Ventilation, Large Streams Required at Church Fires
The Volunteers Corner
When churches are destroyed by fire, it is usually because of the lack of ventilation or the lack of water—or both.
The prevalence of concealed spaces and the large undivided area for the religious services are the two features that make fires in churches difficult to extinguish unless they can be nipped in the incipient stage.
Unfortunately, fires that have made a sizable start in churches before discovery frequently result in the destruction of those churches. The lesson that should be learned from these fires is that in selecting the size of the first-in line, you should strive for a higher-than-usual rate of water application to make certain you can darken down the small fire. Incipient fires in churches should be handled as though the structure were made of cardboard because if your initial attack is too weak, the church may burn as though it were made of cardboard.
If a line with 50 or 75 gpm would probably be adequate in other buildings, take a 200 to 250-gpm line into a church. Otherwise, the fire may get away from you before a backup line can be put into operation.
When fire has taken a serious hold in the auditorium area of a church, consider the use of a deluge set at the door as your first stream on the fire. If the interior heat is too intense to advance hand lines into the church or the fire has entered the area over the ceiling, then a master stream will be necessary to reach the burning area. If apparatus can be positioned close enough to a door or window, an articulated or telescoping water boom may be able to put water where it will extinguish the fire.
Ventilation is vital: Although most churches seem to have been designed to make ventilation difficult, adequate and immediate ventilation is as important as the application of water in a church fire. When churches seriously threatened by fire have been saved, it has been because fire fighters did a masterful job of ventilation.
We generally think of flashover as a single room phenomenon, but that also can occur throughout the undivided, extensive main area of a church unless you ventilate in time to keep the temperature in the area below the ignition temperature of the wood and other class A materials present.
Immediate roof ventilation is the answer to getting heat out of a church so that the spread of fire is minimized and hose crews are able to enter the building. If you can get men to the roof with aerial apparatus or roof ladders, consider yourself lucky. You can make a large opening in the roof and you are well on the way to controlling the fire. Unfortunately, some church roofs cannot be reached with ladders because aerial apparatus cannot approach close enough to the building or because the roof is too wide for the longest roof ladders. Some churches, particularly some modern ones, have conical, or rounded, roofs that defy the use of roof ladders.
The answer is horizontal ventilation. When heat builds up inside the church, you must take out the windows. Fire fighters are aware of the value of stained glass windows and are reluctant to break them. What you have to remember is that the church structure is more valuable than its windows and there are times when the windows have to go to save the church. It is far more sensible to break out the windows early and save the church than to wait too long and lose both the church and the windows.
Concealed spaces: A large number of church fires start in the basement. While basement fires in general threaten to spread to upper floors, this possibility is probably a more serious threat in churches because of the concealed spaces that fire will enter on the main floor.
The altar area and the choir loft frequently have wainscoting of attractive wood furred out from the wall, creating concealed spaces that fires have traditionally entered on their way to the destruction of the church. In many churches, other walls are furred out from masonry outer walls, leaving space for fire to propagate.
These concealed spaces must be opened up at the slightest suspicion that fire has entered them. Unless you get ahead of the fire, you will be unable to prevent the fire from continuing its upward movement inside the walls. You will need additional manpower just to open up walls and other concealed spaces. Work ahead of the rising fire and get water down on the fire.
Churches that have hanging ceilings provide a concealed space between the ceiling and the roof where fire can rage from one end of the church to the other. That is why it is so important to head off fire in the walls before it gets into the area above the ceiling. In some churches, there is a catwalk above the ceiling. If fire fighters are able to get into this area to head off fire, they must be aware of the fact that the first step off the catwalk is down through the ceiling to the floor below. In many cases, your only resort is to use master streams from inside a doorway to try to penetrate the ceiling and hit the fire above it.
Church fires demand aggressive fire fighting because once they are well under way, they offer—at best—only one opportunity to stop them. You have to ventilate, use large enough streams and open up the first time.