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...
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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.