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Fire Prevention

Central to fire safety is the principle of fire prevention. A starting point is always the Fire Risk Assessment, but some knowledge of basic fire science and prevention techniques is important to get the most from this assessment.

Fire - the basics

The Fire Triangle of Fuel, Oxygen and IgnitionThere are three basic elements required for any fire to begin, or continue, burning:

  • A source of fuel
  • A source of heat (or a flame)
  • Oxygen from air or other sources

These three are known as The Fire Triangle.  Without any of of these three elements the fire will not start or continue to burn.

Fire is a chemical reaction which by its very nature will grow because of the heat it produces.  Unless one of the three elements of the triangle is removed or the balance is significantly altered the reaction will continue.  The balance can be disturbed in a number of ways:

  • The heat can be removed, by cooling the fire.  A water fire extinguisher, for example, will remove heat from a waste paper bin fire as the water turns to steam.
  • Oxygen can be removed from a fire either by displacing it (such as with carbon dioxide from a fire extinguisher) or by preventing air getting to the fire (such as when placing a fire blanket over a chip-pan fire.
  • The fuel can be removed from the fire, for example by turning off a supply of flammable gas.

Fire growth can be relatively slow to begin with in the case of some materials (for example, smouldering fabrics), but will soon increase as more heat is generated.  A fire could involve a whole room within a matter of minutes so this is why early detection of fires is so important.

Smoke

The largest risk to life with fire is not the heat from the flames, but the smoke. With a typical bonfire or barbecue burning outside, the smoke is allowed to escape and disperse in the air and in fact most people would not appreciate just how much smoke is actually produced. 

With a fire in a building, the smoke is trapped inside and can reach toxic levels very rapidly.

Smoke contains amongst other things:

  • Soot particles, which can enter the respiratory system and cause irritation, coughing and discomfort
  • Chemicals that could have toxic effects on the body
  • Carbon dioxide which can cause breathing difficulties
  • Carbon monoxide which causes a limit to the oxygen taken up by the lungs into the bloodstream
  • Burning embers which can burn skin or clothing on contact

The smoke will usually rise and will quickly obstruct light fittings.  Even in the power has not been cut to the lighting circuits, it will soon become dark as the smoke blocks the lighting.  Add to this loud alarm sirens, flashing strobe alarm beacons it can soon be seen why panic can set in, especially in a public place like a Church or Place of Worship where people are perhaps not so familiar with the layout of the building.

Many fires can easily reach hundreds, if not thousands, of degrees Celsius at the seat of the fire.  Such temperatures can do major damage to building structures, furniture, fittings and fixtures even when the fire is remote from the sensitive building fabric and fixtures.

The smoke given off by the fire can permanently scar walls with a impervious coating if certain materials are involved in the fire.  One of the more commonly known examples in Churches and Places of Worship is resin / plastic seating, which has caused damage to buildings in some fires in the past. Although wooden furniture might seem to be a less obvious choice, when it comes to historically important premises, it is probably the better option.

Classes of fire

Fires can be categorised depending on the materials that are involved. It is important to know the kinds of materials that could burn because the methods used to extinguish a fire would vary from one class of material to another, so it has a baring on the types of extinguishers selected and their location.  

  • Class A - fires involving materials such as wood, paper and textiles.  These usually burn with embers, giving off considerable amounts of smoke but not much heat if in smaller quantities.
  • Class B - fires involving flammable liquids or solids that liquify (such as candle wax). These usually burn freely, giving off much heat, and some can burn without giving off much smoke.
  • Class C - fires involving gas. These usually burn freely and cleanly, giving off much heat.
  • Class D - fires involving flammable metals (rarely encountered in Churches and Places of Worship).
  • Class F - fires involving cooking oils or fats.

Sometimes an additional category of 'Class E' is used. This is used to indicate that the fire involves live electrical equipment. This category is never used on its own as an electrical fire will always include other classes of fire so the selection of fire extinguishers needs to take this into account.

How fire can start - Ignition Sources

Potential fire sources include anything that gets hot (including moving parts of machinery), gives off sparks or has naked flames - whether in the normal operating condition or if a fault should develop. Some typical sources include:

  • Smokers materials
  • Candles and other naked flames
  • Matches and lighters, especially in the hands of children who might play with them
  • Heaters, boiler systems and other heating equipment
  • Cookers, microwaves and other cooking or food preparation equipment
  • Electrical appliances and installations
  • Moving parts of machinery, where friction can cause the build up of heat
  • Arson (which accounts for a majority of fires in non-domestic premises)
  • Maintenance works including hot works (work such as plumbing which requires the use of naked flames)

As a starting point, try to remove the source of ignition. This is the first rule of fire prevention - eliminate the risk of fire starting by eliminating the source of ignition.  However, this is not always practical, and sometimes not necessary.

