continues to write about issues affecting ambulances, emergency management, and homeland security.