MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- In the city of Morgantown, 911 dispatchers and firefighters call it an "overloaded structure." You'd call it the home of a hoarder.
Whatever the label, says code enforcement officer Tammy Michael, "it's a major safety issue." And one that Morgantown is trying to get a handle on.
The city is the first in West Virginia to create a task force on hoarding, bringing code and fire officials together with mental health agencies and others to identify homes that pose a danger to their occupants and to the emergency teams who might someday be called there.
"If you can't turn around in your house," Michael says, "first responders can't get to you."
The problem has been around for decades.
Capt. Ken Tennant, Morgantown's fire marshal, recalls going through the door of a burning home some 20 years ago. He found tires used as furniture and a car transmission in the bathtub. He quickly turned around.
"Sometimes it's not worth dying for," he says.
The difference today is that at least three cable TV shows are dedicated to exposing the problem and educating people about the underlying emotional and mental health issues: "Hoarders" on A&E. "Hoarders: Buried Alive" on TLC. Even "Confessions: Animal Hoarding" on Animal Planet.
The International Obsessive Compulsive Foundation says hoarding could affect as many as one in 20 people, and as many as one in four people who suffer with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
To qualify as compulsive hoarding, the foundation says, three components must be present: A person collects many items, cluttering up their living spaces and preventing them from being used for the intended purposes, then allows those items to cause distress or problems in day-to-day activities.
While hoarding can be treated with therapy and medications, the foundation says the solution isn't to clean out the house for the person. That often creates extreme distress and intensifies the attachments to the possessions.
Michael, who came up with the idea for the task force, says she first explained to her bosses that hoarding is a bigger problem than grass that's grown too high. There are complex emotional and mental health issues at work, including intense feelings of privacy, anger and fear.
"I can't tell these people, 'You just have to get rid of everything in 20 days,'" she says.
Nor does she have many tools at her disposal when she does meet such people.
State building and fire codes give authorities access to property outside and to the interior of buildings with three residential units or more. But single- and two-family homes are exempt from most regulations.