By: Dieter H. Nickel


According to the National Fire Protection Association, there are over 2 million reported fires each year, including more than 100,000 arson fires. Thousands of these fires occur at churches and church related institutions, causing tens of millions of dollars damage

But the ultimate tragedy is that 30,000 American civilians are injured and 6,000 killed by fire every year–many in fires that were presentable.


Arson is the leading cause of church fires. A fire may be deliberately set for a variety of reasons: as an act of vandalism or pyromania, to cover up evidence of other crimes (such as burglary), for some twisted sort of “revenge,” and in some cases even arson for profit. In churches, vandalism and cover up are the most common.

Arson prevention is really crime prevention. See “Crime-Proof Your Church,” another booklet in the Church Mutual Protection Series, or contact local police and fire departments for more information about arson.

Faulty wiring is the second most common cause of church fires Many church buildings are old, and in some instances a church building may predate the use of electricity. Consequently, the wiring in some older churches may not be adequate to handle the electrical demands of air conditioning, P.A. systems, organs, and other appliances and equipment found in churches today. If your church building is more than thirty years old, you should probably have the wiring inspected by a qualified electrical contractor.

Other common causes of church fires are lightning, faulty furnaces and stoves, overheated organ motors, carelessness with smoking materials, and careless use of candles and Christmas decorations.


Preventing a fire from starting is the best protection you can provide for your church. To make your fire prevention program most effective, you should consider it an ongoing effort. For instance, you should make a quick tour of your building interior once a month. Look for places where a fire might start-in piles of old rags, overloaded electrical sockets, etc. It just takes a moment to remedy these situations-and cut down your chances for a serious fire.

Take this booklet along and use it as a check list. Make a note of any situations that need to be corrected, and get going on plans to improve your fire safety.

* All exit doors should open outwards, with no locks or fasteners to prevent free escape from the inside of the building.

* Keep exits free of obstruction at all times.

* Make sure all exits are clearly marked with lighted signs.

* Have any remodeling, additions, or repairs inspected by the Fire Marshal for compliance with local fire codes.

* If your church is undergoing repairs, remodeling, or painting, make sure workmen are following fire safety procedures. Blowtorches, painter’s rags,and roofer’s pots can be fire hazards.

* Have your furnace cleaned and professionally inspected once a year. Late summer or early fall is the best time-before the heating season.

* The walls and ceiling of the furnace room should be lined with a fire-resistant material such as concrete block or fire code sheet rock.The furnace room door should be lined with a fire-resistant material or be replaced with a UL-approved fire door.

* Keep furnace room door closed at all times. If you have a counter weight closure, it should be enclosed in a shaft.



* Be careful with combustible decorations–especially around holidays. Keep flimsy paper and cloth decorations away from light bulbs, wiring, and other sources of heat or flame.

* Make sure all upholstery, draperies,and furnishings are fire-retardant fabrics.

* Use candles in your church only when church ritual prohibits any substitute. Otherwise, use safe candle-type light bulbs. Only a bit of the symbolic nature is lost, but a large measure of safety is gained.

* Check the church organ frequently to make sure it’s turned off. If left on, the motor can overheat or short out, causing a serious fire hazard.

* If you permit smoking in your church, designate a special area for it, and provide an adequate number of safety-type ashtrays. Check ashtrays often for smoldering ashes or matches.

* Clean up debris from social gatherings on the same day and place in proper receptacles outside of building.

* Don’t use the heating room for storage of combustibles.

* Don’t keep any gasoline or gasoline-operated equipment on church premises, unless it is in a well-vented fire-resistive enclosure.

* Keep kitchen ventilating hood filters clean and free of accumulated grease.

* Kitchen stove burners should be maintained in good condition. They should ignite as soon as the gas is turned on.


* Check your fuse box to be sure you’re using the proper size fuse for each circuit and that circuits are identified on the fuse box cover.

* Inspect all electrical cords and extension cords now in use. Get rid of any frayed, cracked, or dried-out cords.

* See that all junction boxes and switch boxes are properly covered.

* Check all major appliances–refrigerators, water coolers, stoves, air conditioners, etc.–for proper connections and grounding.

* Make sure all wall sockets and light switches are equipped with face plates.


Exposure fires-those originating outside and spreading to your church building-can be caused by a number of things. Certainly the fire that spreads to your church from another building is a circumstance to help eliminate the most common causes of exposure fires with a bit of common sense.

* Inspect your lightning rod system to make sure rods are properly in place. Wires should run unbroken to the ground, attached to ground rods sunk eight to ten feet into the ground.

* Be careful when burning leaves, grass, or trash. Don’t do it near your building or in the presence of hazardous conditions such as a severe dry spell or high winds.

* Make sure your church roofing is fire-retardant.

