Fire Ground Size-Up and Operations in Churches
Part 1 – Construction
By Deputy Chief Mike Terpak
Firefighters will be called on to respond to incidents at churches that come in all designs, shapes, sizes, and ages. Churches can be anything from 200-year-old gothic-style, heavy timber structures to modern contemporary buildings composed of all light-weight building materials. Luckily, a fire in a church is not an everyday occurrence. Many fire service members will go their entire careers without responding to a significant fire in a church. For those who have experience, it will be limited.
Many will agree when I say that a structure fire that involves a heavy timber church will be one of the most difficult, resource-intensive, and challenging fires anyone will ever encounter. There is nothing easy about a fire that involves one of these large structures. When we take into consideration the age of the building, its size, the class of construction, and the large unreachable void spaces, it should not surprise anyone that fire can gain possession of the entire building in a short period of time. The important point to remember when attempting to control a fire in one of these buildings is knowing what you can and cannot do in the short time that you have. Options may be limited, and dan-gers escalate quickly. It is important for a fire officer to recognize them.
In the United States, the classic heavy timber designed church can be well over 100 years old and is a well-known symbol in many towns and cities throughout the country. These structures will often span an entire city block. The Class 4 heavy timber construction will often feature masonry exterior walls with large interior timberwork, covered by a steeply pitched slate roof. Buildings of this style, although considered one story in height, can have roof peaks reaching 60’ or higher and steeple heights reaching 150’ or higher. Large interior timberwork will make up a significant portion of the building’s skeleton. Large columns and girders of wood will support the floor and roof spans, while the timbers used to support the roof system may be erected in various truss designs. The triangular design and the scissor-type truss are two of the most common designs used to support the peak area over the nave of the church.
Hanging ceiling/attic space: The space encompassed by the roof support members is often referred to as the hanging ceiling space, the attic, or the cockloft. This area above the nave or auditorium ceiling and the underside of the roof deck can be quite sizable. Heights can range from 12’ to 18’ or more and will often cover the entire church auditorium. Access-ing this space will be extremely challenging. Often the only entrance to this space will be through a small trapdoor that is reachable by a narrow staircase or access ladder. Further-more, there will be little to no flooring in the attic space. Anyone venturing into this space will only find a catwalk of wooden planks to traverse the area. Stepping to either side of the planking could cause a person to fall through the plaster ceiling of the auditorium. The attic space will also lack suitable lighting. When lighting is available, it is generally limited to one or two 100-watt bulbs at best. Any smoke within this space greatly reduces visibil-ity in an area where it usually is already limited. An attempt by a firefighter to enter the hanging ceiling space should be approached with great caution and should only be con-sidered for a small incident. Fires of any real magnitude are too dangerous to be fought from this area.
Vaulted ceilings: Vaulted plaster ceilings will make up the underside of the roof space. These heavy ornamental ceilings could extend 50’ or more above the church auditorium floor. Supporting columns for the ceiling are constructed with large wooden timbers or cast-iron columns. It is important to note that the presence of cast-iron columns may not be immediately apparent from within the church auditorium. Often, they will be framed out and covered with ornamental plaster. If cast-iron columns are present within the building, they will most likely be visible in the unfinished areas of the basement or cellar.
The main concern for the firefighter from the heavy ornamental plaster ceiling of a church auditorium is the possibility of large sections failing and dropping to the floor as fire spreads to the attic space. Sections weighing 100 pounds or more can drop into the church auditorium and could bring large lighting fixtures down with them. Anyone struck by sections of the ceiling will be seriously injured or killed.
Roofs: Roofs associated with heavy timber churches will most often be slate tile over wood planking. These roofs will often date back to the building’s original design and construction. Slate is a material that is virtually unaffected by exposure to weather. These roofs will generally last a lifetime. With pitches of 45° or more, often the biggest opera-tional concern from a slate tile roof will be any tiles that loosen and dislodge during fire department operations.
Wood, wood, and more wood: Wood is obviously going to be the chief combus-tible concern with this type of structure. Wood will not be limited to columns, roof decks, and supporting systems. Interior walls will often be constructed of heavy plaster over wood lath. They may initially give the appearance of a masonry constructed block wall. Void spaces will also be a concern. The interior walls within the church can be hol-lowed/framed out anywhere from 16’ to 20’ from the actual exterior masonry walls to accommodate the building’s original heating ducts. These large void spaces are highways of fuel that will allow fire to move up to the attic space as well as possibly drop down into the basement/cellar with little effort. In addition to the wood lath behind the walls, church interiors often will contain wood trim, wood wainscoting on the walls, wooden pews, wooden benches and balconies, and wooden choir and organ lofts. These buildings are like neatly arranged lumberyards.
Altar and choir/organ loft: The church altar will be found at the rear of the auditorium. It is the raised area where the priest or pastor conducts the service. Some of these areas are very ornate and decorative. If you look closely at them, you will notice an extensive amount of building material used in their design. From the raised marble floor to the dec-orative columns and trim, an altar presents a significant dead load. This is a collapse con-cern when fire is below.
Tapestries may be draped across the columns and walls or may be suspended from the ceiling in the altar area. Combined with the numerous lit candles, often present in this style of church, this creates an immediate concern. You should expect candles to be lit during a service, with many more glowing during the holiday season. It is interesting to note the effects from many years of burning wax candles. Wax vapors from the lit can-dles will leave a coating of flammable resins on walls, ceilings, and tapestries. This will add to an already heavy fire load.
The choir and organ loft will be located in the front of the church. It will generally be behind you as you sit for church service. This raised area is generally considered an open second floor within the auditorium. The loft space will not be large, but it is still a cause for concern. Access is normally through a door and up a small staircase off the front vestibule. Anticipate a tight climb if you need to access this space. The next time you have the opportunity, measure or estimate the distance from the front door of the church to the actual church auditorium. The distance into the vestibule and under the choir loft will likely average around 30’. In the event part of your operation will include deploy-ment of a master stream into the church auditorium from the front door, you will need to move the nozzle/appliance at least 30’ into the interior. If you do not, you will only be hitting the underside of the choir/organ loft with your hose stream.
Floors: Floors in heavy timber or wood frame churches can be constructed of a marble, terrazzo, or a tile surface over a wooden floor deck supported by columns of wood or cast-iron. Depending on the floor material used, it could easily mask fire conditions below.
Windows: Large older churches are also known for their oversized windows that in most cases will contain ornamental stained glass. The glass may be extremely valuable, very expensive to repair, and often irreplaceable. This may make firefighters reluctant to break any windows in an attempt to ventilate the building. Because of the value of the stained-glass windows, many churches in high-crime areas may also have installed wire mesh, metal grates, or possibly plastic coverings to protect the windows. Protective covers may also have been installed over the windows to prevent birds from perching on the windows sills, since bird droppings can destroy the lead-lined glass and sill. Any obstruc-tion covering the window will affect your ability to ventilate the opening.
Thermal imaging: As we venture deeper into the difficulties associated with these structures in our next article, thermal imaging will be the fire officer’s best friend. Large void spaces, high ceilings, and marble floor surfaces will not give firefighters the early heat indicators needed to make an assessment on the fire’s location and extent. Thermal imaging cameras deployed from multiple points by educated operators can give vital in-formation to decision makers about large, complicated structures.
The above is an excerpt of the soon to be released book, Fire Ground Size Up, 2nd. Edition.
For seminar information you can contact Chief Terpak at email@example.com or 973-726-9538, or you can also follow him on face book at Mike Terpak Fire Service Training and Consulting