Box 2827 was the final multialarm fire in Philadelphia in 2004. It occurred in the early morning hours of December 30 and would forever have an emotional impact on a community. The central communications center received a phone call for a fire at the Sharon Baptist Church. A full first-alarm assignment was dispatched. The first-arriving companies found heavy smoke conditions inside the church and initiated an offensive assault. Within 12 minutes, it became evident that the advanced fire was beyond the capabilities of an interior attack with handlines. Command was compelled to change the objectives. Units were instructed to withdraw to a safe distance and prepare for defensive actions.


At 0417 hours, a second alarm was struck. At 0431 hours, a third alarm was sounded, and I responded as the on-call incident safety officer (ISO). More than 100 responders would shortly be on the scene. Certainly, by its very nature, a basement fire in an old church makes the structure vulnerable. Confinement is difficult because of the heavy timber construction, nonfirestopped walls, high ceilings, a steeply pitched slate roof, and a lack of built-in fire protection features. Yet, this incident would be different from many others in this type of occupancy.

(1) Alpha side of the church complex. Note the close proximity of the exposures. (Photos by author.)

Certainly, there were the typical command, control, coordination, and communication challenges. Before this fire was brought under control at 0649 hours, five alarms had to be summoned, a half-dozen nearby dwellings had fire damage, 300 evacuees were brought to a relocation center, the Red Cross attended to displaced families, a crane was needed to tear down a high chimney, and numerous agencies assisted in the response and recovery efforts. It was remarkable that the fire department handled this large-scale incident without sustaining any injuries.


Responding, my thoughts drifted to the post-incident reviews from deadly houses of worship fires. In March 2004, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, illustrated the dangers of a steeple collapse. At the Precious Faith Temple Church in Lake Worth, Texas, there were accountability and construction issues. The Pilgrims Hope Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, reinforced the need for a proper level of personal protective equipment (PPE). The Rising Sun Baptist Church in Philadelphia demonstrated how quickly conditions could change. Once on the scene, these lessons could not be forgotten.

(2) Large chimneys and guard dogs can be safety challenges.

After donning the proper protective gear with an outer blue vest marked “Safety Officer,” I followed the departmental policy of immediately checking in with the commanding officer. Field companies were instructed to report to a staging area; the command staff met face-to-face with Incident Commander (IC) John McGrath. He was very brief. The strategy would be to confine the fire from a defensive posture on the Alpha side and Bravo side. The firefighting forces would operate offensively in dwellings within 30 feet of the burning church complex, on the Charlie side and Delta side, to prevent further extension. Embers would be monitored for downwind problems.

Safety Plan

The preliminary safety plan included a written sketch of the site and a verbal order to track members’ movements. At the onset, it was easy to chart personnel operating in fire suppression and support activities. Later, the tracking of members within the “combat zone” was an ordeal, as crews exchanged SCBA cylinders and eventually rotated into a Rest & Rehab (R&R) area. Establishing a collapse/safety zone for personnel and equipment was a top priority; banner tape was used to clearly denote restricted routes. Monitoring all the radio frequencies for tactical operations and identifying probable dangers required an assistant safety officer (ASO).

Scene Survey

My initial task as the ISO was to fully survey the scene, which was simple at this incident. The fireground was neatly divided into geographical squares with sector supervisors in charge of each. The front of the church was designated the Alpha side. The steeple and electrical wires were potential hazards. Fortunately, the power company could deenergize the electricity from a remote location without causing a blackout to the entire neighborhood.

NIMS Implemented

Following the National Incident Management System model (NIMS), the left side of the scene was designated the Bravo side. There was a lawn with no paved surfaces. Operationally, no elevated platform could be used to deliver a large-caliber stream. Large-diameter hoselines had to be stretched to supply ground monitors. Fatigue would eventually become a problem, and R&R would be the solution.

Partial Collapse, Exposures

Within one hour, an 80-foot section of the wall and part of the roof collapsed in the Bravo sector. Many row homes in the Charlie sector (rear of the church) were being exposed to flame impingement and radiant heat. Engine companies used mobile water lines in a narrow alley from beyond the collapse/safety zone or inside the houses to extinguish visible fire in the frame bays and combustible cornices. Eventually, a portable deck gun was placed on the flat roof of a two-story dwelling to protect several exposures while directly applying a water stream into the large Gothic-style church.

(3) Heavy equipment is needed to remove exterior walls to conduct a full fire investigation. The incident safety officer must ensure that a safety plan is discussed with responders and private contractors.

Meanwhile, ladder companies were guiding the fleeing residents to a nearby elementary school. Paramedic crews assisted the many senior citizens at the evacuation shelter; other medics were deployed to the fireground to set up first-aid stations.

The Delta side was difficult to size up from a safety perspective. An enclosed walkway connected the large rectory to the flaming church. In addition, there were 40 row houses on this side of the burning building. Unfortunately, a ladder pipe and ground streams could not halt the fire spread from the church to the rectory. Soon the 100- 175-square-foot complex was fully involved in fire.

The Delta side needed more resources and a higher level of accountability. The physical area was divided into smaller and more manageable areas. Each two-story row house had wooden overhangs that trapped the heat at the roof level. Each property had independent firewalls that created a “defendable space.” Structures had a separate address, but most were not clearly marked. We used the standard fireground designations recommended by NIMS. Units were assigned to specific locations such as D-1, D-2, D-3, and D-4. Engine and ladder companies worked in conjunction under a strong point-of-entry control system. One and three-quarter inch water lines were positioned, plaster ceilings were pulled, and a thermal imaging camera was used to evaluate temperature changes. It took more than three hours to contain the spread of flames. Progress reports were called for every 10 minutes.

By noon, only the blackened foundation and three masonry walls remained. There were gaping holes where vibrant stained glass used to be. It was a devastating loss for Pastor Keith Wayne Reed, the 6,000 members of the congregation, neighbors, and responders. Perhaps miraculously, the media focused on a positive aspect: No civilians or firefighters were injured.


The fire service constantly makes readiness decisions based on legal requirements and financial impact. Members’ preparedness cannot be ignored. Clearly, the ISO position is not a luxury but an organizational obligation. The ISO’s responsibility is to constantly evaluate risks, hazards, and benchmarks. Timely progress reports are imperative. Risk management standards are a critical component of an incident safety plan. Knowing the exact location of resources, vigilantly performing a continuous 360° survey, and understanding the inherent dangers of specific occupancies are among the significant duties of any ISO. The next time you respond as the ISO, keep this information in mind. It will reduce the risk to front-line firefighters and stress to the incident management team.

• • •

Church fires present significant operational problems. Following an incident management system and activating key positions are essential to emergency scene organization and personnel safety.

WILLIAM SHOULDIS is a deputy chief with the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department, where he has served in line and staff positions for more than 32 years. He is an adjunct instructor in the resident and field programs at the National Fire Academy and has a bachelor’s degree in fire science administration and a master’s degree in public safety. Shouldis is a member of the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board and a presenter at FDIC.

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