Trending Topics

Video: Church fires present unique collapse zone dangers

Spiral plummeting from burning church in Baltimore underscores importance of setting up fireground collapse zones

Screen Shot 2020-04-27 at 1.37.19 PM.png

What makes church fires unique are the buildings itself. Each church has been uniquely designed with differing features. One of the common design elements is the top spiral or spirals.


We have witnessed some large church fires over the last two years, with the most notable being the Notre-Dame cathedral fire in Paris on April 15, 2019.

On March 28, 2020, we witnessed another large church fire in East Baltimore at the Urban Bible Fellowship Church on Eager Street. This event was also captured on video, showing the top spiral falling to the ground – similar to the dramatic spiral collapse in Paris.

What makes church fires unique are the buildings itself. Each church has been uniquely designed with differing features. One of the common design elements is the top spiral or spirals.

In the corresponding video, at around the five-minute mark, the top spiral falls after being burned through. It appears to strike a building or near a building on the way down. The video is a good reminder of why we set up collapse zones.

Most fires where we set up collapse zones involve crews being in a defensive mode of operations. This is because at that point of the fire operation, the building is fully involved with fire, the building is becoming structurally unsound, and there are signs of collapse starting to appear. These signs can be unusual sounds coming from the building, corners of the building starting to bulge out, walls starting to bow in the middle, large runaway cracks appearing in the walls, and even simply how long the building has been burning.

The collapse zone is set up to be at a minimum 1.5 times the height of the building to provide a large enough buffer zone for fire personnel working around the building. Sometimes this cannot be accomplished due to the height of the building and the exposures located close by. The church in this video is a tall building surrounded by other buildings in close proximity.

The domino effect presented here is when there is a collapse, it can negatively impact both fire personnel and equipment. The entrapment of fire personnel under collapse debris can kill them – just like in Pittsburgh on March 13, 2004, when two firefighters were killed and over 20 were injured by a falling/collapsing bell tower. A collapse can also take out apparatus, rendering them useless. The equipment side is the least of our concern as compared to personnel, of course.

Staging multiple safety officers at different spots around the building will help to keep an eye on changing conditions, and they can warn personnel of the impending danger. Their second set of eyes will help with early notification to others. It’s also important for everyone on the fireground to maintain situational awareness at all times.

After watching this video with your company, take the following steps to manage similar incidents:

  • Identify which buildings in your first response area are a height danger hazard for collapse.
  • Once identified, have a roundtable discussion about how a collapse zone could be set up at that building.
  • In the discussion, look at what options are available for staging equipment to not be in the collapse zone, and what tactics can be employed to fight a fire in that identified building.

Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1998, currently serving as a firefighter with the Fort Gratiot Fire Department in Michigan. He is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States and India. He graduated from Seneca College of Applied and Technologies as a fire protection engineering technologist, and received his bachelor’s degree in fire and life safety studies from the Justice Institute of British Columbia and his master’s degree in safety, security and emergency management from Eastern Kentucky University. van der Feyst is the lead author of the book “Residential Fire Rescue” and “The Tactical Firefighter.” Connect with van der Feyst via email.