PRECIOUS FAITH TEMPLE CHURCH FIRE, LAKE WORTH, TEXAS

BY STUART GRANT AND LES STEPHENS

The morning of February 15, 1999, dawned as a beautiful winter morning in north-central Texas. The skies were clear, and the temperature climbed into the mid-60s by noon in the small city of Lake Worth, Texas. Two career Ft. Worth, Texas, firefighters were off-duty that day. Both volunteered for the River Oaks Volunteer Fire Department. Across town, another volunteer firefighter from Samson Park was also starting his day. Before noon, these three would make the ultimate sacrifice in the performance of their duties to their respective cities; four others would be injured, and the communities in the area would be torn apart.

THE CHURCH

The Precious Faith Temple Church was built in three sections. The first section was built in the 1960s and was used as a bar. It was built on the ground level and had concrete block wall construction with prefabricated wood trusses for the roof assembly. This section of the church was the only section that had a brick facade on the front. The second section was built in 1978-1979. It was also constructed with an exterior of concrete block; it was two feet below the level of the first section. The walls were filled with sand to act as insulation and did not have any reinforcing components in them. They were load-bearing walls (no window or door openings in them). The only openings to the outside were three doors: the front door, the second door on the B side of the building, and the third door on the D side. Inside the sanctuary was a three-foot decorative wall around the pulpit area for the choir. The roof assembly was made of scissor trusses, giving the sanctuary the look and feel of a bigger room. This roof assembly was attached to the first set of roof trusses (photo 1).


(1) Inside view of the Precious Faith Temple Church prior to the fire. Scissor trusses, which constituted the sanctuary’s raised ceiling, were attached to other trusses in the front and rear of the building. (Photo courtesy of Sheila Hubbard.)

A fellowship hall was added in 1981. This structure was on the same level as the sanctuary and was again made with the same concrete block walls. The roof in this area was of truss design and attached to the rest of the structure. At the rear of the sanctuary and at the end of the fellowship hall, the gables were covered with wood siding. There were openings in the attic area to allow the utilities and the heating and air-conditioning ducts to service all areas of the church. The church was constructed by the membership; the pastor said all codes and ordinances were adhered to at the time of construction.

Prior to this incident, the cities in this area had worked out extensive automatic-aid agreements so that an adequate number of firefighters could respond to emergencies. The cities of Samson Park, River Oaks, and Westworth Village all responded together to reported incidents, as did the cities of Lake Worth, Eagle Mountain, and Saginaw.

THE FIRE

A water department employee from Lake Worth reported that a small shed in the back of the church was on fire at 10:42 a.m. At the same time, a police officer from Samson Park reported the same thing to his dispatcher. Six departments were now responding on the first alarm. The fire had been set in a storage shed in the rear of the church on what would become the B/C corner. The wind that day was blowing from the rear to the front, driving the flames and heat into the rear gable of the church. The police officer alerted the pastor about the fire, and the two went outside to investigate.

Lake Worth Engine 210 arrived. The pastor told them everyone was out of the church. They were able to see fire and smoke on the B/C corner of the building, as the fire had entered the gable area and was in the attic (photo 2).


(2) Conditions on arrival of Lake Worth Engine 210. Fire had extended from the storage shed into the rear gable and the attic of the church. (Photo courtesy of Michael Norton.)

The officer took command and had his crew stretch a 1¾ inch hand-line into the church. Visibility was clear, and his crew worked their way to the rear of the church to an area that contained classrooms (Figure 1). Once there, they found a set of pull-down stairs that were starting to burn away and detected a large volume of fire in the attic. They directed their line onto the fire in this area.


Figure 1. Engine 210 laid a 13⁄4-inch handline into the church and advanced it to the rear office area, where the firefighters found a pull-down stairway with fire above it.

Samson Park Engine 225 arrived on-scene and was directed to lay a backup line behind Lake Worth Engine 210. Its line was too short, so the engine company laid it down and went to help the Lake Worth crew pull ceiling. The fire had advanced past their position and was consuming the trusses in the attic.

River Oaks Engine 13 arrived and was directed to lay a supply line to Lake Worth Engine 210. The officer from River Oaks was assigned to assist the incident commander and to take a look at the building. He proceeded to the rear or Division C.

The crew from Engine 13 relieved the Lake Worth crew on the line, as they were running low on air.

