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Church Fire: Lessons from a Crisis

We stood and watched as approximately 20 firetrucks, an ambulance, and numerous first responders converged out our facility.

“It was August 2nd, at 11:30 PM in the evening, that my phone rang with a call from Emily Ver Steeg, our church administrator,” states David Howell, executive pastor at Crossroads Fellowship Church in Raleigh, NC. “I knew right way that if she was calling at that time, there was a serious problem. ‘There is a fire at our Millbrook campus’, she said. We stood and watched as approximately 20 firetrucks, an ambulance, and numerous first responders converged out our facility. When you see hook and ladder trucks showing up, you know it’s serious.”

The First 24 Hours

“The Raleigh police department kept us 200 feet back from the building,” Howell continues, “but we could see through the main doors and into our main hallway. It was full of smoke. In fact, the smoke was so thick the firemen were tied together with a rope so they could find their way back out. Some were coming out to be treated at the ambulance. Because of the density of the smoke, it took the firemen an hour just to locate the fire.”

“It was an emotional shock,” says Howell. “When we realized we had a significant problem, it became more emotional. The building is just a building, but it's a big tool for the community because of what takes place there: counseling, GreifShare, DivorceCare, as well as the Missions Thrift Store that provides affordable new and gently used goods and clothing and funds our missions efforts—we were digesting how this is going to impact our ministry. We were afraid it might be a significant setback in terms of caring for people. I didn't care that much about the building—I cared a lot about what the building enables us to do.”

The church administrator quickly contacted both their insurance company and Carolina Restoration Services (an emergency damage restoration service company) with whom Crossroads already had a relationship, so both were aware and could began preparations for dealing with the crisis.

The fire was confined to about a 1,000 square foot space. The fire suppression system had worked perfectly, only triggering sprinklers over the fire area. However, most of the building had extensive smoke damage and water damage from flooding.

Within about 12 hours the fire department cleared essential people to enter the building. Carolina Restoration Services arrived and began the recovery work. With the extensive flooding throughout the facility, it was imperative that water removal and the drying out of walls and carpeting begin immediately to prevent mold from taking hold, causing more extensive damage. Baseboard moldings were stripped out of every affected room, and many hundreds of portable blowers were positioned every few feet along all walls to hasten the drying process. A dozen or more large generators were positioned around the building powering the blowers, and huge air handlers were set up at every major entrance with plastic sheet “ductwork” run throughout the facility to provide air exchange—drawing out moist, smoke-infused air and replacing it with fresh air from outdoors.

Within the first day over 60 people were at work in the facility. Every single surface and object that wasn’t being disposed of had to be thoroughly wiped down to remove the smoke residue. All ceiling tiles had to be removed and discarded. Walls, chairs, AVL gear, toys from Children’s ministry—it all had to be assessed and either cleaned or discarded.

“While we had access to the facility within 12 hours,” says Howell, “the fire site itself was locked down for investigation. No one could enter that space. And while most of the facility was affected, our Missions Thrift Store was hit hard—the fire was in the warehouse space that also houses the thrift store and all donated goods for that store. Everything ultimately had to be thrown away.”

The First Week

The following week, the cleanup crews focused on cleaning the worship center, the Great Room (a large space adjacent to the worship center), and main hallway leading to these rooms. “Our restoration company worked really hard,” Howell states. “Every space we were to use had to be wiped down, chairs cleaned, carpet cleaned, air quality checked throughout the week….” Access was permitted to these spaces for the purpose of weekend services, and the church was able to resume limited ministry on the weekend. But the ordeal was far from over.

Initial Cleanup

“We have a very dedicated congregation,” adds Howell, “and they really wanted to step up and help. We had uncountable phone calls asking what they can do, wanting to come with their small group to help. However, this was not a time to be utilizing volunteers. It was critical in the initial phases of recovery that professionals and limited staff were the only ones working in the building to ensure proper procedures were followed, and the requirements of the insurance company and local authorities were met. It was hard to grasp that we could not allow people to help for over a month.”

