Collyer Mansion, Part II

Three universal fireground considerations from actual incidents

Dec. 23, 2009 news reports of two hoarding fires that claimed occupants,
Alabama: “In some cases, firefighters would climb through a room’s window and have to exit in the same matter because they could not advance to other rooms, Huffman said.”

Illinois: “When they were able to begin their search of the home, firefighters, including some who were able to force their way in the front door, found the man under about 3 feet of debris in the home’s living room, about 10 feet from the front door, Janetske said.”

A policeman in the Collyer mansion, the novel's setting, where 100 tons of refuse was found and the brothers lived in reclusive eccentricity. (Photos By Tom Watson -- New York Daily News)

A policeman in the Collyer mansion, the novel's setting, where 100 tons of refuse was found and the brothers lived in reclusive eccentricity. (Photos By Tom Watson -- New York Daily News)

The earlier article looked at how the term Collyer’s Mansion has evolved, how the conditions have become common throughout the country, and how to provide a brief amount of pre-planning to operate safer. This article will look at three proven facts from fires involving Collyer’s Mansion conditions.

Fact Number 1
“The interior attack will not be as fast as you like”

Forcible entry into dwellings under Collyer’s Mansion conditions is complicated due to the occupant’s compulsive disorder (hoarding) as well as fear. Those experiencing fear most likely suffer from other social anxieties as well as isolation. This was most likely the case of Langley Collyer. An early onset of dementia possibly coupled with a change in the neighborhood environment (vandalism, attempted theft) no doubt led him to putting his degree in mechanical engineering to work constructing booby traps.

The difference between the Collyer’s Mansion and that of a drug house is the occupants of a Collyer’s Mansion usually don’t want you in and they don’t want to go out themselves. If the first-due engine company, operating without a truck, is responsible for forcing entry, Collyer’s Mansion conditions may require that more than one firefighter begin opening up the dwelling. This takes members away from the initial stretch. The incident commander should request additional companies as he begins to backfill to complete the initial tasks.

This may mean that the second-due company will handle the initial stretch or that the second-due truck assists the first-due with entry. Subsequent arriving companies should also expect to be operating in almost unorthodox manners, such as through windows, over porch roofs, from inside garages, in order to gain entry into the building. The key to remember is that the fire is still growing, extending into other areas of the dwelling. We should anticipate that the conditions we find once we gain access are not at all what they were we when first arrived and plan accordingly.


  • Yonkers, NY 2008: 2 1/2-story private dwelling
    Elderly coupled barred their windows with metal rods and nailed the front door shut. They used the garage as a point of regular access.
  • Chillum-Adelphi, MD 2007: 1 1/2-story private dwelling
    Finding Collyer’s Mansion conditions in the rear, crews initially attacked the fire with three lines at once and despite best efforts, fire was doubtful for the first few minutes.
  • Manhattan, NY 1999: Seven-story multiple dwelling
    Firefighters found their way blocked with piles of paper, furniture, etc. Crews had to remove materials before advancing inside.
  • Fact Number 2
    “No matter the size of the structure, you will most likely run out of air”

    We must realize that our rate of respiration as well as our actual time working will increase due to the obstacles being negotiated. Getting to the seat of the fire is only half the battle. Once there, we are left with little air, as compared to simply stretching up to a bedroom in a well-kept Cape Cod.

    Also, no one has come behind us in a large effort to remove the obstacles. The same difficulty faced trying to find the fire, we will face again in trying to get out once our low air device activates. Members operating inside, and incident commanders, need to be much more aware of their “on air time” when facing Collyer’s Mansion conditions. This would most likely require having additional companies standing by, as well as more than one company assigned to rapid intervention duties, if possible.

    On June 1997 a fire in Queens, NY, Engine 331 and Ladder 173 were first arriving at a fire in a the basement of a one-story private dwelling. Captain Vincent Fowler led his interior team into the basement to locate the fire and immediately encountered Collyer’s Mansion conditions.
    Both companies had difficulty with waist-high material and constantly having to free themselves of entanglements. Heat was still building despite Engine 331 only being able to hit the rollover.

    After several minutes and still unable to get to the fire room, Vibralerts began to activate. Captain Fowler called for companies to withdrawal back to the stairway and out. Being the last in line, Captain Fowler ran out of air and removed his facepiece. Recognizing the slow progress to get out and more members running out of air, Captain Fowler told his probie not to worry, he would transmit a Mayday. He collapsed before he could do this.

