Common Occupancy, Uncommon Response: Firefighting in Places of Worship, Part 2

A recent National Fire Protection Association report stated that 1,570 fires occur annually in places of worship in the United States. These low-frequency, high-consequence fires challenge the best-prepared and well-staffed fire departments and have resulted in structural collapse of part or all of the structure and, at times, have injured and killed firefighters. Part 1 of this article (“Common Occupancy, Uncommon Response: Firefighting in Places of Worship, Part 1,” Fire Engineering, April 2020) presented architectural and general features of places of worship. Understanding the architectural and general features provides the foundational knowledge building blocks for understanding fire strategy and the procedures presented below.


Fires in Gothic-Style Churches

Fighting the Church Fire


Most fires in places of worship that are quickly discovered and reported can be extinguished using one or two handlines. However, strategically, the incident commander (IC) must always be preparing for an exterior attack, especially when fire extends to any of the many hidden voids or to an area containing any type of truss roof.

It is important that the first-arriving officer locate and size up the fire and determine whether it can be extinguished using handlines. If not, the initial strategy must be to set up for an exterior fire attack. This determination is one of the most critical initial fireground decisions for a fire in a place of worship.

If the first-arriving officer determines that an interior attack is appropriate, he should communicate this to all members on scene. Proper hoseline placement necessitates a coordinated size-up and communication by the first-arriving units, the engine, and the ladder. Following size-up, stretch the hoselines through the entrance door that provides the quickest access to the fire.

Whenever two hoselines have been stretched and are operating and the fire does not show immediate signs of extinguishment, the IC should prepare for an exterior attack. Once fire has gained headway in a place of worship, it is difficult to prevent it from involving the entire structure. It will quickly spread through the many voids and large open spaces to all parts of the structure. If it is not quickly brought under control, expect a heavy or total loss of the structure and contents, along with a partial or entire structural collapse.

Fire Operations

Basement/cellar fire. These areas often include large meeting halls, daycare facilities, classrooms, kitchens, and offices. The ceilings of these areas often support heavy religious statues and may have terrazzo or other stone-type flooring, increasing the potential for floor collapse when fire enters the basement ceiling and weakens the first-floor support. These terrazzo or stone flooring systems can mask heat conditions for members operating above. Cellar windows often are small and covered with thick window bars, which will limit ventilation and make access or egress difficult and time-consuming.

For a cellar fire where operations will be in close quarters, mobility of operations is a paramount consideration. For these fires, use 1¾-inch interior hoselines. Cellar fires may extend through hidden voids. Firefighters operating above the cellar must immediately check for extension on the first floor and in the cockloft/attic area.

First-floor fire. When the fire is in an open area of a place of worship, you may need the reach of the stream to reach the higher elevations. For this reason, and since mobility is not generally a problem, use 2½-inch initial lines.

Choir loft fires. The choir loft is often directly above the main entrance below the large rose window, usually accessed by a small narrow stair. Crowding of this narrow stairwell will make hoseline advancement difficult. You will also find a large pipe organ in the choir loft. Commonly, the organ pipes may partially block the rose window. When a fire involves the underside of the choir loft, the collapse of the choir loft is possible.

Attic fire. Firefighters must gain access to the attic space to check for fire extension. Access to the attic may be by a narrow spiral staircase, which will slow firefighters’ arrival to the area. Finding a stairway that leads to the attic space may take time. However, it is very important to check the attic since an unnoticed fire there could cause collapse of the roof truss beams and ceiling. This is especially important during salvage and overhaul, when the fire may appear to be extinguished but can still be burning in this concealed area, unknown to the firefighters operating below.

Some places of worship have a ventilation opening for the concealed attic space. This ventilation opening provides an excellent location from which to apply water to extinguish fire in the concealed attic or cockloft above the ceiling. This ventilation opening is typically on the front or rear of the long side of a place of worship. When in the front, it will be a few feet above the rose window. When fire is within the large open area, the first priority is a tower ladder stream into the rose window. However, when fire is not visible within the large area but is suspected to be within the concealed area of the attic or cockloft, applying water through the ventilation opening is the priority. This should also be the priority following the control of a fire within the large, open space using the rose window.

Bell tower or attic fires. In most cases, when fire enters the bell tower or attic space, firefighters will not be able to extinguish the fire using handlines because of the limited access and the lack of ventilation. Firefighters will have to withdraw and employ an exterior operation. For a fire in the attic, the ceiling may collapse before the roof trusses.

