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Fire attack: Modern churches

Mega churches and those in strip malls or other nontraditional settings are a danger to firefighters — know where they are and plan for them

There is no doubt that we all have at least one legacy-built church in our district, and very likely more than one. They are a staple of the community and have a great deal history to share with those who travel to our towns and cities.

Today, places of worship are popping up in just about any place that they can find space. Additionally, there are mega-churches that will hold thousands of gatherers. And, they don’t just congregate on Sunday mornings; no, they are an all-purpose facility.

Some of the challenges associated with modern churches are different from those of the legacy church; some are similar. However, even some of similarities have small differences that can make a fire in these occupancies very difficult and dangerous — in some cases, even more so than the legacy churches.

As with the legacy churches, we don’t see frequent fire events in these buildings and occupancies. However, with the way that these buildings are constructed and the locations that they occupy, the potential for fire is even greater than in the legacy buildings.

To sprinkle or not to sprinkle
Today’s churches are built in many configurations, and depending on the local building codes, they may or may not have sprinklers. Even with local codes, architects and engineers are able to create fire areas that may eliminate the requirement for sprinklers.

Mega churches are being built like gymnasiums or large theaters. In other cases, church groups are renting space in storefronts, strip malls and other commercial occupancies that were not built or designed for large gatherings in them.

What needs to be understood is that a church can be anywhere and look like anything, including a house or an office space. This requires us to get out and find these occupancies. Hopefully, you have a strong prevention program that will get you into these buildings before an event happens.

Two problems
The large mega-churches are a huge problem for us in the event of a fire or a natural disaster. It, like the legacy church, has large open spaces with many aisles and seating options. This large area will reduce our fire stream reach.

The big difference that has to be recognized is the type of building materials used. These modern buildings have lightweight, engineered wood and lightweight steel. Both fail fast and easy.

The second problem with mega-churches is the simple number of occupants and any given time. Many will hold more than 1,000 people, and in some cases, in multiple areas in the building.

Evacuation during a fire or natural disaster will tax even the best fire departments, not matter what their staffing levels are.

Not exclusive to the mega-church is the trend to provide daycare. Not just during worship services, but all week.

Rapid growth
Depending on the church and its location, it may have added on to the structure to accommodate the kids. Or it may use the sanctuary, classrooms or existing space that was not originally designed for this type of occupancy. Daycare also increases the amount of cooking that takes place in the building, obviously increasing the chances for a fire.

The rate at which some of these churches grow is, at times, astounding. This is dangerous because they sometimes will use areas of the building for uses that it was not designed. The issue is normally a lack of exits in those spaces, which can cause big problems during an evacuation.

A church in my area had a modest sanctuary, and as it grew it wanted a gymnasium for the youth. It was built within the code, but soon they had moved a stage and sound equipment into the gym to hold worship services.

This would not have been an issue, except in order to continue using the gym for other events, they blocked two exits. Firefighters had no idea they had moved into the gym for worship services.

Altered use
Buildings and spaces not built for or typically identified with churches are not easy to notice and can create an issue, especially for egress. These spaces were not originally built for an assembly-type occupancy, which could require more exits.

Additionally, navigating the interior of these spaces can be much more difficult with several chairs, pews and other design characteristics as opposed to what might have been used as a small waiting area by the previous occupant.

The important thing is to find these buildings before you have an incident at them. No matter if you’re on a volunteer or career department, you must get out and be familiar with your response area. When you do find one of these challenges, pass it on to others.

In most cases, these spaces will require large quantities of water and become defensive fires. Where the churches have set up in strip stores, business offices and other professional buildings, the threat of hidden fire, access and penetration of water streams is a challenge. Appropriately placed attack lines are critical with all of these fires along with knowing your capabilities.

Know your area and expect these occupancies to pop up. You probably already have them. Plan for fires in them and pass on the information to your entire department.

Train hard, prepare often and I’ll see you next month.

Jason Hoevelmann is a deputy chief and fire marshal with the Sullivan (Mo.) Fire Protection District and a career captain and training officer with the Florissant Valley (Mo.) Fire Protection District. His experience spans more than 20 years, with more than 15 years as an instructor. Jason holds an associate’s degree in paramedic science from East Central College and a bachelor’s degree in fire service administration from Eastern Oregon University. He is a state advocate for the Everyone Goes Home initiative and a board member for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. He is also co-owner of Engine House Training, LLC. He can be reached at