Size-up and operational concerns for fires in gothic-style churches


A church fire is one of the most challenging, resource-intensive, and dangerous responses. The buildings themselves can vary greatly in size, age, and construction. They can range from the 200-year-old, Gothic-style, heavy-timber structure to the more modern contemporary-style building constructed of all lightweight building materials. In either case, it is critical for the fire officer to anticipate the difficulties presented by all types and styles of churches and to prepare for a difficult operation.

The focus in this article is on the larger, heavy-timber church. History has shown that this type of structure has provided the greatest challenges related to loss of life and property over the years.


Following is a review of the 15 size-up points related to churches; they can be brought to mind using the acronym “COAL TWAS WEALTHS.”

1. Construction

Heavy timber, Gothic-style churches derive their name from this style of architecture developed in Western Europe anywhere between the 12th and 16th centuries. This style of church appeared in the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries and is still well represented in many towns and cities throughout the country today.

This residence and office are attached to the church. (Photos by author unless otherwise noted.)

Churches of this size and design often cover an entire city block and consist of masonry exterior walls with large wooden interior timberwork covered by a steeply pitched slate tile roof. This style of buildings, although considered one-story in height, in reality can have peaks reaching 60 feet or more and steeples as high as 150 feet.

2) Safe and well-placed elevated streams must be considered early. (Photo by Paul Schaetzle, Jersey City Gong Club.)

The large wooden interior timberwork associated with the Class 4, heavy-timber design makes up a significant portion of the building’s skeleton. Large columns and girders of wood support the floor and roof spans. The timbers used to support the roof system are often represented by a scissor or triangular truss design.

(3) The large front window and vent window (just under the roof peak). A large circular “rose” window may be found here also.

The space that makes up the roof’s support members is often referred to as the hanging ceiling space, the attic, or the cockloft. This area between the nave/auditorium ceiling and the underside of the roof deck can be quite sizable. Heights can range from 12 feet to 18 feet and often cover the entire church auditorium. If it becomes necessary to access this space, entrance often is through a small trap door reachable only by a narrow staircase or an access ladder.

4) Vented stained-glass windows. (Photo by Lori Key.)

A vaulted plaster ceiling is below the hanging ceiling space covering the church auditorium. These heavy ornamental ceilings could extend 50 feet or more above the church auditorium floor. The heavy plaster ceilings are of specific concern to advancing firefighters because of the possibility that large sections of these ceilings will fail and drop to the floor once fire attacks the attic space. Sections weighing a hundred pounds or more can drop into the church auditorium, bringing large lighting fixtures down with them.

(5, 6) Natural ventilation options.



Roofs associated with the Gothic-style church often are slate tile over wood planking and often date back to the building’s original design. Slate is virtually unaffected by exposure to the weather. The design of the roof, with pitches of 45° and greater, enable these roofs to last a lifetime.

2. Occupancy

At first glance, occupancy concerns for churches focus around the concept of a place of worship, where the building is occupied only at certain times of the day, week, and year. However, further investigation shows that although we can expect parishioners to gather in churches on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, the church complex is used for purposes other than worship and people occupying the church and any attached buildings may be there for various purposes. Among these additional occupancy considerations are the following: day-care centers, homeless shelters, banquet halls, parochial schools, and food kitchens. These facilities could be occupied any day of the week and any time of the day or evening.

Also, many church complexes might incorporate living quarters for the minister and his family. The residence might be a separate residential property on the church grounds, a building attached to the church, or a couple of rooms located within the church proper. This is an excellent example of how preincident information can prove to be extremely valuable.

(7) Fallen slate tiles at the building�s perimeter.

In our occupancy size-up, we also like to include any specific concerns related to the building’s contents. In the church itself, we have to consider any “high-value” items that may be irreplaceable. Such items might include scrolls, robes, chalices, and statues, to name a few. When conditions allow and resources are available, thought should be given to removing the irreplaceable items. However, despite the value of these items, committing a complement of firefighters to enter a well-involved building to retrieve an object is not an option.

3. Apparatus and Staffing

As you might imagine, a fire in a church, especially one that is large and old, will tax the resources of even the largest departments. Fires of any significant size require multiple alarms, bringing large numbers of firefighters and quantities of equipment. If there is any opportunity to control a fire in a Gothic-style church, it obviously would be in the fire’s early stages. Fire officers must anticipate heavy fire loads, large-area buildings, and numerous concealed spaces and voids that are extremely difficult to access. An overwhelming force of firefighters and a substantial supply of equipment are needed to control a fire in a heavy-timber church. As has been said numerous times before, “Call for help early; if you don’t need the forces, you can always send them home.”