Ladder Operations

Places of worship contain many avenues of fire travel that contribute to rapid fire spread and an early collapse potential. Fire spread may not be obvious during fire operations because the structural elements may be covered by finishing material or obscured by smoke conditions. Firefighters must quickly open up these voids. Knowing the fire travel avenues and the effects of fire on the various structural members will assist in this process.

Interior operating forces at an apparently small, localized fire may be unaware of fire involvement in the trusses above them. Members should use the thermal imaging camera from below to determine whether fire has involved the truss space. When it has, exterior operations should be the primary tactical consideration. Remind units of the collapse potential of these roof systems.

Search teams should consider search ropes in the large, open areas of places of worship. Seating areas may contain movable seats, adding an additional obstacle. Seats will also be arranged in narrow aisles.


Ventilating the large vaulted spaces will be difficult. Venting the side windows, sometimes made with stained glass, will not effectively ventilate the upper portions of the structure. Likewise, venting the rose window may not provide adequate ventilation. Generally, it is best to vent the window closest to the fire in conjunction with hoseline advancement and fire extinguishment. As soon as the first hoselines knock down the fire, it is imperative to check the walls and attic area for fire extension.

Tower Ladders

Different types of roof coverings, such as slate and terra-cotta tile, add a significant dead load to the structure. Additionally, when struck by the stream from a tower ladder or other large-caliber device, sharp or heavy pieces can become dislodged and become flying projectiles injuring civilians and firefighters (photo 1).

Photo by author.

(1) Photo by author.

You must consider many variables, including the fire location and fire extension within the fire building, exposure protection concerns, and collapse potential. The tower ladder positioning guidelines are as follows:

  • Generally, the primary position of the first-arriving tower ladder is in front of the fire building able to reach the rose window in a corner-safe position when possible. The corner-safe position or area is the preferable location for the ladder apparatus. This position should be such that if the walls collapsed outward, it would not significantly impact this area (Figure 1).
  • When the building faces on two streets and the front of the building is covered by a tower ladder, place an additional tower ladder to cover the other street front.
  • Position tower ladders so that the fire can be cut off and driven back to the point of origin.

Figure 1. Corner-Safe Area

Corner-Safe Area

Placement of the ladder apparatus within the triangular area near the corner of the structure provides some protection if the walls collapse outward. (Figure by author.)

If you have a rear-mount aerial ladder, place it away from the immediate fire building to allow access for a tower ladder.

Street Management Plan

Access and egress. Schools, parking lots, ministry offices, large courtyards, one-way and narrow streets, and religious residences can all negatively impact apparatus positioning. Often, these obstacles will prevent optimal positioning and limit the number of sides of the structure that apparatus can access. Consider these obstacles as part of the street-management plan.

Fire in places of worship often requires using tower ladders; first-arriving units must take positions that allow the necessary units and equipment to arrive and operate effectively. It is critical for first-responding units to address street management and fire control. Ensure that apparatus positions are outside of the potential collapse zone.

Park apparatus such that special equipment, ambulances, and so forth can make their way to and from the scene when ordered by the IC. Place tower ladders near the front of the structure, in a corner-safe area outside of the collapse danger zone. Position subsequently arriving tower ladders to reach additional sides of the structure.


Many terms are used to describe features and distinct areas or locations within places of worship. To ensure the use of common terminology, firefighters should consistently use these terms when communicating on the fireground. Verbal communications at fires must be prompt, clear, concise, and complete. A firefighter operating from inside the place of worship may mistakenly report the area that the congregation faces, the sanctuary (the location of the altar or pulpit in a church or where the bimah is in a Jewish house of worship), as “the front” because that is considered the front during a religious service. This may differ from the front of the structure as viewed from the command post.

Collapse Considerations

Collapse is always a major concern when operating in places of worship. These structures have some unique architectural features that, when coupled with the large amount of wood used in their construction, can result in early collapse as fire weakens the structure. Collapse dangers include the bell tower, the steeple, the ceilings, the sidewalls, and the roof.

Above the bell tower may be a steeple, a tapered pointed structure, usually with a cross or another religious symbol at its tip. A steeple atop a bell tower is more unstable than a dome above a tower. Some temples and mosques may have a dome at the top. Cell phone antennas and lighting may be affixed to the tower, adding additional weight to the structure.

Both older and newer architecture places of worship are susceptible to early collapse. The older style is susceptible to early collapse because of the large, high, timber truss roof. Along with the roof, the bell tower and steeple are also exceptionally prone to collapse. The newer style is susceptible to early collapse because of its lightweight truss construction and the possible presence of a bell tower, a steeple, or other features described above.