One of the River Oaks firefighters went back to the front door to retrieve another pike pole and told the firefighters outside, “Come on in, we’re having a blast.” As he turned to go back to the other firefighters, the clear conditions started to change. The sanctuary was filling with smoke, and it became noticeably hotter inside.

During this time, the fifth firefighter who came with Lake Worth Engine 210 had been assigned by the IC to go to the roof and ventilate using the natural openings. He set a ladder to the roof and started knocking off the turbine vents. The roof felt firm to him, but black shiny smoke was coming from the turbine vents.

Saginaw Truck 14 had arrived, set its aerial tower, and had gone to the roof to assist with the ventilation operation. The firefighters from Lake Worth had changed their bottles and reentered the church. They found a Samson Park firefighter running low on air and advised him to go get a new bottle. They pointed him toward the front door.

On the roof, it still felt firm to the firefighters, but smoke was now venting from all plumbing vents and all other natural openings (photo 3).


(3) Smoke was visible from the natural ventilation points and the plumbing vents. The fire was moving through the attic and spreading. Firefighters reported that the roof felt firm. (Photo courtesy of Roger Shaw.)

At this time, the rear gable started to fail and pull inward.

All other companies had arrived on-scene. A 1¾-inch handline was laid to the B/C corner from Samson Park Engine 225. The officer from River Oaks made it around to the C side of the building. He instructed them not to put water on the church for fear of pushing the fire onto the interior crews. He also noted that the gable and trusses were failing. He walked back to the front of the building to let the IC know. He also advised the IC to get the crews out of the building and go defensive. He could not radio this information to the IC because there was no common fireground frequency among the responding departments.

After he informed the IC of the situation, the IC sent one of his members inside to evaluate the conditions. This member made it to the midpoint inside the church when the trusses collapsed, bringing the entire roof assembly over the sanctuary down in domino fashion.


(4) The roof above the sanctuary failed in domino fashion. One firefighter fell completely through to the sanctuary; the other held onto the last truss, which did not fail. (Photos courtesy of Roger Shaw.)

One of the four members operating on the roof fell all the way through the roof into the church and found his way through the pews to the front door. Another firefighter on the roof fell into the attic area but was able to grasp onto the last truss that didn’t fail (photo 4). His partner on the roof saw him and assisted him out of the collapse area. They were removed by Saginaw’s aerial (photo 5).


(5) The other firefighters on the roof pulled their fellow firefighter from the collapsed area.

The firefighter sent in to assess the situation found his way out the front door with yet another firefighter. Two firefighters found the door that led from the sanctuary into the fellowship hall and became disoriented in the smoke and fire. The other firefighters inside tried to crawl down a hallway along their line but found their exit blocked by debris and fire.

As the fire consumed the sanctuary area, the aerial was assigned to try and knock down the fire, the only hope of helping the firefighters inside.

A second alarm was called. A Ft. Worth engine in the area called its dispatch office and was assigned to the incident. A rescue operation began at the door on the D side of the building. The firefighters who made it into the fellowship hall were located just inside the door by the firefighters conducting the rescue effort. The heat conditions inside were unbearable, and the fire rapidly advanced toward the D side of the building (photo 6). With the collapse of the trusses, lateral loading of the walls had taken place, and the walls were pushed outward and failed within minutes. The collapse happened 10 minutes after the fire was reported. It was now 10:52 a.m.


(6) Firefighters went to the D side of the church and tried to locate the firefighters who were inside at the time of the collapse. Two firefighters were rescued from this door. (Photo courtesy of Michael Norton.)

At this time there were four firefighters with various injuries who needed to be transported to the hospital. Personnel accountability reports (PARs) were taken, and it was confirmed that two River Oaks firefighters were still missing.

A former River Oaks firefighter who had arrived on the scene was asked if he would take the lead on recovering and identifying the missing firefighters, since the others were visibly shaken. Crews were taken across the street for counseling. The firefighter organized the recovery efforts and had crews starting to work through the church to try to find the fallen brothers. During this search, the firefighters found the missing men and informed him that there were not two but three victims.

He asked them to get with the pastor to see if anyone else could have been in the church because all the PARs indicated that everyone was accounted for except the two River Oaks firefighters. They told him, “No, there are three air packs.” Now the challenge was to determine the identity of the third firefighter. The rescuers were told to leave the firefighters where they were because they were not going to remove anyone until they knew the identity of all three.

