FIRE RISKS IN CHURCHES

FIRE RISKS IN CHURCHES

The recent destruction of St. Thomas’ church, New York and a Congregational church at Nashville, Tenn., with the heavy loss attendant upon each disaster serve to accentuate the contention that it is more by good luck than good management that more churches do not meet with a similar fate. How many are either totally destroyed or seriously damaged by fire—sometimes the result of lightning—very few realise. If, however, the weekly returns of tires were carefully analysed, the figures would excite considerable astonishment. Many of these buildings, of course, are mere frame structures, old and ramshackle to begin with, whose wooden walls, pews and galleries, with primitive methods of heating and lighting, invite destruction. But a very large proportion are handsome solidly built edifices, of stone or brick, with expensive fittings, and equally costly contents, well guarded at nights by watchmen and police and in the immediate neighborhood of tire stations and fire hydrants; yet these have been totally destroyed in a very short time or so seriously damaged as to call for wdiat has practically been a reconstruction, the cost of which has been very great. In every case, the spread of the flames has been so rapid as often to defy the efforts of the firemen to extinguish them or to keep them from wiping out the whole building. Under ordinary conditions, even with such fire departments as are often met with in rural communities, such fires would generally have been stopped before total destruction or very grave danger to the fabrics ensued—as is shown in the case of many large business structures, or even theatres. Churches, however, and not unfrequently educational institutions seem to form an exception to the rule—and this for the following reasons. In the case of the country churches, frame, brick or stone, it will be found that lightning, and the methods of lighting and heating are the principal causes of their destruction, except, of course, where the exposure risk has come in. Where lightning has been the destroying agent, it will be found either that the building lacked a lightning rod, or that the lightning rod was improperly attached as to its insulators or not properly grounded. That the insurance men, who are so mightly particular about tithing the mint, anise and cumin in the shape of trifling and unimportant details that do not meet with their approbation in fireproof buildings, should neglect such weightier matters of the law, and allow faulty rods to be put and kept up without due inspection, savors of straining out the gnat and swallowing the camel. But so they do; hence, the frequent burning of country churches and schoolhouses through being struck by lightning. Another cause is the defective method of heating or carelessness in seeing that the process is unaccompanied by risk. As often as not the oldfashioned self-feeding stove or the still more archaic box-stove for wood or coal is used for heating purposes. In either case, probably more frequently in that of the self-feeder, the” fire is made up over night or early in the morning and left to its fate—as is the church. As often as not, pipes or conductors of the heat extend the whole length of the building and find their exit through the vestry or some other room at the end. This pipe becomes heated, sometimes redhot, or, from not being properly insulated, sets fire to the woodwork, and, as there is no one on the look out. the building quickly falls a sacrifice to the flames. If the church is heated by a furnace or (as is very occasionally the case in small country towns) by steam, the same risk is incurred. The flues of the furnace are defective or choked or both, and allow sparks or burning soot to escape through the chinks, or they pass too near the woodwork or are surrounded by accumulations of inflammable matter, or, where steam heat is used, the boiler and furnace are not properly covered with non-inflammable material or are situated too near woodwork, without any attention being given to protective insulation.’ In the same way the lighting is generally bv kerosene lamps, sometimes the lights are candles open and in sconces. These, like the heating, are left to ill paid or volunteer sextons, whose tendency is to take it for granted that what has been done without accident for so many years may be trusted to go on safelv for all time. Another source of danger is holding night meetings, giving entertainments, and setting up Christmas trees in churches—the last a most fruitful source of peril. On such occasions the carelessness of all concerned is more pronounced, and ministers and audience and sextons hurry off as quickly as possible, so as to get to bed at as early an hour as tney can, without giving so much as a cursory glance round to see that all is safe. In the majority of such cases the danger might, and should be minimised by frequent and unexpected visits by the insurance people and officers employed by the State fire marshal where there is one. Where there is an exposure hazard, then the danger could be lessened by roughcasting the frame building, or using treated wood, by providing it with a gravel roof and fitting it with wire-glass windows. The expense would soon be covered by the reduction in insurance rates. When it conies to city churches the risks arise (1) from the exposure hazard; (2) from the heating arrangements, whether steam or furnace; (3) from those for lighting, whether by gas, with its dangerous accompaniments of leaks and explosions, or electricity, with the hazard belonging to crossed or defectively insulated wires; (4) from lightning—in a city this risk is not so common, especially where there are many high buildings and, in any case, it can generally be averted by lightning conductors of proper material properly insulated, and properly grounded; (5) from spontaneous combustion consequent on oily or greasy rags being left in the basement or near the heating apparatus; (6) from the accompaniments of the worship—lights from tapers and candles coming in contact with flimsy altar decorations, charcoal embers from the thuribles, and the like—all very usual causes of fires in churches where a high ritual obtains. As to risks 2—5 : The same rules apply to these as in the case of all other buildings, and no building, of any sort, especially churches or those devoted to education, amusements or public gatherings should be allowed by the authorities to be opened for use until such time as it has been passed by the insurance men, the building department, the fire marshal’s office, and the fire department, and, when opened, should be the subject of frequent supervision and inspection by all four. Internally every church, if of large size and galleried or towered, should be compelled by law to have standpipes, with hose affixed