Once the investigation was concluded, a complete inventory of the entire contents of the facility had to be created. This was the first opportunity to utilize volunteers in the process. Every toy in children’s ministry, every article of clothing in the thrift store—it all had to be accounted for and a value assigned. And while it all had to be removed for the cleanup to happen, it could not be thrown away immediately. It needed to be stored for the insurance adjuster to examine and determine if it could be repaired, salvaged, or needed to be discarded. The restoration company provided large storage containers in the parking lot for the items needing to be processed.

For the most part, anything that a child might put in their mouth, or anything upholstered, had to be thrown out.”

Ver Steeg created a spreadsheet template that everyone used for working on the inventory—this helped immensely with merging everyone’s data into one complete inventory sheet. Howell recommends taking photos and video of as much as possible—anything that helps the insurance company value your property and provide proof of ownership. Receipts also help go a long way to establishing value.

Lessons

“We were incredibly fortunate that Emily was very thorough in insuring the building and our ministry,” says Howell. “There’s a lot involved in making sure that your church is properly insured for a major disaster. Your insurance needs to cover both your church as well as other organizations sharing your space. You need to make sure you have the proper riders (an insurance instrument that provides additional coverage beyond the basic policy) for your situation: Do you have expensive artwork? Do you have a missions organization that stores goods to be shipped elsewhere? Is your AVL and IT tech equipment valued properly?”

“If you have a thrift store,” Howell continues, “a coffee shop, a food pantry, or anything else that's a separate 501(c)(3) or business, make sure that you're covered for these things. It's like buying a car and then putting a $10,000 audio system in it—that stuff isn't covered unless the insurance company is aware of it. Don’t assume that because you have a policy that everything is covered.”

Howell says to also discuss with your insurance company loss of income coverage and what that means for your church, as well as what replacement value means when processing a claim. Also, will the insurance company provide funds upfront against your claim to replace essential items needed to get you up and running again?

Howell adds, “When meeting with the restoration company, the insurance company, or any outside person involved in the process, I strongly suggest you bring someone along whose sole task is to take accurate notes of what is discussed. It’s overwhelming, and it’s impossible to remember everything, or even be a part of the conversation and take notes at the same time.”

Howell also suggests finding out who the point people are from the companies involved in helping you recover and getting their names and phone numbers into your phone immediately. If they have administrative assistants who might communicate with you, get their information as well. “Accidentally ignoring a phone call from one of these people can set you back a week.”

But Howell is quick to point out that there have been some silver linings through the experience.

“It's caused us to reevaluate what we do and how we use the building,” says Howell. “For example, our student ministry—we had built out an area at the far end of the building for students. But over the years, our student ministry does more small groups in homes now. But we've not changed how we use the space. The fire closed down that area, and we were forced to move them down into the room behind our worship center. Well, now our student pastors are standing outside the worship center and welcoming parents, and students are now next to the main worship center. Now, they are more of a part of the general congregation, which everyone loves! Architect Phillip Johnson once said, ‘Architecture divides you.’ And it does. We never saw our students. Now they are in the fabric of what's happening in the church. The fire changed this for the better, and they are staying in the new location permanently.”

“And the number of churches that reached out to us offering assistance, for a space to meet in if we needed it—meant so much to us,” Howell says. “We are so grateful to our first responders. They saved our building.”

“It’s been a blessing to connect with the hundred or so contractors and workers in our facility for the past three months,” Howell continues. “This is a rare and unanticipated opportunity because the very community who we say we want to reach is now inside our building every day for weeks. Let your goal be to imprint a memory on every worker who comes in your building that they will never forget the three days or three months they worked in your facility. Of course as pastors and a church staff we should never slow down their responsibilities or be inappropriately aggressive to witness to them, but here are some things that we’ve tried to do along the way to appreciate those serving us: We compliment their work; show respect when walking through their work area; directly thank them; invite them to church; with approval of our general contractor we provided desert after their lunch break one day; if they are taking a break introduce yourself (leave out your “pastor” title—no one cares) and ask how they are doing; thank the supervisor and point out those individuals who put in the extra effort; thank them publicly in your church communications; send a letter of thanks to their company.”

“And within the church,” says Howell, “we're using this experience as an avenue to discuss spiritual things. Unification, adversity, growing as a church body. And we’ve stressed to the congregation that it's only a fire in a building—Christians are being persecuted throughout the world. Let's keep our situation in perspective.”

 

 

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