Church Fire Safety

The devastating 2019 Holy Week fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris focused international attention on church fire safety. Closer to home, we have had serious preventable fires that are a true wake-up call to the need for ceaseless vigilance.

Prevention is Key

The majority of building fires are preventable. It is much easier to prevent a fire than to deal with the messy, costly aftermath, temporary loss of the use of the church and the general hassle of rebuilding and restoring after smoke and water touch walls, windows, statues, liturgical art, kneelers, cushions and places you never imagined.

  • Fire extinguishers should be mounted on walls every 75 feet in the church and other buildings on your campus.
  • Train and retrain staff in their use.
  • Install emergency lights over all exits.
  • Check the wiring –all of it! Wires fray. Rodents nibble it. Well-meaning people paint over it. If you don’t know how to do it, ask a local electrical inspector to take a look.
  • Stay up-to-date on your fire system control panel. Technology changes.
  • Look at your fuse box to make sure you are using the correct fuses for the appliances you have.
  • Ensure that all appliances and machinery are properly grounded.
  • Make sure the boiler system is inspected annually and properly maintained.
  • Walk around the “back of the house” where clutter accumulates. Clear boxes, old paint and junk from the boiler room, hallways and exits.
  • Turn off the organ after Mass and choir practice.
  • If you have any combustibles, like paint remover or lighter fluid or propane for your grill, secure them outdoors in a locked metal container with a lid or keep them in a locked metal shed.
  • Church and school kitchens must be equipped with fire suppression systems that are inspected annually. In rectory kitchens, do not leave pots and pans on the stove unattended when meal preparation is interrupted.


Extension Cords, Candles and Decorations

  • Many fires start due to the improper use of electrical equipment. Never plug too many power cords into one outlet. Check the plug and body of the cord while in use. If overly hot to the touch, replace it.
  • Extension cords should only be used temporarily and are not meant for permanent use.
  • Never allow lighted candles in your office or school locations. If you are lighting candles in the rectory or convent, be sure to blow all candles out before retiring for the night.
  • Decorations and displays should conform to established fire regulations. Materials should not block or conceal exit doors or exit signs, outlets, fire alarms or fire extinguishers.

Alarms and Smoke Detectors

It is an archdiocesan policy that all of our churches are protected by a fire alarm system that detects heat and smoke and either sounds an external alarm or contacts a central monitoring station. The central station calls the local fire department and the parish. The detection and monitoring systems are covered by annual maintenance and service contracts.

The systems are tested regularly, generally by the service vendor. Either the vendor or the parish reports the results to the Risk Management Office. There are several components to the systems in any church, including detectors, control panels, communication elements, and wiring, among others. By law, all of the components must be checked annually. In practice, there may be four quarterly visits to inspect separate parts of the system and assess the general safety of the church.

Incense Burns

We use incense at funerals and major liturgical feasts. It’s a beautiful symbol that our prayers are being lifted to heaven. But we achieve the sweet smoke by creating fire. Here are some steps to make sure it’s done properly:

  • Begin in the sacristy by making sure everyone knows where the fire extinguisher is located and by putting water or sand in a metal bucket.
  • Light the incense coals in the sacristy. Dispose of matches in the water-or sand-filled metal bucket.
  • The thurible will be hot. Use tongs to touch the coals.
  • Do not leave the coals unattended.
  • At the end of the service, carefully scrape the coals and incense into the metal bucket.
  • Bring the bucket outside.
  • Do not put the coals and incense into a waste basket or trash can or plastic bag. Incense can smolder for hours before it causes a fire. By then, there may be no one in the church to put out the fire.


What About Sprinklers?

Most of our churches were not outfitted with sprinklers when they were built. It is cost-prohibitive and in some cases impractical to add such systems unless the church is undergoing a significant restoration. Attic sprinklers are not indicated for some churches because although water would extinguish a fire, its weight would likely collapse the ceiling of a wood and plaster church.

The Cathedral of the Holy Cross, a 150-year-old wood frame church with a stone exterior, got its first attic-to-basement sprinkler system this year after a major restoration. In addition to new fire detection and alarm systems, fire retardant insulation was pumped into empty spaces, such as under the raised sanctuary. If you anticipate a restoration, you will likely have to update both wiring and fire systems to meet new codes. Contact your alarm company for advice.

Mistakes Are Avoidable

Please review the helpful fire safety and prevention checklist and contact us if you need help.

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