and outside connections with the city mains, fire buckets always filled with water and used for no other purpose, fire extinguishers in aisles, chancel, especially near and round the altar (where there is one) and organ and in the tow’er, galleries, and vestry or sacristy. Automatic sprinklers should also be installed, as some churches arc often used only on Sundays and, perhaps, one other day in the week, and as few, if any employ a watchman during the night. In smaller churches the standpipes may be dispensed with, except, possibly, where there is a tower of any height, or galleries at the end, transepts or all round; but none of the other requisites already mentioned, or the automatic sprinklers should be omitted. In every church, also, the sexton, ushers, clergy and sorrie of the young men of the congregation should be trained to the use of fire buckets, hose, fire extinguishers and standpipes, subject to certain drills and appointed certain stations at the various entrances and exits, so as to be able to act in case of emergency as a first aid to the firemen till the department arrives on the spot, or, at least, to keep the congregation front stampeding and causing what might be a fatal panic. As to the sixth cause of fire—that of drapery, curtains and the like catching fire from candles, exposed lights or charcoal embers • It is clear (1) that there should be as few exposed lights as possible—certainly no exposed gas jets; (2) that the candles should be so arranged as not to melt and cause the fall of any; (3) that superfluous drapery and curtains should be avoided throughout the church and most of all round the altars, statuary, pictures or shrines where candles are wont to be burned—often left burning—and whatever in that line is used—even to the surplices, cottas and other vestments should so treated as to be rendered non-combustible. By following these precautions and those necessary to avoid danger from causes 2—5, much of the hazard attaching to churches will be avoided. With the avoidance of that class of hazard the first will not act so powerfully in the rapid and total destruction of such buildings. It is a wellknown fact that a fire in a church, as a rule, spreads much more rapidly than in ordinary buildings. This is due (1) to its construction, the large and open tloorspace giving the flames every chance to spread, and if there are aisles, transepts, or tower, all or any one of these, and much more, if the tower is in the centre and the church has a clerestory, draughts are created which fan the flames to a fierce degree. The tower acts as a flue, and the aisles as long corridors, down which the fire sweeps with irresistible force. (2) The internal fittings in the shape of pews, galleries, organ, canopies, for font and altars, screens, pulpit, when of wood, or with wooden casing, being dry and varnished or polished, add fuel to the flames, the galleries and screens setting fire to the roof, and the organ as it furiously burns and the molten metal from its pipes flows all round, proving itself the worst firebug of the lot. It is, therefore, no wonder that, what with the fierce flames raging within and the stifling smoke from the piles of burning woodwork, a church fire, unless crushed out in its incipiency, is pretty sure to be accompanied, if not with total destruction, at least, with great loss. For which reason it follows as a necessary consequence that, as with the stage and scenery of theatres, all the woodwork (like the drapery and curtains) should bylaw be chemically treated and rendered slow-burning. So far as to that part of the internal construction. It remains to advert to the construction in general. It stands to reason that, where there are such large floorspaces, often with aisles more or less wide, transepts, tower sometimes opening into the church at the transepts or one of its extremities, and sometimes with columns separating the nave and chancel from the aisles, the style of construction and equipment followed (and the law should so order it) ought to he the same as in the skyscrapers and public schools in New Y’ork city. Every church that is built in the future should be either of reinforced concrete (a cheap but effective and thoroughly protective style) or of the steel skeleton fireproof order, with wire-glass windows, nietal window frames and protected doors throughout. It would not cost much more, and the extra expense would soon be covered by the reduction in insurance rates-—to say nothing of the added security that would thus lie afforded against the exposure hazard—the first cause enumerated as a fire risk common to churches with other buildings. If reinforced concrete is used, the exterior can be either as plain as possible or as ornate as is desired. If the skeleton steel construction is the one chosen, the lining should be either of concrete and tiles or fire brick—solid and substantial in either case, and the exterior of stone or some other material that will not fly or crumble (as do marble, granite, and some kinds of sandstone and limestone) under the combined influence of fire and water. If neither style of construction is used, as is the case with the new slowly rising cathedral of St. John the Divine overlooking Morningside park, then the walls should be very solid and fire-resistant—-as those of the cathedral will be—with roofs and all windows and doors fireproof—for it matters naught how lofty the roof may be or whether it surmounts a stone vaulted roof within, it is liable to catch fire—as did the roof of York minster twice within a few years in the last century—and cause the destruction of the whole or a large portion of the building. The wonder is that in this city, where at present there are only four fireproof places of worship —two belonging to the Christian Science body and one (St. Mary the Virgin’s) to the Episcopalian, and the lofty, new Broadway Tabernacle just finished, in which, by the way, owing to the accumulation of untreated wood in organ, platform, galleries and pews, there is ample food for a big blaze—there have not been many more fires in churches. With increase in growth of the city, and the consequent additions to the existing number of places of worship, especially in the suburbs, the authorities should lay down a hard and fast rule as to their construction, and insist upon their being fire-resistant, at least, if not what is conventionally called fireproof both structurally and in their fittings.

In the Carbondale district of Pennsylvania a big dam is being built near Scranton. Its capacity will be between 600,000,000 and 700,000,000 gallons, w’hile the consumption is about 3.000.000 gallons per day. The Consolidated Water company will, therefore, be able to supply the city with water for 200 days or more—and no drought is likely to continue so long as that.

No posts to display