National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System: Fires at Religious Structures

Single-family structure fires are the bread and butter of most fire and emergency departments. It’s what firefighters respond to most frequently and our training usually reflects that by emphasizing the strategies and tactics we would use while battling a residential fires. The average house fire will involve a building that is from 1,500 to 3,000 square feet in size and a layout that we are familiar with in our own homes.

Fighting a fire in a large building designed for other uses, such as a church or other religious structure, often presents firefighters with a set of challenges that require a completely different approach. Construction types can vary from ancient heavy timber frame to modern lightweight. Ceilings can reach heights of 50 feet or more. Large open areas are usually present, as well as hidden void spaces that can be difficult to locate and access. These and other factors can create a dangerous environment for firefighters, as the following excerpt exemplifies.

“…Upon passing through the doorway, we entered a large open area that served as an activities area. The area had substantially taller ceilings under a flat roof. We immediately encountered heavier heat conditions, diminishing visibility, but no visible fire. The nozzleman directed his stream at the ceiling, but we did not see/hear any water return to floor level. This led us to believe that there were high-heat conditions at the ceiling level. Seconds later, we heard sounds that indicated structural collapse – ‘shifting of structural members’, ‘nail pops’, and ‘cracking/breaking.’ The structural members immediately began falling on us…”

Discuss the following issues with your crew members:

  1. Does your department treat the religious structures in your response area as high hazard occupancies?
  2. What causes the most religious structure fires and how would that affect the way you approach a fire involving a religious structure? (Hint: USFA is a good source of information.)
  3. How often does your crew inspect or preplan the religious structures in your jurisdiction?
  4. Many religious structures also contain educational occupancies such as a preschool. How would your tactics change to address this?
  5. How would the day of the week and time of day play into your Incident Action Plan for a fire at a religious structure? 

As you read the reports below related to incidents involving religious structures, try to imagine how you would have reacted if you had been involved in the action on the scene.

Have you been involved in a near miss while on the scene of a religious structure fire? Submit your report to today so everyone goes home tomorrow. For more on the value of firefighter near-miss reporting, CLICK HERE.

Note: The questions posed by the reviewers are designed to generate discussion and thought in the name of promoting firefighter safety. They are not intended to pass judgment on the actions and performance of individuals in the reports.


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