The exposures 2 and 4 sidewalls are also collapse dangers. The sidewalls support the place of worship’s roof. Sidewalls are bearing walls that run parallel with the roof ridge sometimes supporting the roof aided by a buttress or flying buttress. An uncontrolled fire burning in the attic space will weaken the roof. When the roof fails, it can push the sidewalls out into the street. Conversely, when fire weakens the sidewalls and they fail, the roof will collapse and fall along with the ceiling into the nave or floor area.

When evaluating the collapse potential and establishing collapse zones, the exposure 2 and 4 sides (because of the bearing walls) and the exposure side of the steeple or bell tower (often exposure 1) are the most dangerous areas during a fire.

IC Considerations

The IC must size up the situation and note what actions have been taken prior to his arrival. Fire in these occupancies requires a quick assessment of conditions.

The IC must keep in mind the early collapse potential in these structures and keep a close watch on the amount of time firefighters have been extinguishing the fire. An early transition to an exterior defensive attack will be required if the first two handlines do not quickly extinguish the fire.

The 10 Commandments for Fires in Places of Worship

These are the 10 significant considerations for fighting fires involving houses of worship. Review them and learn the lessons taken from case studies and personal experience in such incidents. Use these commandments to guide the discussion; hang them on the wall as a continual reminder.

The 10 Commandments for Fires in Places of Worship
  1. Thou shalt honor all the firefighters who have made the supreme sacrifice at fires in places of worship. Educate firefighters on the lessons learned from these fires and develop and implement preplans.
  2. Thou shalt recognize and honor the limited amount of time available to quickly achieve a fast knockdown before an exterior attack will be required.
  3. Thou shalt remember to quickly examine the structure for fire extension into the numerous voids you will find.
  4. Thou shalt implement a street-management plan that addresses the likely need for large-caliber streams and position tower ladders for ventilation and fire extinguishment.
  5. Thou shalt be knowledgeable about the construction features that make these structures susceptible to early collapse during a fire.
  6. Thou shalt be aware of the limited vent openings in the cellar/basement and the significant weight concentrated on the first floor from terrazzo floors, the altar, and statues that adorn this level.
  7. Thou shalt know that a firefighter operating from inside may consider “the front” to be the area that the congregation faces, the sanctuary. This may differ from the front of the structure as viewed from the command post.
  8. Thou shalt preach that a defensive attack shall be conducted outside the structure; it shall honor established collapse zones.
  9. Thou shalt anticipate the need for additional help and call for higher alarms/mutual aid early in the operation.
  10. Thou shalt have an understanding of fire dynamics and the effect of ventilation when venting the stained-glass windows.

When the IC cannot get a clear situation report from units on the scene, the IC may have to change tactics to an exterior operation. When two handlines are anticipated or in operation on the place of worship’s exterior, transmit additional alarms or mutual aid.

The incident command post should be established in proximity to the front of the fire building, outside the potential collapse zone.

The IC shall determine when sufficient resources are present to deal with conditions and, when needed, should transmit the necessary additional alarms or call for mutual aid. He should consider calling additional tower ladders to adequately cover the accessible sides of the structure and additional chiefs or safety officers to supervise additional sectors and groups as the incident expands.

At major fires, consider the flying brand hazard. The force of updrafts will send large pieces of burning material quite some distance, which will probably ignite minor fires in the surrounding area. Initiate fire brand patrols (units designated to extinguish remote fires started by embers) to manage this situation.

Saving Valuable Items

Places of worship often contain historical and religious artifacts that hold significant symbolic meaning and are irreplaceable. When consistent with firefighter safety, consider how to protect these items by removing them or protecting them in place.

Fires in places of worship present complex challenges for the fire service. Knowledge of the architecture and features common to many of these structures enables firefighters to understand the principles that guide many of the strategies and tactics employed. Because of the variety of structures encountered, it is almost impossible to devise an operating procedure for every situation. Judgments based on knowledge of common architectural features and sound firefighting principles will allow firefighters and fire officers to formulate an appropriate plan of action.

FRANK LEEB is a deputy chief in the Fire Department of New York. His previous work assignments included Battalion 46; Engines 76, 323, and 324; and Squad 270. He has a master’s degree in homeland securities studies from the Naval Postgraduate School and a degree in fire service administration. He is a member of the East Farmingdale (NY) Volunteer Fire Department. He serves as an advisory panel member for the UL FSRI “Study of Coordinated Attack in Acquired Structures” and is a principal on the NFPA Technical Committee Fire and Emergency Service Organization and Deployment-Career (NFPA 1710).

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