Firefighting Tactics for Houses of Worship

Fires that are in churches and houses of worship tend to make headlines, no matter where they occur. These fires destroy more than just buildings; they can break apart a town that relies on the church for unity, they can erase memories and religious...


Fires that are in churches and houses of worship tend to make headlines, no matter where they occur. These fires destroy more than just buildings; they can break apart a town that relies on the church for unity, they can erase memories and religious artifacts and can invoke serious trepidation in a community as well. In March of 2002, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) released a report on church fires and disclosed the following:

  • An average of 1,300 church fires are reported each year, causing almost $40 million in damages and property loss;
  • The leading cause of church fires is arson (25 percent);
  • About 30 percent of church fires are the result of mechanical failures, such as faulty electrical systems, heating systems and other related utilities. Many of these fires can be attributed to the age of the building, as many of these structures are not brought into compliance with local fire codes;
  • Of reported fires in churches, 65 percent of them did not have smoke alarms, and 96 percent did not have sprinkler systems.

Fires in these structures will tax the local emergency responders for a variety of reasons. This month, we will be taking a look at responding to these incidents from a 13-point size-up view:

Construction – Many older churches will be type III or type IV, with design load features that will allow for a large open floor area for the congregants to assemble into for services. High peaked roofs, ornate truss systems and lamella arch roofs are quite common (se Photo 1). These assembly areas allow for a significant amount of heat energy to collect high above the first-in companies looking for the seat of the fire. This overhead hazard can provide for a rapid increase of heat, to the point of flashover, and catch the companies off-guard. Furthermore, the intense heat in the roof space will attack the support systems rapidly and cause catastrophic collapses. Newer construction techniques in these occupancies provide for the same large assembly area, but will do it with lighter materials, engineered lumber, hybrid construction materials and an ample supply of void spaces. Newer constructed churches may give off the illusion of an older structure, but don’t be fooled by the historical setting; be sure to pre-plan the building to be sure of construction type.

Occupancy – Many churches are used for more than places of worship; many of them provide additional services for the community in the form of schools, day-care centers, fellowship groups and so on. Churches may have limited staff during the week that covers day-to-day operations at the facility (see Photo 2). So, even though your response may be during a time that is not around mass hours, there may still be an occupancy issue that has to be dealt with.

Apparatus, Personnel & Equipment – Response to this incident will require multiple alarms, usually at least a third alarm (dependent on area served). Roof access, long hose stretches, set-backs from the curb side, accountability, large-diameter handlines and rapid intervention company (RIC) duties will demand a large tactical support cache of both apparatus and manpower. It is important to get the troops responding early.

Life Hazard – There will be a large variety of worshippers, from infants through senior citizens. Many of these people will need assistance in evacuation, but managing the chaos that comes with a fire in a large place of assembly will prove difficult unless resources are identified before the fire starts. Most people will head for the point of entry used to enter the facility. Odds are very good that the exit and the exit discharge will not provide adequate support for the churchgoers to come out, and allow the firefighters to get in (see Photo 3). It may require the first-due apparatus to work on the evacuation prior to stretching in. In the event the house of worship in your area has a rear exit or fire escape, be sure to assign two companies to that location to assist in the removal of people from that area; limited maintenance and upkeep may result in unforeseen overloading of the egress, which could result in failure (see Photo 4).

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