Engine Company Operations. When the decision is to commit arriving engine companies to an offensive attack, actions must focus on establishing a sufficient water supply with the stretching of large hoselines to the seat of the fire. The requirements for a successful outcome for a fire in a heavy-timber church are the speed, accessibility, and amount of water that can be delivered. Hoselines of adequate size, preferably 212 inches in diameter, must be considered early, on arrival. The amount of fuel this type of building can produce; the sizes of the void spaces; and the reach, penetration, and volume required not only to slow fire spread but also to extinguish the fire necessitate the capabilities of a large hoseline.

(8) These trees and wires present additional difficulties for responders. Photo by Lori Key.)

Now, there is no doubt that the movement of a large hoseline will require more people. But, if you took at the resources you were going to assign to the two smaller hoselines and instead team them up to stretch one large hoseline capable of delivering a more effective stream, you would greatly improve your chances of not only slowing the spread of the fire but also of extinguishing it. The concept behind this thought is to pool your resources to deliver the biggest punch on what is known to be a very difficult building.

Ladder Company Operations. Ladder company operations for fires involving churches focus around the fireground commander’s decision of whether the attack will be offensive or defensive. In either position, the tasks are difficult. The placement and positioning of apparatus must be considered early in the operation. Company officers must direct their apparatus drivers/chauffeurs to place apparatus with both the offensive and defensive modes in mind. Keeping the front and flanking positions of the building open for the truck company becomes an initial consideration.

(9) A 2,000-gpm pumper pushes water into the tactical zone at a multiple-alarm fire. (Photo by the late Joe Lovero, JCFD Communications.)

With this thought in mind, the front of many heavy-timber churches offers openings for ventilation and eventual stream placement. Large churches may contain a large window in the front gable or a circular “rose” window. This decorative window allows the colored light of the stained glass to shine into the church auditorium. At a fire incident, this window can be removed to vent the church proper. It can also provide access for a strong stream from an elevated platform that can be directed into the church auditorium itself or to penetrate the ornamental ceiling in an attempt to get water into the attic space.

Another window that can be found within this same space is the vent window. This window, or louvered opening, allows direct access into the attic space over the church auditorium and gives the ladder company another opportunity for venting or directing a stream into the attic space. This window is much smaller than the rose window and definitely limits the maneuverability of an elevated stream. Nevertheless, its presence warrants early access.

Additional ventilation options come with limitations as well as some hesitations. Stained-glass windows are expensive and are often difficult to replace. Hesitating to break them to provide a large opening for ventilation has resulted in the loss of entire buildings. If their removal will assist the operations and prevent further structural loss, they should be removed.

Venting the roof at a church fire will be impossible or, at the least, extremely difficult and dangerous for the ladder company. Without a doubt, the two main reasons fires cannot be controlled in large, old churches are the inability to ventilate the roof and the inability to quickly open concealed spaces and voids. But, there may be additional options to assist with these difficulties. Preincident information specific to churches in your district may show construction features that possibly could be used to assist with the roof vent. Natural roof ventilation options for the ladder company may come from roof turbines, louvers, or ridge vents, to name a few. Depending on their design within the space, they may assist with ventilation in the church auditorium or attic space. Preincident information will determine the difference.

Barring some of the more obvious construction features and considerations previously described, ladder company members should immediately deploy and use a thermal imaging camera. It can assist with the difficulties encountered when trying to quickly open the building’s concealed spaces and voids. Thermal imaging has become the fire service’s best weapon for identifying the fire’s location and extent. It is critical that it be deployed immediately on arrival in buildings of this construction, square footage, and complexity. Prioritizing your efforts in identifying the fire’s location will assist with early control and prevent the loss of firefighter lives.

4. Life Hazard

Church fires present numerous life hazards for firefighters. The greatest dangers occur when members attempt to conduct interior operations. Advancing into these buildings with a hoseline or to conduct a search is the most dangerous. In an offensive mode, firefighters must obtain immediate information relative to fire involvement in the void spaces. Fire in these spaces will burn intensely as it travels and makes its way up to the roof space. Fire that does not take that path will produce favorable conditions for a backdraft. Whether in the free-burning or smoldering phase, fire in concealed spaces can tremendously accelerate fire conditions when it reaches the open spaces of the church auditorium. In the conditions described, the fire can force firefighters to scramble to find an exit as the fire brings down large sections of the ornamental ceiling, lighting fixtures, ductwork, and structural roof members. As indicated, any attempt to put firefighters to work inside a church on fire must be accompanied by the use of a thermal imaging camera(s). The auditorium’s high ceilings and large open spaces will prevent firefighters from feeling and observing true fire conditions. Information gathered from a number of thermal images-above, around, and below-can save firefighters’ lives.

