Clearly, fire can devastate a church and seriously curtail its ministry efforts for months, if not years. Yet so many churches neglect to comply with government regulations intended to reduce risk of fire, or even to prepare an emergency response plan or train staff and volunteers to handle an emergency situation.
While everyone would agree that fire safety is an important consideration in a church, the truth is that this is easier said than done. Often through ignorance of potential problem areas, churches frequently do things that are in direct opposition to keeping their facilities safe from the risk of a fire. Fire safety can be broken down into four basic areas designing your facility with fire safety in mind, maintaining your facility to reduce the risk of fire, putting safety procedures into place in the event of a fire, and securing your facility to prevent fire.
Designing For Fire Safety
When considering fire safety issues, one must start with the design of the facility. Greg Doolin, architect with River City Design Group in Peoria, Illinois, discusses the importance of good design when it comes to fire safety. “One thing we research upfront is exiting to make sure we can get people safely out of the building if there’s a fire. It has to do with how we use the stairs; how we use the corridors; the width of doorways leading out of rooms; the door swing direction You want the door to open in the direction of egress, so we pocket the door in off of the hallway so it doesn’t swing into the path of others trying to get out of the building. These are code requirements that we follow on every job.”
When it comes to corridors, size is particularly important. Doolin comments that “eight-foot-wide corridors may look huge when you’re walking through them by yourself, but when you’re going to pick up your children after the service, the corridors feel very narrow when crowded with people.” That crowding will be worse in the event of an evacuation. Corridor width should be designed to handle the flow of emergency traffic. Additionally, for children’s ministry areas, consider how many strollers may also be present during service hours those strollers take up additional space and width.
The same concepts apply to stairways are your stairways wide enough to handle the flow of people in the event of a fire? How close is the stairway to an exterior exit? Doolin points out that when you have wide stairways, additional thought needs to be put into the handrail system. Hand rails may need to be installed down the center of the stairway as well as on the edges to facilitate those needing the extra support to navigate the stairs.
Fire safety should also be a consideration when designing the location of your ministry areas. Kathy Ellis, fire safety education specialist for the town of Cary, North Carolina, states that the location of the children’s ministry space is of particular importance. “Place your children’s ministry area where there are doors leading to the outside and at ground-level if at all possible. Doors leading to the outside are required for daycare facilities [for fire safety], but churches are excluded from that to some degree.” If this is not possible, Ellis suggests the basement is the next best location for a children’s ministry space. Doolin adds that you also need to balance fire safety issues with security issues. He comments on the basement location of the children’s ministry space at his own church. “We don’t have the ability for a four-year-old to run out a door and directly into the parking lot without going by a security control point at the stairway.” Doolin also suggests when planning out your children’s ministry space, place the rooms for your youngest children closest to the worship center. This gives the parents a greater feeling of security when dropping off their children, and provides quicker access to the children needing the most help in the event of an evacuation.
Lastly, while it may not be required by the building codes, Ellis says that “a new church would be best off installing a sprinkler system.”
Maintaining Your Facility
Ellis has much to say about keeping your facility in proper condition to reduce the risk of fire. “Anytime you have [areas like a children’s ministry], it’s more like an educational facility than other parts of the church might be. Therefore, you have a lot of paper which is very combustible. The more combustibles you have in an area, the more apt you are to have a fire load [the amount of combustible material per square foot of floor space] to burn.” She strongly recommends that you keep these areas uncluttered as much as possible.
Hallways are another area of concern. Ellis states, “In actual daycare facilities, you’re only allowed 20% combustible materials in the hallways. Calculate the square-footage of the hallways, take 20% of that and it comes out to the square-footage of bulletin boards you can have. This is to keep your hallways less cluttered, and to keep your exits from being obstructed.” While churches are not held to the same standards as a formal daycare facility, Ellis implies that churches should look to a daycare’s more stringent code requirements to reduce the risk of fire in a church.
While a church always wants to have a comfortable, inviting appearance, many items used for decoration are often made of flammable materials. Ellis recommends limiting decorative materials like curtains and tapestries as much as possible.
Storage areas are also a potential problem area in churches. Churches rarely plan for enough storage space or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the amount of items to be stored always grows to exceed the amount of storage space available. Resist the temptation to stuff storage areas full. Evaluate whether you really need to keep all those items you are storing. And most importantly, do not use electrical and mechanical rooms for storage. Ellis states, “If you get an electrical surge, you could get arcs and sparks from the panel.” Combustible materials stored near the panel could catch on fire.
Additionally, Ellis says you should not have any storage within 24 inches of the ceiling. When firefighters direct water onto a fire, the water turns to steam and rises to the ceiling. It’s this that extinguishes the fire. Storage placed too close to the ceiling prevents this from happening. Additionally, don’t place storage too close to light bulbs or any other heat source.
Electricity is the second leading cause of fires in churches. “If your church is old,” Ellis says, “and you haven’t had the electrical system inspected recently, put in a regular maintenance program to have an electrician come in and check the wiring.” Limit the use of extension cords. Plug only one cord into each outlet. If you are building a new facility, overestimate the number of outlets you need to reduce the need for extension cords.
Pipe organs should be regularly maintained as well. Overheated pipe organ motors have caused more than a few church fires.
Other key items that Ellis suggests are to store any gasoline in an outdoor storage shed, cleaning and servicing your HVAC system annually, cleaning up immediately at the conclusion of any event, and making sure that the integrity of your firewalls isn’t compromised. “If you have a contractor doing work, make sure they haven’t knocked a hole in your firewall and neglected to caulk it back up,” Ellis says.
Despite best efforts, a fire can still occur, and your church staff and volunteers need to be prepared to handle the emergency. Establishing procedures for alerting occupants of a fire, establishing evacuation procedures and educating people on those procedures are all crucial to saving lives in the face of an emergency situation. As Ellis puts it, “Life-safety should always be your first priority.”
“You need to have an evacuation plan for the whole facility,” she adds, “especially the children’s ministry area. In each classroom, post a floor plan showing the primary and secondary exits for each room. The primary exit is the one that gets you out of the facility the quickest; the secondary exit is the one you take if the primary exit is blocked.”
Think about how to notify people if there is a fire not all churches have a fire alarm system. An alarm system can be as simple as someone using a whistle or air-horn in the corridors. If you have a fire alarm system that has to be activated manually, make sure your staff and volunteers know where the nearest actuation levers are to their area of responsibility. Make sure your people know where the fire extinguishers are located and how to use them. Assign areas of responsibility planning on using a whistle to notify people of a fire does no good if there isn’t someone who knows it’s their responsibility to blow the whistle. Make sure that someone is assigned to dialing 911 as well. Last but not least practice your emergency procedures with your staff and volunteers.
If your church has a kitchen, make sure the people cooking are not distracted unattended cooking is the leading cause of fires in homes. Train the people working in the kitchen on the proper way to use the class K kitchen fire extinguishers.
Ellis states “the leading cause of fires in churches happens to be arson. Keep in mind security from that standpoint who has keys to the building? How are they accountable for those keys? Make sure you have lighting on the outside that will deter someone from coming up and setting the church on fire.”
When designing your facility, consider a security system that can limit a person’s access to just the areas they need to access, and can be discontinued without having to retrieve something from the person. Keys can be duplicated, and they are hard to keep track of. A key-card system, for example, can be tailored to each individual given a card, and the card can be deactivated by computer without having to retrieve the card from the person.
Fire safety takes planning and effort, but it models putting people first. Jesus died for the people entering your church let’s keep them safe while they are there.