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Identify the Fire Hazards

Fire needs three things, all of which are present in Churches and Places of Worship to a greater or lesser extent.  It is the interaction of these three elements that can result in fire starting and growing. 

So what are these three things?  They are:

  1. A source of ignition;
  2. Some form of Fuel; and
  3. A source of Oxygen

These three are known as 'the fire triangle'.

In this initial stage of the Fire Risk Assessment, we need to look at these three items.

Hazards: Ignition Sources

Fire starts with some form of heat.  This may be something overheating, an existing flame, sparks or a chemical reaction.  The Fire Risk Assessment needs to consider each possible source of ignition, which may include:

Arson.  This is a surprisingly common cause of fires in Churches and Places of Worship.  It may be a targeted attack (such as an attack of violence or religious hatred) or be opportunistic (such as people making mischief by setting fire to a bin or refuse bags that are stored outside).

Electrical.  This may be from the installation or the equipment in use, and may be the result of overloading, poor electrical connections, damaged insulation or wiring, lack of maintenance or the misuse of equipment.

Heaters.  Premises need some means of heating, but the ways in which we heat buildings can cause a fire, such as when a heater is used too close to some items that may burn.

Maintenance tools and equipment.  Some tools used in non-routine activities, such as premises maintenance, can give off sparks (for example and angle grinder) or flames (for example a blowtorch). 

Cooking equipment.  Ovens, hobs, microwaves and kettles may cause a fire due to the use of hot surfaces (for example a ceramic hob), flame (for example a gas hob) or because of the use of electricity as described above.

Smokers materials.  Legislation now prohibits smoking in Churches and Places of Worship.  However, smokers now often congregate outside the premises.  It is not unknown for people to smoke in toilets even thought there are penalties in place for smoking in the building.

Candles.  Commonly used in Churches and Places of Worship, and often without incident, candles can still be a source of ignition.

Hazards: Fuel

This category is about the combustible and flammable materials that may catch fire.  These are usually categorised in a number of classes (which are conveniently also used when identifying the kinds of fire that an extinguisher is suitable for):

A. These are materials such as wood, paper and textiles (or 'carbonaceous' solids).  These materials usually combust more slowly, often just smouldering rather than flaming until sufficient heat is available from the fire.

B. These are flammable liquids, which may be miscible with water (such as mentholated spirits) or immiscible (such as petrol or oil, which would form a layer on the top of water).  Molten candle wax is also included in this category.

C. This category includes flammable gases, such as natural gas, propane and butane.

D. This category covers flammable metals, such as magnesium, which would be rarely encountered in Places of Worship.

E. This is not strictly a category, but is often used to describe live electrical equipment that could be involved in a fire.  Note that any electrical fire would include at least one other category of materials.

F. This is a category specifically used for burning fats and oils in kitchens, such as in a deep-fat-fryer.

Think about the materials that are present within the premises and how these could contribute to a fire.  These materials can include fittings and fixtures, as well as the structure of the premises, the wall-linings and the items stored and used within the premises.

Think about materials, such as rubbish, placed directly outside the premises that could be used by an arsonist.  Similarly, any plant material close to a building could also catch fire, as can a build-up of leaf-litter and similar material.  The reason why materials outside matter is because a fire can easily spread from the outside of a building to the building itself, often due to hot embers rising into the roof.

With the above in mind consider how much of this material is available and where it is in relation to the ignition sources.  This will be needed later when the risk is evaluated, because the closer these are, the greater the chance fire taking hold

Hazards: Sources of Oxygen

Oxygen is all around us, in the air we breathe.  We need it to sustain our lives, but it's also one of the three elements needed for fire.  While we can do little to lessen the oxygen content of the atmosphere, we can reduce how much air gets to a fire.

The most significant hazards in Churches and Places of Worship would include:

Open windows and doors that let in fresh air;

Ventilation systems and extractor fans; and

Ducts and voids that have not been properly blocked up (which may also aid the spread of smoke a fire around the premises).

One category of chemicals – known as oxidising substances – contribute to the oxygen available in a fire as, when heated, these substances produce oxygen.  While these are not likely to be present in many Places of Worship, they can be encountered in some situations.

In and around the premises

One of the simplest ways to identify the hazards is to walk inside the building and around the outside of the premises and make a note of the hazards. 

Some people find it useful to use a sketch plan of the building, so that hazards can be marked on the plan (use separate symbols for each hazard type: ignition, fuel and oxygen).  A camera can be a useful way to record the hazards and other issues along the way, however, there is no set way as to how this needs to be done.

At this point, don't forget to look at seldom used spaces, such as store rooms, outhouses, boiler rooms and other places that are more easily forgotten.  (In some cases, it may be more appropriate to do a separate assessment for an outhouse depending on the size and what it is being used for). The assessment needs to look at all areas of the premises.

Keeping the ignition, fuel and oxygen sources in separate lists is useful, and as we'll see the proximity of these three can increase the risk.

It is also worth looking for the fire precautions and considering any defects or problems with these at the same time.  This will mean that only one visit is needed to each area.

Next stage: Determine who is at risk from fire

Back to Fire Risk Assessment

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