There was confusion. All departments were called to see whose bunker gear was missing, whose cars were in the parking lots, who was at work, and who was not. A process that should have taken 30 seconds took more than an hour.

Several companies were allowed to leave after debriefing and returned to their stations. When Samson Park Engine 225 arrived back at its station, they realized that they were short one man. They had responded with four personnel. Another firefighter came in his private vehicle and borrowed the driver’s gear. When the PAR was taken, they counted four and said they had everyone. In fact, with the arrival of the firefighter in his private vehicle, they had five. The officer had counted numbers, not names. Samson Park lost the third firefighter!

We were delayed in telling this story because of pending litigation following the incident. The purpose of telling this story is not to place blame but to learn so that we don’t let the same things happen to our people over and over again. The greatest tribute we can pay to our fallen brothers is to let them teach us from what happened to them. In this way, their legacy will always live on.

LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED

Truss structures. Anticipate an early “no-warning” collapse of the roof and subsequent failure of the walls. Trusses have a short burn-through time in a fire and fail rapidly. When any part of the truss is compromised, the entire truss is compromised, and the load is then transferred to the trusses on either side of it. Once this happens, the trusses usually fail in a domino fashion, resulting in a significant portion of the building’s collapsing.

The truss space can contain heavy fire and be into the severe structural damage phase of the fire while conditions above and below may not be seen as dangerous. Truss roofs are usually covered with OSB or thin plywood that is spongy even in nonfire conditions. Firefighters get used to this and think that the roof is stable when it bounces with them as they walk across it, when in fact it is about to collapse. Underneath, the conditions can be clear, and firefighters may be unaware that they are operating in a building where the structural integrity has already been compromised.

Conditions above and below firefighters operating in buildings with truss construction must be continually evaluated. Firefighters should pull ceiling on entering the fire building to see if the fire is in the truss space and already above their heads. Also, if operating above the ground floor, check the space under you to see if trusses are below and what their condition is.

Incident commanders and firefighters should continually size up the structure, paying attention to “reading the smoke.” The smoke will tell you a great deal about where the fire is, its intensity, what’s burning, and where the fire is going.

The initial attack must immediately extinguish the fire. If the fire is uncontrollable or involves a moderate to large area, defensive operations must begin immediately after all firefighters have been evacuated.

Accountability systems. Firefighters must adhere to an accountability system. No exceptions! It is the job of the officer to ensure that this happens. It is also the job of the firefighters to adopt and use the accountability system. This is not hide and seek.

All responding personnel must be trained on and use a consistent system. The accountability systems responding departments use must be interchangeable with each other so that there is no confusion regarding what department is there, what companies are there, and who is on those companies. The accountability system must indicate the number of personnel on the scene and their identities. Accountability should be faces, not just numbers. The incident command system will indicate where those personnel are working.

Rapid intervention and safety. The IC must have a rapid intervention team because the fireground is a rapidly changing environment. We back up all specialty responses we make; firefighting should be no different. We lose too many of our people on the fireground. We have to have a fully equipped team available to come to our rescue. No one else is coming to get us. To the firefighters operating on the scene, these are the most important people on the scene.

NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, 2002, specifies that there should be personnel prepared to initiate rescue operations. If we can’t rescue our own, then maybe we should not go in. Two in/two out is the minimum requirement. This should be replaced as soon as possible with a rapid intervention team (RIT), rapid intervention crew (RIC), or firefighter assist team (FAST).

A safety officer must be assigned early. Incidents go bad early and unexpectedly. Another set of eyes that has no other duties greatly enhances the safety on the fireground and helps reduce the injuries to our people.

PASS devices. Each member will be provided with and use a PASS device. If we can’t provide the protective equipment our people need, then we do not send them in. You should give only the protection that your community is willing to pay for. If it will not provide the equipment we need to go inside the fire building, then we don’t go in.

Ensure that each PASS device is functioning each shift and before entry into any building or confined space.

Communications. Each member should be provided with a radio with a remote microphone. The radio should be positioned so that it is readily accessible. The microphone should be secured so that it can be heard and will not come loose and drag around your ankles.

Maintain company integrity, pairs as a minimum. The best practice is to work as companies. It is the officer’s job to keep account of his crew, and it is the job of the crew to keep up with the officer.

