PROTECTING HOUSES OF WORSHIP

BY SCOTT LYONS

Volumes of information have been generated over the years concerning fires in churches, cathedrals, synagogues, and other houses of worship. In examining the buildings prior to an incident, we discover the difficulties facing us when we consider the construction and contents of these buildings, which include large, open, vertical void spaces; steeply pitched roofs; high ceilings; and the potential for damage to irreplaceable items such as stained glass windows, artifacts, and works of art. If we do encounter a fire in a house of worship and are unlucky in our attempts to suppress it early, the lessons we learn concern multiple large-caliber streams; collapse zones; exposure protection; and, in the worse case, the death of a member.

However, despite having learned so many lessons from our own experiences and those of our predecessors, additional issues involving houses of worship of which firefighters should be aware recently have arisen. The term “church” in this article refers to any house of worship and its congregation, regardless of denomination. The term nowadays implies much more than just a weekly assembly point for the faithful, and the building’s appearance may be quite different from the traditional steeple-topped structure.

THE 24-HOUR CHURCH

Two critical size-up elements are time (i.e., the time of day when the fire occurs), and occupancy (i.e., who resides in or what organization occupies the building). The notion that houses of worship are usually occupied only on worship days or at night for the occasional bingo or Cub Scout meeting is now outdated.

Over the years, many churches have evolved into even more significant community anchors, offering their space for social activities and services seven days a week and even 24 hours a day. Sure, there are still the regularly scheduled worship services, meetings, and bingo nights. But now, in addition, there may be scripture study, fellowship meals, coffeehouse concerts, Alcoholics Anonymous and other support group meetings, drama group rehearsals, and even Super Bowl parties. Moreover, child daycare/nursery school, adult/elderly daycare, and homeless shelters may also operate in these occupancies.

Regarding size-up, uninformed firefighters may think that responding to a house of worship at 6:30 a.m. or at 12 a.m. may not involve a significant life hazard. After all, the building is not typically used during those hours. However, they could not be more wrong. In some communities, a church-based child daycare/nursery school may open as early as 6:30 a.m. to allow working parents to drop off their children (who may be as young as a few months old) before heading to work. The facility may remain open well into late afternoon, up until 6 p.m. to allow for late pickup.

Although we may know of such church-based schools and daycare centers in our area, it may be a new trend in some neighborhoods. We must stay informed about what occurs in the properties in our response district.


(1) This traditional church hosts a nursery and day school that opens at 6:30 a.m. It also ministers to Korean-speaking members of the community. (Photos by author.)

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(2) The sign on the front of this church indicates it serves the Spanish-speaking community.

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In addition to childcare, a church building may host the elderly, another life safety target population. It may just be a social gathering spot or may provide a respite for families caring for an elderly relative. Some of these elderly persons may be of sound mind and body; some may not.

For example, the Helping Hands program at Trinity Saint Mark’s United Church of Christ in Detroit, Michigan, offers care and social activities to seniors with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. The program is offered Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., in the basement activity room, according to Activities Director Gwendolyn Lyons. She adds that although the program has room for 25 clients, only 13 are currently enrolled and of those, several need walkers or canes for mobility. The space used is equipped with smoke detectors but not sprinklers.

This is not to question the safety of the occupancy and its use. However, although a minor fire, gas/steam leak, or carbon monoxide/fumes incident in such a space may not necessarily lead to a loss of life, it may result in confusion, anxiety, panic, and injury to both staff and clients.

As the church has provided spiritual sanctuary for centuries, it now provides physical sanctuary too, sheltering men, women, and children who have nowhere to live because of difficulties such as homelessness, drug/alcohol abuse and subsequent rehabilitation, or domestic abuse. Homelessness is no longer just an urban problem, and for communities without extensive homeless or social services, the church is the first place many may seek assistance. I once worked in a city neighborhood where each church took turns serving as a shelter for one week, after which the shelter would move on to the next church. Would you know if the homeless (remember we are talking about young children here, also) inhabit the basement of your local church? Do you think the church advertises the fact that it shelters the homeless regularly, except when there are extremely harsh weather conditions?


(3) A company officer points out construction features of this church building, originally built in 1930. The building previously served as a warehouse and distribution point for a soft drink distributor.

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(4) An exterior photo of a typical storefront church.

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(5) The interior of the same church. The space occupied by the church was a sporting goods store for years. Note that there are unenclosed stairs that lead to two apartments on the second floor.

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(6) A careless contractor doing work in the church piled discarded materials against the rear door of the same church, blocking the means of egress.

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Churches offering this service do not list “Homeless Shelter Open Nightly” on their exterior sign along with “Regular Worship, Sunday, 7 a.m.” or “Spaghetti Dinner, Wednesday, 8 p.m.” The church’s neighbors would most likely not welcome such a population wandering their streets. Neither would they be pleased to know a domestic abuse shelter was operating in the area, fearing the possibility of violent confrontations between the abusers and shelter residents.

Now that we know that there can be considerable life hazards with these occupancies regardless of the time of day or the day of the week, how do we improve our knowledge of these buildings, ensure appropriate response resources, and protect those who use the space?