* Keep the church yard clean, free from piles of leaves and rubbish. This way, vandals have less fuel to start a fire, too.

* Remove bird’s nests from chimneys or steeples. You can prevent birds from rebuilding with wire mesh across openings.

* Keep chimneys clean, free of soot and other obstructions.


Early warning systems range from battery-operated smoke detectors to hard-wired central station alarms. All provide valuable warning in case of fire.

As a minimal protection for the people in your church, install detectors throughout your building. Smoke detectors are preferred over heat detectors except in areas where heavy dust or other air particles would cause frequent false alarms.

Detectors should be cleaned and tested regularly. Batteries weaken over time. Replace them as recommended by the manufacturer or at least once a year.

Portable fire extinguishers

A fire extinguisher is a basic tool in fighting small fires. Your church should have at least one extinguisher for every 2,500 square feet, with a minimum of one extinguisher on each level of your building. Consult your local fire department to see if local laws require more.

Fire extinguishers are classified by types of fires on which they are effective. Type A extinguishers are for ordinary combustibles such as paper, wood, cloth, or trash.

Type B extinguishers are for flammable liquids such as gasoline, paint, oil, tar, and grease.

Type C extinguishers are for use on electrical fires, including electrical equipment, motors, switchboards, wiring, and other electrical apparatus.

Because of their versatility, Church Mutual recommends the use of five- to ten-pound Class ABC (dry chemical) extinguishers throughout your facility, except in kitchens. These extinguishers are light, easy to operate, and can be used on all three classes of fires.

For your kitchen, a CO2 (carbon dioxide) unit is recommended. It should be mounted near a kitchen exit and within 30 feet of cooking appliances, but not in the immediate area above or around them.

Church Mutual does not recommend any self-generating, pressure-type extinguishers, such as soda-acid units. If used improperly, they can explode and cause serious injury.

* Place extinguishers in conspicuous, easy-to-reach locations. There should be no more than 75 feet of travel to reach an extinguisher.

* The top of any heavy extinguisher should not be more than five feet above the floor.

* Operating instructions must be clearly legible. If an extinguisher is in a cabinet, place it so that instructions face outward.

* Employees and others who are regularly at your church should be familiar with operating instructions so no time is wasted reading them during a fire.

* Extinguishers should be inspected monthly by an employee or other trained person. Keep a record of each inspection.

* Take corrective action if there are any signs of tampering or damage.

* Have a professional inspect or recharge each extinguisher annually, and hydrostatically test them periodically. Each inspection, recharge, and test should be noted on a tag attached to the extinguisher.

Standpipes and hoses

While few churches have standpipe and hose systems, some older schools and office buildings still use them.

* Maintenance or other trained personnel should inspect standpipes annually. Contact your local fire department for operational and inspection instructions.

* There are two types of hoses-unlined linen and rubber lined. Rubber lined hoses have a shelf life of ten years. Ask your fire department to test and inspect these hoses annually. Replace them every ten years.

* Unlined linen hoses should not be tested. Do change the fold in these hoses every two years to avoid severe creasing or cracking. If an unlined linen hose is used, it should be taken to a fire department to dry out.


“Wet” or “dry” sprinkler systems save lives and property. If your church has a sprinkler system, be sure it is connected to an audible alarm to help minimize water damage from accidental discharges and to warn anyone in the building that a fire may have started.

Follow testing and maintenance procedures provided by the installer or fire authorities in your area.


Your church should have a plan to follow in case of fire. Write out your fire exit routes and post them on bulletin boards around your church. Make sure there is an alternate or secondary exit and that it is marked adequately.


1. Warn everyone to leave the building.

2. Have someone call the fire department.

3. If it is a small fire, contained to the area where it started, use the nearest fire extinguisher, making sure it’s the proper type. With your back toward a safe escape route, aim the extinguisher at the base of the fire and sweep from side to side. Discharge the entire contents of the extinguisher (some extinguishers may require slightly different action-be familiar with operating instructions).

4. If you have the slightest doubt whether or not you should attempt to fight the fire-get out! Let the fire department handle it–they’re professionals.

5. If you’ve chosen not to fight the fire, conduct a head count once safely outside. See how many people are accounted for. DO NOT REENTER THE BUILDING. Inform the fire department of any missing people and let them conduct rescue operations.

6. Have the fire department call an ambulance for anyone injured.

7. As soon as practical, contact your insurance representative. This will help you get the fastest, fairest settlement of medical claims and property damage.


Church Mutual’s Loss Control Department, The National Fire Protection Association, or your local Fire Department. In most cases, information is free.

Emergency telephone numbers

Police ____________________________________________

Fire ______________________________________________

Ambulance _________________________________________

Hospital __________________________________________

Church Mutual Representative ______________________

(The above material is one of a series of pamphlets published by the Church Mutual Insurance Company in Merrill, WI.)

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