Firefighting Tactics for Houses of Worship

Nov. 21, 2011
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:

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).

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).

Time of Day & Year – Religious observances, national holidays and special events (communions, baptisms, weddings, etc…) will increase the life hazard present at the structure. Sadly, we as responders must also consider dates of significance for national events. Anniversaries of incidents of national significance can trigger violent events towards the infrastructure of a community, and houses of worship are not exempt from violence. Take a moment to think about any significance that the response may have prior to committing forces.

Additionally, the amount of time that has progressed since the onset of the incident can be a significant factor in selecting an operational mode. Should signs indicate that the fire has had an ample head start on the responders; it may be unwise to commit crews to an aggressive offensive attack.

Hazmat Presence – Renovations and upkeep to the decorative condition of the church may result in a wide variety of chemicals, paints, solvents and other hazardous materials inside the church. Moreover, the groundskeeper who is charged with maintaining the landscape of the church may also have chemicals and fuels around the area to perform the tasks required to maintain the grounds. Do not be surprised to find these materials sporadically around the premises.


Fires involving houses of worship will burden the responding companies early into the incident. An aggressive pre-plan, identifying the hazards within and surrounding the building will greatly assist the initial incident commander with incident action plan development, strategic mode identification and resource deployment. Without this information early into the incident, even the best strategist will find themselves playing catch-up throughout the alarm.

Until next month, stay focused and stay safe.


MICHAEL P. DALEY is a lieutenant and training officer with the Monroe Township, NJ, Fire District No. 3, and is an instructor with the Middlesex County Fire Academy, where he is responsible for rescue training curriculum development. Mike has an extensive background in fire service operations and holds degrees in business management and public safety administration. Mike serves as a rescue officer with the New Jersey Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1 and is a managing member for Fire Service Performance Concepts, a consultant group that provides assistance and support to fire departments with their training programs and course development. Mike has been guest on several podcasts including:Successful Rescue Operations in Today's Fire ServicePreparing for Tomorrow's RIT Deployment Today and Basement Fire Tactics Roundtable podcasts. View all of Michael's articles and podcasts here. You can reach Michael by e-mail at: [email protected].

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