The London Fire Department is making their concerns about hoarding, and how it affects the safety of fire crews and other emergency workers, public.

There are hundreds of hoarders in London and Insp. James Hind says “For the people who live like this, this is normal. This is their life. Everything that you see…holds some sort of meaning to them.”

That can include rotten food, clothing stacked feet high, dust, debris and more that make it difficult to navigate a residence.

On the city’s website the fire department describes hoarding as “a psychological disorder characterized by an inability to throw things away or the obsession with continuously acquiring things.”

Hind heads up the Hoarders Task Force, which aims to help those affected overcome obstacles in their homes and lives and let go of their stuff.

“There’s help available,” Hind says. “You can call the fire department, you can call the mental health agencies to help deal with it. The issue being is that the person has to voluntarily go for the help, and if you’re living like this, chances are you’re not going to voluntarily go and ask for help.”

But when help is offered, people will take advantage of the opportunity.

One woman, who doesn’t want her name used, says “You just stop and think, ‘I’ve got to do this now, where do I begin and how do I get there.’”

Her collecting got so out of hand she didn’t report being assaulted for fear police would enter her home.

The electricity still doesn’t work in half of her apartment and she can’t get it repaired because she doesn’t want to risk being evicted.

She’s been cleaning for months, but still has more work to do. She says “It was hard at first to let go, but it had to be done, so then you let go.”

There have been tragic incidents. In 2007 an elderly London woman died and in 2010 a fire on a Toronto hoarder’s balcony displaced thousands of residents.

And it’s a difficult situation for firefighters too, Hind says, “If a fire started it’s going to envelop this place in seconds and…the amount of stuff in here will actually absorb the water the firefighters will use and could cause the collapse of the building.

Hoarders living in multi-unit buildings could face fines under property standards bylaws while renters could be evicted, but there is little other recourse to provide assistance if they don’t seek it out voluntarily.