Exterior operations at church fires also present significant life-hazard concerns for firefighters. The design features of Gothic-style churches, such as slate tile roofs and steeple heights, must be noted and observed during fire department operations. Slate tiles are large and heavy and vary in size and weight. They are installed in a manner similar to that used for a conventional roof-each tile is laid side-by-side, starting at the roof’s edge, with overlapping rows up to the roof’s ridge. Slate tiles eventually fail. Failure occurs by two means. Once fire enters the attic space, expect that the roof deck will eventually fail. As this starts to occur, the roof sheds its tiles, creating a serious threat to firefighters near the building’s perimeter. A high-caliber stream can also dislodge the tiles; the force of the water can throw the tiles considerable distances, possibly severely injuring firefighters.

As the incident grows in size and intensity, fireground commanders are forced to operate in a defensive mode. Within this mode, members must anticipate extended operations from flanking positions, all from well-established collapse zones. These zones must include the full height of the building, including the steeple or bell towers. The potential for the collapse of any attached or closely spaced buildings must also be considered. Aggressive stands to keep the fire from traveling into a building annex or an attached residence also pose great concerns as the fire and the earth’s gravity attempt to drop the building or any portion of it to the ground.

5. Terrain

You may find some problems with building setbacks. Depending on the property’s size and location within the city or town, a church may have a considerable setback from the sidewalk or accessible area. This would limit the use of a stream from an elevated aerial or platform, as would the presence of trees and overhead wires.

Incorporate into your preincident action plan any significant setback information and ways for dealing with it. You can easily identify such difficulties during your first visit to the complex. Note where you can get in and where you cannot; this information will be useful when you need to go to work at that address. Waiting until you arrive in an emergency to figure it out is not sound or safe thinking.

6. Water Supply

Anticipation is the key in this size-up factor. Considering the potential for fire growth in a church building and to nearby exposure buildings, fire officers must plan for a quick, large, and sustained water supply. Efficient guidelines for engine companies are necessary for accomplishing this. Engine companies must be prepared to support a quick and sustained water supply and delivery system. If the engine company is not properly organized, the fire will be allowed to take possession of the building and its exposures.

You must be able to identify large and reliable water sources in the immediate and nearby streets. Hydrant main sizes, available flows, and other secondary sources must be noted well before an incident occurs. In anticipation, chief officers must also be able to identify and select larger-gpm pumpers within their resource complement to act as water-supply companies. In Jersey City, high-volume engine companies (2,000-gpm pumpers) are strategically placed throughout the city’s battalions for deployment to a potentially large incident.

7. Auxiliary Appliances

The absence of automatic alarms and suppression equipment contributes greatly to property loss in church fires. Many churches, primarily those of the Gothic style, were built before codes were written and are not required to conform to existing codes in many towns and cities. Often, the only time fire officers may find alarm or suppression equipment in any area of a large and older church is when the church has undergone some type of renovation. Even with renovations, the alarm and suppression requirements are based on the amount and type of work performed.

An alarm or suppression system may be present on a limited basis in a basement or storage area. Knowing the locations of these systems and that of a fire department connection (if present) is crucial to the first few minutes of the operation. Statistically, most church fires start in the basement, the heating/furnace room, or storage areas. If these areas are protected, the local fire department can enhance its ability to quickly control the fire.

8. Street Conditions

Street size-up concerns are specific to each building. As mentioned earlier, it is important for companies to get out and identify key areas for spotting and placing the apparatus. Churches and the surrounding properties come with their own unique obstacles and access concerns, such as street width and traffic flow. Fire officers should review the placement possibilities during the street’s most difficult times as well as those times when the street and surrounding areas are free of parked cars. Apparatus placement options on a Saturday morning might be quite different from those available on a Sunday morning when the streets and the parking lots are full with vehicles belonging to those attending church services and other functions.

9. Weather

The wind and its effect on a church add to the incident commander’s challenges. We know that even 10-mph winds can significantly affect the fire’s intensity within a building and threaten nearby exposures. The fire’s intensity within a building is directly affected by the wind’s velocity, the size of any building openings, the building’s open areas, and the building’s fire load.

High winds can create a tremendous firebrand problem from fires that involve Gothic churches. Should the church’s steeple become involved, flying brands would extend to an even larger area. When feasible, and when personnel are available, the incident commander should seriously consider requesting a brand patrol or brand group downwind of the incident. Having the minimum of an engine and a ladder company to patrol areas downwind to observe the affected neighborhood from building rooftops or an elevated aerial ladder might help to eliminate additional building fires.