  • Look at your neighborhood church on your own. In your daily travels, stop and take a look at the church property. Can you glean any information from the signs outside indicating child or adult day care? Is there any outside activity, such as children on a playground? Are there any specialized buses for the elderly or handicapped parked outside? Are people entering the building at unusual hours? Is the parking lot filled on days other than the regular worship day?
  • Schedule training for the building. Contact the local clergy and ask to tour the building. Explain that a tour of the facility will help in your efforts to ensure the safety of those who use the property. Take the whole company, not just the officers. Ask questions about what takes place in or on the property on days other than the traditional worship days. Do some real preincident planning by positioning the apparatus, sizing up doors and windows that may need to be forced, throwing a ladder or two, and even stretching a dry line—or at least measuring with some certainty—to the most remote parts of the property.
  • Reconsider the initial dispatch. If you have information that the building has a life hazard at various hours, consider updating or changing your response to suit the hazard. A limited response to a “routine” alarm system activation at such a building may lead to responders being overwhelmed quickly should you have a fire or an emergency.
  • Enforce codes. Depending on what building and fire codes apply to these properties, your local code enforcement officer or fire marshal must ensure compliance, especially if the building is playing host to the young or elderly previously mentioned.


(7) The rear door to the same church is also obstructed by an abandoned auto and other discarded items.

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(8) At a church that was converted from a movie theater, the space behind the altar hides an exposed ceiling area to which a heater is mounted and from which ductwork extends. Note also the exposed wires and tin ceiling.

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NOT EVERY CHURCH IS A CATHEDRAL

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, Notre Dame in Paris, and Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome are all classic examples of beautiful, ornate, and sturdily constructed houses of worship that attract the faithful as well as tourists. Does this mean that all people of faith need fancy adornments and architecture to consider a building a house of worship? Absolutely not. Congregations may practice their faith just as passionately in a storefront or a warehouse as in a cathedral.

Although not a new phenomenon, many “churches” now occupy spaces not originally intended or constructed for public assembly, which generates several concerns for firefighters. The major concern, as in the regular church, is the life hazard. These buildings, which were once sporting goods stores, warehouses, and even corner bars, may not have the appropriate life safety components such as sprinklers, smoke detectors, and multiple means of egress or extinguishers in place. More conventional church buildings are covered under codes governing public assembly occupancies codes. These properties may host the same activities mentioned before.

  • The storefront church can pose a number of problems for firefighters. They can be found in almost any community, in strip malls or even warehouses. Hundreds may be found in cities, inhabiting every type of building imaginable. Here are just a few of the concerns regarding these buildings:
  • Window bars/high security doors and limited access. Although they serve a purpose in keeping out people, these security components can prove deadly to occupants and firefighters who may become trapped inside the building. As mentioned previously, evaluate the resources you have responding on the first-alarm assignment, and plan accordingly. Consider special calling an additional company dedicated to the task of removing the bars and gates. If one is unavailable, consider using your RIT/FAST unit to ensure these secondary escape paths are clear. If you can, add this information to your dispatch database so that the assigned units are aware of the conditions prior to arrival.
  • Limited means of egress. This also means limited means of horizontal ventilation. It’s a key factor since many of these properties once may have had display windows that are now sealed up with anything from a sheet of plywood to a course of concrete block.
  • Mixed occupancy. At some storefront churches, the church may occupy just the first floor; apartments may be directly above.
  • Unprotected cooking areas. Since these occupancies are an anchor for the community, they may host dinners and special events. The problem is that much of the cooking may be done on the premises in kitchens that lack extinguishing systems or other fire protection. The cooking area may not even have a simple door to compartmentalize it. To compound the problem, the kitchens may be in close proximity to or part of the gathering area.
  • Language/cultural barriers. We sometimes have severe communication problems among ourselves on the fireground. Add a foreign language to the mix, and see how smoothly the operation runs. Consider the demographics of your community and the varied ethnic and religious backgrounds, and anticipate communication problems in advance. If there are no bilingual members within your department, consider outside resources such as local schools, colleges, or social service organizations. They may have translators who may be called to an emergency scene.

Breaching the language barrier is especially important before an incident when making code and construction inspections. Those who intend to occupy the space may not speak English and may not fully understand the safety ramifications of what they do. Chaining or blocking an exit may be commonplace in other countries that may not have life safety/building codes that are as strict or as strictly enforced as those in the United States.


(9) This church has an activity room in the one-story corner section and the main sanctuary on the first floor of the three-story section.

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(10) An interior photo of the activity room in use for a church anniversary dinner. Note that the room is congested, filled with children and elderly members. At the rear are unprotected cooking facilities.

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(11) Some urban churches may include security features such as window bars and grates.

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When you request that occupants comply with the fire safety code, make sure they understand and do not assume that they do because they are saying “yes” in broken English or continually nodding their heads.

Keep in mind that most of these congregations cannot afford the lavish houses of worship others can; they wouldn’t be having services in an old warehouse if they could. In turn, they may not be able afford to correct safety and code violations. Be understanding and approachable, not adversarial. Generate friendly working relationships with the leaders of the organization and assure them that you are only looking out for the safety of the occupants and your firefighters.

Stay alert to the changes taking place in your community involving churches and other nontraditional houses of worship. Get the members out of quarters to drill on and preplan these new and sometimes unexpected hazards.

SCOTT LYONS is a firefighter assigned to Ladder Company 79 of the Fire Department of New York. He previously served as a member of the City of Reading (PA) Department of Fire and Rescue Services. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science and is working on a master’s degree in public safety administration.

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