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...

While this may not be considered a true “life hazard,” the fact does remain that most religious places of worship will have some artifacts that are sacred, of significant importance, or historical to the religion or congregation. These objects can be kept in a variety of locations; therefore, it is imperative that these objects and their locations are noted in the department pre-plans. Crews will need to have a layout of the area for them to be able to remove these items before irreplaceable damage occurs.

Water Supply – Ample amounts of water for suppression will be needed, along with accessibility to apply it. Many departments protect religious places of assembly that are set far off the road, or may be in the rear of a complex that houses a school, living quarters for figure heads, etc…. So be sure to identify the best access point for the area in question.

Auxiliary Appliances – As discussed earlier, over 95 percent of these structures did not have sprinkler systems in them when the fire occurred. While some may have taken a proactive step towards safe guarding their facilities, many more still are at risk. Without early detection and suppression systems, the fire will get a significant head start on the responding department.

Street Conditions – Gaining access to the facility will be difficult during mass hours. There will be a significant amount of parishioners who will be trying to exit the parking facility as you are trying to enter (see Photo 5). This will significantly delay your response. It would be beneficial for one of the initial responding companies to control the access points, this way responding units will have a clear path of travel into the scene.

Weather – Weather will have a direct effect on both the fire and the personnel working to control it. High heat, high humidity and biting cold weather will take its toll on responders. Having an ample supply of fresh firefighters to rotate in and out of the scene will help significantly. High winds will provide the fire with a large entrainment of air in the fire plume, exponentially increasing the energy it is creating, maximizing spread. While it may be futile to try to control these issues, they must be considered when developing an incident action plan.

Exposures – Some houses of worship are blended into the surrounding areas, nearby homes and structures that are part of the community (see Photo 6). The large fire load and potential heat energy from a large fire can jump to the exposed buildings rapidly. Consider the church that is connected to other buildings (convents, annexes, schools, etc…), does your response include sufficient resources to gain access into these exposures and take measures to cut off fire spread? It is imperative to get crews and handlines into exposure buildings that are close by, or even connected to the church.

Area & Height – Large ornate structural extensions, steeples, towers and roof assemblies will prove difficult to access. How would your company access the rear of the local house of worship? Is there enough room at the rear for an apparatus to operate out of the potential collapse zone? How would you access the annex? How about getting water up to the steeple tower? The layout and construction features will be problematic, but it is still your responsibility to develop a solution.

How would you stretch a line into the rear of the church that measures 200 feet deep and 300 feet wide? Can your apparatus get that much water through the front door, or do you have to find an alternative for access? How about ventilation of the structure: would you break the stained (perhaps historic) glass, or get an aerial device to the peak to vent (photo 7)? Can you even get close enough to do it, or must you rely on a mutual-aid department for resources to perform this task? If so, then get them coming early into the alarm.

Location & Extent – Before committing troops through the front door, it may be wise to recon the scene and find the best access point to reach the fire. According to the USFA, the largest percentages of church fires start out in the structural areas of the church (exterior walls and ceiling/roof assemblies), 17 percent begin in the worship, meeting or classroom areas, while only 10 percent of fires start in the kitchen. Based upon location, the “front-door” approach may not be the best possible solution. First-arriving units can take a front-door approach to “recon” the fire and find its location, and companies can be directed in from that point. However, do not allow the first-in company to put themselves in a precarious situation without the benefit and protection of a hoseline, if the need arises. Additionally, high-ceiling spaces, limited access to upper areas and hidden fires in structural members may make any offensive attack very precarious. If you cannot find the seat of the fire in the first few minutes, a change in operational mode may be in order (see Photo 8).