The tragedy at Notre Dame in April was a timely reminder of the destruction and devastation that fire can cause. While large-scale fires are rare, claims data from Ecclesiastical Insurance suggests that on average, around 50 churches suffer some sort of fire damage every year.
As the UK’s leading insurer of church buildings in the UK, Ecclesiastical works with its customers to help them reduce the risk of fire including access to training, guidance and a risk helpline. In fact, it was holding special fire training sessions for Cathedrals and Greater Churches across the country at the time of the Notre Dame fire.
According to the insurer, regular maintenance, good housekeeping and common sense are key to reducing the risk of fire at your church.
Common causes of church fires
Faulty electrics or old wiring, portable heaters and other heating equipment are among the most common causes of fire in churches. Other hazards such as lightning strikes, the use of hot works during renovation or repair, candles, smoking and the use or storage of flammable liquids or combustible materials also pose a risk.
Electrical wiring in churches
Fixed electrical systems should be inspected and tested at least once every five years in accordance with the recommendations of the Church Buildings Council.
- A qualified electrician must carry out all work. They should have full scope registration or membership to work on commercial installations and be certified with the National Inspection Council for Electrical Installation Contracting (NICEIC), The Electrical Contractors Association (ECA), The National Association of Professional Inspectors and Testers (NAPIT) or The Electrical Contractors’ Association of Scotland (SELECT).
- Electricians or electrical contractors who are only registered to undertake work on domestic installations under Part P of the Building Regulations should not be used.
- The work completed should meet IET Regulations, Guidance Note No. 3 with an electrical installation and conditioning report issued in every case.
Portable electrical tools or equipment must be suitable for the job in hand and properly maintained.
- Any portable appliance should be visually inspected before it is used – if any damage or fault is found then the appliance should not be used.
- Portable appliances should be inspected and tested periodically – the need for this will vary depending on the appliance but the Health and Safety Executive provides further guidance on its website. (http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg236.pdf).
- Inspection and testing of this kind must be carried out by a competent person.
- Any broken, damaged or faulty appliances should be fixed or removed from the church.
The use of candles in church is a very important part of worship – but they can also be a source of major fire if they are not used correctly. When using candles take a common sense approach and make sure they are used safely.
- Use good quality candles that will burn more slowly than cheaper catering-quality candles, this will help to avoid flames getting too close to foliage or decorations.
- Take extra care when using handheld candles especially where large numbers of people are involved. Make sure that there is plenty of space between each person to avoid setting fire to clothing or hair.
- Children should be properly supervised at all times.
- Keep candles clear of combustible materials including flammable decorations, foliage and electrical equipment. Where possible place them in metal holders on non-combustible surfaces such as stone or brick.
- Candles should not be left burning when there is no responsible person left in the church and always ensure all candles are extinguished before locking up.
Tall buildings attract lightning. Churches are often the tallest buildings in the area making them particularly vulnerable to lightning strikes. A single bolt of electricity can contain up to a billion joules of electricity, causing major structural damage and damage to electrical systems and could of course result in a fire.
While fitting a lightning conductor is not a condition of cover, Ecclesiastical’s risk management team would strongly recommend fitting one if a risk assessment indicates it is required. If your church has a lightning conductor fitted remember:
- Lightning protection systems found on most churches need to be formally tested every 4 years. For more complex cage systems this reduces to 2 years.
- Installing surge protection equipment can prevent damaging electrical power surges.
- Any work on a church’s lightning protection system should be conducted by a competent contractor such as a member of ATLAS (Association of Technical Lightning and Access Specialists).
Sadly, a large number of fires in churches are started deliberately. Sometimes it is an act to cause damage to the church but often fires are started by thieves looking to hide their tracks. Many cases of arson are opportunistic in that often fires are started because there are combustible materials and a source of ignition nearby. With this in mind it is vital that churches remove the opportunity as best they can in order to prevent arson.
- Report suspicious activity and make your church look busy. Thieves and arsonists do not want to be caught so are far less likely to target an active church. Engage with your local community and encourage them to visit the church grounds regularly. If you or anyone else notices anything suspicious report it to the police.
- Carry out regular inspections of your church buildings and grounds: Report any damage such as graffiti, vandalism and other smaller crimes, as they can be a precursor to arson. Report these incidents to the police and your insurer and make any necessary repairs as soon as possible.
- Practice good housekeeping: Fires can be started by everyday waste, so make sure bins are emptied regularly and store any external waste bins at least 10 metres from the building. Keep flammable liquids like petrol locked and secure in sheds or outbuildings, remove items that can be used to start a fire such as portable heaters or matches and keep internal doors shut to prevent fire from spreading.
- Check your fire extinguishers: Make sure that they are in appropriate positions, near exits and high risk areas such as votive candle stands and make sure that they are maintained annually.
- Keep your church secure: At night lock your doors and windows and any external gates and lock church halls when they are not in use. Keep trees trimmed and grounds well lit so that your church is visible to people passing by.
Fire risk assessment required for churches should identify the key risks, including those highlighted. Good housekeeping, maintenance controls and security will go a long way to managing the risk but you could also consider the introduction of automatic fire detection to generate early warning of any fire.
For more help and guidance
As the centre of its community, a church is often home to multiple community groups and a place where families come together to celebrate and commemorate family life. The impact of losing a church to fire is devastating and has long-term consequences for the congregation and the wider community.
As a specialist insurer, Ecclesiastical is able to restore and rebuild the majority of these buildings even following the most destructive of fires. However, much of the church and its history will be lost forever so it is vital that those tasked with looking after these fantastic buildings work together to protect them.
Customers of Ecclesiastical Insurance can contact its in-house risk management team for more help and advice on reducing the risk of fire on 0345 600 7531. Further information is available on the Ecclesiastical website www.ecclesiastical.com