Churches Go Up in Smoke

PASTOR: Churches Go Up in Smoke

Loss Is $9,000,000.00 Annually


Fire Protection Institute, 670 Fifth  Avenue, New Tork 19, New Turk


More than 3,000 churches of all denominations, in large cities and small towns, built of stone and wood, felt the ravages of fire in a recent typical twelve-month period.

Our national fire loss total, property-wise, averages out to about $700,000,000. Churches across the nation contributed |9,000,000 to this alarming total.

The first month of the New Year saw a ninety-year-old Brooklyn, New York, landmark almost totally destroyed in a five-alarm, $500,- 000 blaze. Hundreds of persons in the vicinity watched sorrowfully as the Church of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and St. Stephen the Martyr succumbed in a cloud of smoke and flame to a fire which apparently originated in the area between ceiling and roof, possibly from a short circuit.

Within a matter of minutes fire can destroy valuable church records and irreplaceable sacred vessels. Fire chiefs invariably acknowledge that church fires are among the most difficult with which they have to contend because of their lofty steeples and roof spaces. Since smoke ventilation is so necessary a part of fire-fighting, it is sometimes necessary to break memorial stained glass windows. No insurance policy can cover the loss of the intangible associations involved in such objects.

No one wants to lose valuable property, not to mention human lives, in a fire which could have been prevented if proper safeguards had been taken. Fire safety does not necessarily involve considerable expense. It does require intelligent thought and action before a fire in a continuing fire prevention program and an adequate supply of approved fire control equipment.

Confronted with the fact that 65 per cent of church fires occur during the five winter months, one would be inclined to assume that the church fire problem is a seasonal one. True, the record points directly to defective heating apparatus (a seasonal hazard) as the principal cause of church fires. True, also, that if heating systems were properly installed and maintained, the increase in the number of fires in the winter months would be practically eliminated. Even with the elimination of the cause of this sensational upswing, the fact that 35 per cent of the fires occur during the spring and summer months indicates that other hazards are present which are not of a seasonal nature. Fire prevention and protection programs for churches do not permit a period of relaxation.

Since it is conservatively estimated that at least one-fourth of all church fires are caused by faulty installation or operation of furnaces and water heaters, careful consideration can be given to the fire safety of church heating units.

Overheated Furnaces

Overheated furnaces are by far the most common cause of church fires^ accounting for 22.3 per cent of those analyzed by the National Fire Protection Association. Prior to use each season, have -your heating system inspected and over hauled by an experienced heating contractor. The boiler should be cleaned thoroughly, all ashes removed from the fire pot, and grates and flues cleaned and soot removed. For added safety year-'round, station an approved fire extinguisher in the vicinity of the furnace for use in case of emergency.

Closely related to the furnace and the second most frequent cause of church fires is "chimneys and smokepipes." Cracked or otherwise defective chimneys, holes in smokepipes and smoke- pipes passing through combustible partitions are the most frequent offenders and emphasize the need for continual maintenance and repair. Regular cleaning of chimneys is a necessity.

Kitchen stoves and hot water heaters are responsible for a small but significant percentage of church fires. Of primary importance is the need for adequate clearance from floors, walls and other combustible materials. When pipes are in use the year-'round, they can be cleaned at least twice a year; when used only during the winter months, they can be cleaned immediately after the fire is no longer needed. Defective burners and leaking oil indicate the need for competent repair and maintenance.

Fire hazards of electric wiring can be reduced to a minimum provided installation and maintenance conform to well-established local standards. Amateur wiring, overloaded circuits, jumped fuses and deteriorated wiring are evidence that when these standards are not com plied with, trouble inevitably follows.

Organ wiring and motors are a leading cause of church fires. Organ motors, if left on, may overheat and cause fire while the church is unoccupied. Wisely-managed churches will have the organ inspected at least once a year.

Church steeples are an unusually vulnerable target for lightning and are in great need of protection with lightning rods, conductors and grounds installed in accordance with local codes. Periodic inspection of the system for evidence of mechanical injury and corrosion is needed.

Lack of Fire Protection Equipment

Lack of adequate fire protection equipment sometimes means the difference between negligible damage and total destruction. Approved fire extinguishers should be examined at least once a year to determine positively that they are in operating condition. Frequent inspections should be made to determine that extinguishers are in their designated places, are readily accessible, have not been injured or tampered with and that the nozzles are not clogged. . . .

The presence of contractors on the premises increases the possibility of fire in churches as evidenced by the fire record. Blow torches, spontaneous ignition of painters' rags and sparks from roofers' pots appear in the record all too frequently as causes of church fires. To control this hazard, reliable fire-conscious con tractors can be hired and the church adequately supervised during repair operations. . . .

Church officials can examine their present practices with an eye to reducing the use of combustible material wherever possible. Where this is not feasible, adequate protection must be provided. Flame-proofed cloth, clothing and decorations, treatment of temporary and permanent interior woodwork with fire retardant paint and erection of Christmas trees ... on the church lawn, where practical, will cut down these hazards substantially.

Church fire prevention and protection is an administrative function and therefore, the responsibility of the governing body of the church. Where specific provisions have not been made for this important function, a church fire prevention and protection committee can be appointed.

This committee can, in turn, instruct the building custodian in the details of its program for his compliance.

Church personnel will be the first to admit that fire destruction represented by a figure in a table is an inadequate measure of their loss. Most churches are symbols of permanency and strength in their communities. Why not see to it that your church remains that way by making it as fire-safe as humanly possible?



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Fire Protection Institute, 670 Fifth  Avenue, New Tork 19, New Turk


July 1952

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