10. Exposures

Exterior exposure concerns surrounding a Gothic-style church also vary with the incident. Anyone operating at a well-involved church fire quickly becomes aware of the tremendous amount of radiant heat these fires produce and how quickly the fire can spread to surrounding exposures.

(10) Within the first few minutes of the fire department’s operations, all the building’s windows failed, most notably the large rose window on the front of the building, producing a concentrated and intense source of radiant heat to all surrounding sides. This forced companies to take flanking positions as water was placed on nearby exposures and all buildings were searched and evacuated.

Fireground commanders must anticipate early fire spread to nearby buildings and plan to combat it. Structures within 50 feet can become early exposure threats and require resources to protect them from the radiant heat. Obviously, well-placed master streams are needed. But, the following must also be considered: How will the energy be expelled from the building, how can that energy be redirected, and how can such difficulties be anticipated (photos 10, 11)?

(11) Once the roof failed, the fire�s energy was redirected. Most of the radiant heat�s energy was channeled up and away, lessening the lateral concentration of fire and heat to nearby buildings of equal height. But now with most of the energy being directed up through the failed roof deck, there was heightened concern for nearby buildings of greater height. (Photos by Bob Scollan, NJMFP.)

Heavy-timber structures by themselves are very predictable. We know that once fire takes hold of the structure, it will exit with tremendous force through the building’s weakest areas first. What adds an element of concern is when other buildings surround this heavy-timber structure, as is often the case with the neighborhood church.

11. Area

Square footage in a church and its surrounding properties pose a number of concerns for firefighters. These concerns are not limited to the large, open spaces and their potential involvement. Firefighters must also be concerned about any maze-like areas in and around the building in which companies may have to operate. Examples include the small and narrow stairs behind a closed door in the front vestibule that may lead to a choir and organ loft; meeting rooms behind the altar; locked storage areas for sacred documents and materials; and a kitchen, bath, and study for the church clergy in the rear of the church. Also, basement areas may contain a stage area for church performances, numerous rooms for storage, classrooms for Sunday school, and a kitchen for church functions. The point is, although we are aware of the difficulties with the large, open spaces of a building of this size, we should keep in mind that there are small and difficult-to-reach areas within these structures that also can present difficulties.

12. Location and Extent of Fire

All fireground commanders seek to effectively and safely assign resources to seek information that will determine a fire’s location and extent. These decisions become even more difficult at church fires, especially where older churches are involved, because there are many places where the fire can start and through which it can travel. Among the primary concerns within this size-up factor are a fire in the belowgrade areas of the furnace/boiler room and the hanging ceiling space above the church auditorium.

(12) Steeple/bell towers can act like a giant flue. (Photo by Lori Key.)

The furnace or boiler room fire presents problems such as poor housekeeping. Many times, the furnace room is a storage area for combustibles, paints, varnishes, and the like, and it is only a matter of time before the room’s contents come in close contact with a heat source.

A second concern is the integrity of the furnace or heating room: Can it prevent fire from spreading? The fire can spread quickly to other parts of the structure. Initially, the fire may spread to other areas of the basement through flimsy or nonfirestopped partition walls. Often, all you will find is a framed-out partition wall covered by wooden clapboards or gypsum wallboard. These partition walls extend only up to the underside of the unfinished floor joists.

It is highly probable that there will be an unfinished ceiling in this area of the basement and that a partition wall installed at a right angle to the floor joists will provide large horizontal openings through which the fire can spread from the furnace room up through the openings in and around the heating ducts. Walls and ceilings throughout the church may be hollowed out as much as 16 to 20 inches to accommodate the old heating ducts found in these buildings. These areas offer expanded raceways for fire to extend throughout the building. The openings will extend from the basement up into the side walls of the church auditorium, on up into the hanging ceiling space over the entire church.

The hanging ceiling space over a church is the most inaccessible space in the building. Access to this area is generally limited to a narrow staircase to a wooden ladder leading to a trap door. Fire can originate in this area or enter this space from numerous wall voids around the structure. The large wooden interior timber work of the ceiling and roof support system, along with heights in these spaces that average from 12 to 18 feet over the entire length of the building, necessitate that chief officers be prepared for defensive operations once fire enters this space.

13. Time

The fire officer’s concern with time focuses around the universal thoughts of the time of the day, the day of the week, and the time of the year. As a general consideration, a church’s occupancy load will generally be at its highest when church services are in session. This is normally on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings. With services, there is also the probability of Sunday school, which brings an untold number of children to an area in the church basement or church annex.