    Squad 270 had arrived and was directed to locate Ladder 173. They encountered the same difficulties in movement and had nearly exhausted their own SCBA supply while assisting Engine 331 out of the basement. Lieutenant James Earl located Fowler and his probie and had run out of air before he could get them both to the stairway. The members were removed by two other ladder companies.

    Lieutenant Earl was transported to Jamaica Hospital and given last rites. He survived and was later awarded the Thomas F. Dougherty medal. Probationary Firefighter Paul Torns, only on the job for four months, never left his officer. He was awarded the Probationary Firefighter Thomas A. Wylie Memorial award.

    Captain Vincent Fowler was posthumously awarded the Thomas E. Crimmins medal for placing the safety of his men and others above himself.

    Getting to the seat of the fire is only half the battle. Remember, no one has come behind us to systematically and completely remove the waist-high material we climbed over. If we have to bail out, we will have the same difficulty getting out as we did getting in. How much air will we have left to do this with?

    Fact Number 3
    “The engine company may have to operate in an unorthodox way to support a rescue”

    Collyer’s Mansion conditions in 2009 are no different than they were in 1947. Today we know better some of the causes and indicators. What was once considered a big city problem, it is now found in the suburbs and country. In March 2005 in The Bronx, NY, the interior team of Ladder 44 found smoke pushing from the door of apartment 3J. Unable to open the door all the way because of debris, Lieutenant Dooley and his team began passing bags of rubbish out into the public hall. As they made their way into the apartment hallway, they continued removing material as the fire conditions intensified.

    Finally reaching a bathroom Firefighter Mancusco began a search and located the 71-year old occupant. Engine 42 was making the stretch while Dooley and Mancusco tried to remove the victim. While Mancusco used his extinguisher can, Dooley tried to free the occupant’s legs from underneath piles of trash and material. Finally freeing her, the duo now had to drag each other up and over debris as the fire extended into the hall past the bathroom. Seeing their position as increasingly untenable, Lieutenant Dooley ordered Engine 42 to open their line on the fire above them. While protecting the victim with their bodies, Dooley and Mancusco subjected themselves to scalding steam and falling debris.

    Hearing radio reports of the fire extending into other parts of the building, Dooley repeatedly ordered Engine 42 to operate their hoseline over them, subjecting them to scalding water and steam, until they removed the victim to the public hall.

    The limited access inside a dwelling with Collyer’s Mansion conditions will lead us to reconsider some basic hoseline strategies. In the example above the engine company had to operate their hoseline while members from the truck were in between the line and the fire. Depending on the exact conditions found, engine companies should be prepared to operate in unusual ways. To support a rescue, the first line may need to be run overtop a porch roof and support Vent, Enter, Search (VES) operations. In another situation, engine companies may have to operate opposing handlines in order to contain the fire’s extension while a rescue is taking place.

    Reviewing reports of fires involving Collyer’s Mansion conditions will give engine company personnel the ability to learn from the actual companies operating as well as think through and drill on the odd situations they might find. The most obvious areas are forcible entry, air time management and changes in strategy and tactics. For some departments this may be as simple as doubling the companies on the primary search and leading off with a 2 1/2-inch handline. For others, it may mean the immediate transmission of a greater alarm assignment.

    The impact of social and economic influences touches communities everywhere. The response to Collyer’s Mansion conditions is developed in only two ways: early recognition of exterior signs and discovery at the actual working incident. To operate successfully, personnel need to realize how the above factors affect their performance and should consider new strategies that give a positive outcome. If your department finds yourself operating within Collyer’s Mansion conditions, send me your details, photographs and lessons learned to share with others in future articles.

    Collyer Mansion, Part I

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    1 Comment

    • Chief Reason says:

      My first encounter with this phenomenon was back in the early 80s. For some strange reason, single, male farmers liked to dedicate a room to “storage”. Farmers don’t like to throw anything away because they might need it and won’t get the selling price they want for it anyway. Fuel for the fire, literally.
      Then again, we had a 2 story catch fire in town. We went upstairs to check for extension and could NOT get the bedroom door open for all of the “stuff” that was in that room. The woman who lived there looked like Olive Oyl, so that explained how she could get in and out of her “storage” room.
      Again; we thought it was messy housekeeping until we noticed that it was “categorized”.
      Good article.

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