Take frequent PARs. Again, faces-not numbers. A PAR should be taken any time there is a significant event on the fireground, such as flashover, backdraft, or collapse, and at certain benchmarks throughout the incident. Faces have to be looked at to ensure you have who you think you have. It is easy to count helmets, but who is wearing those helmets? Know who you have!

Train with your automatic assist or mutual-aid departments. Develop SOGs together for continuity on the fireground. Have a common radio frequency everyone can use. Use the National Incident Management System (NIMS) or a consistent incident command system.

Develop emergency evacuation signal/procedures, and drill on them. All departments that answer together should adopt the same procedures and should train on them together.

Trust in whom you assign as division/group commanders. As the IC, if you assign someone to a command position and you think that you have to check on what that person tells you, you assigned the wrong person to the job. You have got to have confidence in whom you assign to those functions, because you do not have time to second guess what they tell you, and you can’t do it alone. Don’t become the Lone Ranger.

Thanks to Roger Shaw, former assistant chief of River Oaks Volunteer Fire Department, for his assistance with this article.

TRUSS RATINGS: A COMMENTARY

Actual fires can give the fire service the most accurate fire safety research. Actual fire conditions will let the fire service really see how “fire rated” assemblies hold up during realistic conditions. Let’s first look at how the testing process is conducted and how an assembly is then rated.

First, an assembly is put through a fire resistance test. The test is used to see how long the assembly can maintain structural functions and integrity for a defined period of time. Generally, a test furnace is used to conduct the lab tests. The results of these lab tests are expressed in a measurement of time usually ranging from one to three hours. Manufacturers get their assemblies rated to meet building codes and legal obligations. Since testing laboratories are not capable of burning entire structures, we are forced to accept tests of just a sample of the rated assembly. But these “ratings” are not accurate.

The manufacturers’ objective is to (1) pass the test, (2) obtain the certification necessary, and (3) gain acceptance from the industry. Their real goal was never to endure a fire. The biggest misconception is that the rating an assembly receives during a test fire will match what it will do during an actual fire emergency. The reality is that the two do not coincide. After an assembly is given an hourly rating, it is assumed throughout the industry that it will last that time frame. The truth is that this is really unknown.

Trusses or engineered building components will provide the required strength under normal conditions and loading, but when exposed to fire they weaken and fail, causing the collapse of roofs, floors, and sometimes an entire structure. Many times in the “real” world, the fire resistance is voided. Generally, there are penetrations through an assembly, and these penetrations are made larger than they need to be for ease in the installation of utilities. Many times, these penetrations are not fire stopped.

Another problem is that an assembly has to have fire protection installed (gypsum board or suspended ceiling) to achieve the rating. During construction, this protection is sometimes inadequately installed or not installed at all. With the fire resistance voided, these assemblies are subject to early failure. How many buildings have we been to that have these problems?

Wood-truss assemblies are a prime example. They rely on a fire resistive ceiling that is perfectly matched to pass the fire resistive test. But what happens when that doesn’t happen or the fire starts in the void space? Don’t most of the utilities, flues, and ducts pass through this area? When this happens, fire then attacks the truss itself. The truss has a high surface-to-mass ratio that allows rapid flame spread and growth. When that happens, failure occurs in less than 10 minutes on a one-hour-rated assembly. Wasn’t the general assumption that this assembly would last an hour during the fire? Sure it was! Why? Because it carried a one-hour rating. Real fires show us that it is really a 10-minute fire rating.

True fires in real buildings give us the truth about what these assemblies will do. Fire departments and firefighters must take steps to minimize the exposure to these hazards. Departments must train their members to identify the different types of truss roof and floor assemblies. They must also go out and do inspections in their districts to identify buildings that contain truss assemblies. Departments should look at their SOGs about truss operations. Once the truss is involved, maybe we should go to a defensive operation if extinguishment is not accomplished immediately.

Firefighters must use extreme caution when working on or under truss assemblies, and they must open up concealed spaces when fire is suspected in a truss assembly. They must also remember that the fire rating an assembly carries is not truly representative of its integrity under real fire conditions. We have to learn from departments that have had fires involving specific assemblies to see what really happens. Don’t wait for it to happen in your city, because the results can be disastrous.

Another question: Why can’t we pass national legislation that requires owners of truss buildings to place information on the outside of the building such as has been done in New Jersey? (NIOSH Alert, May 2005; Applications of Fire Research, FEMA, USFA, April 1998)

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