Other church events may occur on specific days as well. Weddings, for example, most often occur on Friday evening or Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Holiday or religious events and their dates vary according to the day of the week and the time of the year. These events bring large numbers of people to the church and its surrounding properties.

14. Height

With a roof peak that can reach heights of 60 feet or more and steeple heights known to reach 100 to 150 feet or more, fire officers must anticipate related difficulties at church fires.

Not only does the height of the steeple in most churches enhance fire growth, but so do the steeple’s design and construction (which is similar to a giant chimney flue). In addition, the total height of the steeple must be considered in the collapse zone when operations go defensive.

In many neighborhoods across the country, the church is the largest and tallest building in town. These buildings often are the focal point for the town village or Main Street area. With this in mind, there usually will be smaller and sometimes closely spaced buildings. When church fire operations go defensive, fireground commanders must consider and establish collapse zones around the entire building. With the church auditorium reaching the height of a six- or eight-story building and steeple heights equaling the height of a 15-story building, all surrounding areas must be evacuated to encompass the collapse zone for those heights.

The direction and path in which a steeple will collapse are difficult to predict. The best course of action, when such a collapse is anticipated, is to establish collapse zones for its full height in all directions. Setting up a surveyor’s transit(s) on a fixed point on the steeple may help to indicate the path of the collapse. Movements as little as an inch can be detected and relayed to the incident commander and division/sector officers. Even with companies operating in a flanking or a lateral collapse position, information that the church steeple is starting to lean their way warrants repositioning.

15. Special Considerations for Chief Officers

Barring information that may be specific to a certain address, the following are some basics a chief officer must consider at all church fires.

• Review any preincident information specific to the address. Such factors as structural alterations, the presence of auxiliary appliances, area water supply, occupied areas, and an attached residence are just a few examples of size-up factors that could influence decision making.

• On arrival, chief officers must establish and strictly enforce a strong and disciplined incident management system-one in which established division/sector officers ensure that priority task assignments are being implemented, members are accounted for, and all precautions are taken to ensure the safest possible operation. Such a system should be implemented at all structural fires; I reemphasize its importance here because of the inherent difficulties in fighting a church fire.

• As soon as possible, gather information about the location and extent of the fire from a number of sources. From the exterior of the building, this information could be gathered from the visual observations of a chief officer, company officer, or chief’s aide assigned to view all surrounding sides. On the interior of the building, this information should be obtained by using a thermal imaging camera. Because of the numerous concealed spaces through which fire can travel undetected in these churches, obtaining information about the fire’s location and extent early will not only help with resource assignments and fire extinguishment but also may help to prevent a serious injury or death.

Author’s note: If observations with a thermal imaging camera indicate fire has possession of the hanging ceiling space, or if exterior observations show visible fire and/or heavy smoke under pressure from roof openings, pull the companies out, conduct an accountability roll call, transmit an additional alarm, and go defensive.

• Without a doubt, anticipation is the key to successful and safe firefighting. With that in mind, transmit additional alarms early. As an unwritten rule, many chief officers like to have an additional engine and ladder in reserve/staging so they can deal quickly with any changing or deteriorating condition(s). For churches, it is highly recommended that you have a full/additional alarm assignment in staging (second alarm, third alarm, for example). If conditions are going to change, they are going to change quickly and in a very big way. An additional engine and ladder will not be enough.

• There are special salvage considerations as well. You may want to add or specifically note in your preplans the location of the church’s valuables. You can consider saving these items if you know where they are and fire conditions permit.

• • •

Church fires are not everyday incidents. The infrequency of working in these types of buildings may cause us to be complacent and ignore some of the difficulties historically encountered when advancing in to find the fire. These structures present firefighters and fire officers with unique challenges that must be calculated with every step of our operations. Ignoring any one of them could lead to firefighter injury or death.

The fireground commander must set realistic goals. Your experience with and education related to these buildings will make the difference.

MICHAEL A. TERPAK, a 29-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the 2nd Battalion of the Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department, where he has served for 25 years. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire safety administration from the New Jersey City University, lectures frequently on fire/rescue service topics, and tutors firefighters and fire officers in preparing for promotional exams. He is the author of Fireground Size-Up (Fire Engineering, 2002).

Michael Terpak will present “Size-Up and Operational Concerns for Fires in Churches” at the Fire Department Instructors Conference in Indianapolis, April 11-16. Consult the FDIC Official Show Program for exact date and time.

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