Preventing Church Fires

The church fire problem in the southeastern United States is receiving long-overdue national attention. Statistical data collected by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) indicates that church fires are on the increase. Most distressing is the increase in the arson or suspicious category of fire causes at church occupancy classifications.

Knowing that a church fire devastates a community, fire-rescue agencies must take every step possible to prevent these senseless tragedies from happening. It is up to the fire chief to build a strong alliance with the local police agency and the state fire marshal’s office to educate their church leadership in modern prevention techniques and strategies. This article will examine the actions that can be taken to aggressively fight this heinous crime.

To get started, let’s quickly review the basic motives associated with arson fires. To best defeat an enemy, one should try to understand how the enemy thinks and operates. Motives will tell a lot about these characters. The six principle reasons why fires are deliberately set by people are:

The profit motive is one of the simplest to understand. The arsonists will directly or indirectly gain from the acts they commit. As an example, the arsonist might be paid to burn down a building so that another may collect insurance or to control a loss from a failing business.

Next, fires may be set to cover a crime, such as a murder. The arsonist believes that a set fire will destroy the evidence of the crime. Generally speaking, the criminal evidence is not destroyed by the results of fire.

Revenge is the process of “getting even” with someone. Typically, revenge is directed in some sort of domestic setting. The arsonist almost always knows the person or persons that they are attacking with fire. The classification of protest may be the motive behind some of the church fires of present day. Subversive groups that use fire as a tool of terror fall under this category as well.

Vandalism, malicious destruction and excitement is the next set of reasons that fires are deliberately lit. Included in this segment of motives are the people who are infatuated or very curious about fire. If these arsonists are not caught and behavior changed early on, they are likely to set many fires that increase in size.

Finally, the group that is mentally afflicted makes up the last broad class of fire setters. They set fires not completely understanding their potential devastation.

Knowing that this is an emerging issue and having a basic understanding of an arsonist’s motives is not enough. The fire-rescue service must lead the changes that are necessary to eliminate this problem. We must develop and implement an action plan that works.

The first step is to understand that the burning of churches is everyone’s problem. The fire and police agencies must hold ongoing meetings with their local church officials. These frank meetings must identify the problems that confront churches and the solutions to these issues.

The news media have emphasized the burning of black churches. This national exposure and awareness is good but the problem is not limited to black houses of worship. According to Alabama State Fire Marshal John Robertson, that state has suffered 38 church fires in the last six years. Of the churches that have burned in that Deep South state, 20 have been in predominately white churches, while 18 fires occurred in black community churches.

This nearly equal breakdown by specific race is no surprise when you consider that all rural churches represent “soft targets.” That means they are vulnerable to burglary, vandalism and arson. Therein lies the second step in the action plan. A highly vulnerable property needs to become a “harder target” to hit. The church community needs to be part of a neighborhood watch program. The police department should have a vast amount of information on getting started with a watch system. Discuss the need for technological support equipment to deter crime. Properly installed lighting that uses motion detection to save on electricity is cheap and effective. Light, noise and people are the biggest deterrents to this cowardly form of crime.

A remotely monitored alarm system may be the solution. The cost is reasonable and should provide a reduction in various insurance premiums. Over the course of several years, a basic burglar/fire alarm system may pay for itself.

In conjunction with the alarm equipment, remind the church officials to properly identity and label valuable property. An electric engraving pencil is inexpensive and can be used to permanently mark church possessions. Point out that cash should not be left in the church for any reason. The knowledge that cash is inside the building becomes a strong motive for criminal actions. The fire in this situation may be used to cover up a break in by a thief. A videotape of the church building and the valuables should be made and stored in a safe place (like a bank safe deposit box) remote from the church.

Don’t forget to emphasize the use of stickers and signs on the property in obvious places. These items help warn would-be criminals that the church is not a soft target. These signs should announce the presence of an alarm system or a neighborhood watch program.

Keep focused on making the church building an undesirable target. This also means the installation and use of good-quality dead-bolt door locks and sound window latches. Always keep the building locked when not occupied. Advise the church officials to trim back the bushes and trees. The ground cover should not exceed three to four feet and the tree limbs should be cut up to the 10-foot mark. Don’t provide shelter for the arsonist to use. Remove and do not use hidden keys on the property. This convenience could be the basis for tragic results.

Discuss sound fire prevention practices and principles with the ministers. If the combustible material is at a minimum level, the arsonist will have a tougher job. Point out the dangers of extension cords that are permanently placed in service and other electrical hazards. Don’t miss the opportunity to discuss the proper use and supervision of candles in the church. Suggest that they are never allowed to burn unattended.

Support the idea that all suspicious activity must be reported to the police at once. Even the small concerns should be relayed to the police. Have the person who observed that behavior call and be as specific as possible. This information can be used to build a profile that will be of great assistance to the police department in controlling crime.

Provide all of your churches with information on how to contact their public safety officials. Point out how to ask the fire marshal for fire prevention inspections. Reinforce the thought that there is help and the police and fire departments will work hard to keep the heinous crime of church arson out of the community.

If your department answers an alarm at a church, try to put the blaze out where you find it. The fire marshal’s office will need as much evidence to work with as possible. The task of properly determining the cause and origin of the fire will rely on as much evidence as you can provide. If possible, take pictures of the incident early and often. Again, this will be an aid to the fire investigator. Make sure that your state fire marshal’s office has been notified and you may extend an invitation for their assistance during the investigation process.

Hold regular meetings with the local ministers. This will keep the concept of arson prevention in front of them. Remember that most clergy have full-time jobs, so hold the meetings during evening hours. Don’t overplay the meetings with your local media. There is a great concern that some of the church burnings are copycat crimes. The media attention is part of the incentive for some to burn a church.

To summarize, here is a basic action plan to help you get started:

  • Hold regular meetings with the key stakeholders — clergy, police and fire officials.
  • Agree that this situation is a community problem.
  • Consider making the church property a hard target.
  • Identity and mark valuables.
  • Never store cash in the church.
  • Proper fire prevention techniques and housekeeping is a must.
  • Ensure access to all local and state police & fire officials.
  • Report all suspicious activity immediately.
  • Low media profile.
  • Extinguish any fire quickly to preserve evidence.

You should not have to go this process alone. There are many agencies that are ready to help, such as the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and your state fire marshal’s office. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has established a toll-free church hot line, 888-603-3100. Please feel free to contact this author of the Dothan Fire and Police Department’s Church Fire Prevention Guide.

Dennis L. Rubin, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the Dothan, AL, Fire Department.