When these ignition sources are placed close to flammable materials, there is a greater risk of fire.  The risk would be reduced if the items were separated. This leads onto a second rule of thumb of fire prevention - avoid placing things that could catch fire close to the things that could ignite a fire. An example of this would be to place candles on a stone surface using holders made out of metal.

Sometimes, the rules are difficult, in which case we need to use other methods.  Fire resistance can make some materials resistant to fire and is usually easily applied for many fabrics and other materials. As a rule of thumb, natural materials (like wood) do not need fire proofing but man-made materials (like fabric and carpet) need to be fire resistant. Fabrics and other materials may be coated in special fluids that are available from theatre supplies companies and some large DIY retailers. Special fire resistant paints are available and the one that has the best fire retardant qualities is known as 'Class 0'.

Awareness of fire hazards and preventing fires

Preventing fire from starting often is a matter of being aware of the things that could catch fire and those things that could start a fire and then taking action to reduce the possibilities as low as possible.  This is the basis of Fire Risk Assessment.  Some practical things that you could consider are listed below:

Bullet pointCandles are often used in Places of Worship. Only ever use fire resistant holders and keep them clear of flammable materials.  Children should normally not be encouraged to light or put out candles, unless they are very closely supervised. It is recommended that the candle flame is enclosed, for example, in glass. It is also recommended that the number of candles be kept to the minimum possible and materials are put away after use.

Bullet pointSmall oil burners shaped like candles are becoming popular.  Follow the same rules as for candles above, but ensure that the minimum of liquid fuel is stored, and it is kept in a safe place, ideally a locked metal cupboard which is kept away from sources of ignition and heat.  Observe the manufacturer's instructions at all times when using these candle-replacements.

Bullet pointLook after all you equipment by maintaining it and keep the building in a good state of repair.  Dust can be a source of fuel for fire to spread so ensure lighting and heating equipment is kept clean. Electrical equipment should  be tested for electrical safety and the installation wiring should be inspected periodically.

Bullet pointEquipment like heaters must be treated with care. Do not use portable radiant bar heaters and avoid heaters that use exposed flames. Heaters must be positioned so that heat-producing parts are kept away from flammable surfaces (for example, when they are mounted under pews). Portable heaters must be fitted with a safety cut-out device, which will cut off the heater if it overheats or tips over, and must not be used in exit routes.

Bullet pointLighting situated for the organ (both for the use of someone playing the organ and for those who tune or maintain the instrument) should be low-powered, preferably fluorescent, compact-fluorescent or LED 'low energy' lamps. Use high-powered stage lighting with care - keep it away from wood, fabrics and other materials that could catch fire especially floor mounted 'par cans'.  Maintain projectors so that the air intake and vents are kept clear and the filters are cleaned periodically.

Bullet pointSome cleaning chemicals, paints and many other chemicals that are used in Places of Worship are flammable. Some substances like bottled gas need special attention and should be stored in well ventilated areas, preferably outside and away from pools of water and sheltered from the rain to stop the containers rusting.

Bullet point Do not store rubbish, bins and skips next to the outside of the building as a fire could easily spread to the whole building. A fire directly outside the building can easily spread to inside the building because the heat of the fire can carry embers into the eaves.  Do not light bonfires close to your Place of Worship. Remember that bags and bins are a prime target for arsonists.

Bullet pointFlower arrangements can become tinder dry if they are too close to a heater, light fitting or a lit candle. Don't light candles directly below flower arrangements and ensure that the flame is always well away from foliage. Keep flower arrangements well watered.

Bullet pointSmoking can cause fires and could set off a smoke detector on a fire alarm system. Smoking within premises has been banned by legislation, but some people might be tempted not to obey this law and choose somewhere to take a quick cigarette break. Be aware that smokers might try to hide these activities by choosing store rooms, basements and other out-of-the-way areas, and might not dispose of their smokers waste properly, causing a build up of flammable material.  A fire in these places might not be detected quickly and could spread undetected.

Bullet pointArson attacks affect many Places of Worship each year and preventing this kind of attack is usually a simple matter of improving security, including fitting quality locks on the front door.  Keep anything that could be used to start a fire locked away (matches, candles and flammable cleaning chemicals are examples) and ensure that items that could be of interest or are attractive, such as expensive or priceless artefacts and even communion wine, are locked away.

Exit Routes

The most important thing you have in your building are your exits and fire exits, along with all the corridors and areas that make up the exit routes. People in the fire safety industry know these areas as 'Means of Escape'. You need to take extra special care to prevent a fire starting or spreading in these areas in your Place of Worship.

For this reason, there are some rules about what you cannot have in these areas because they might hamper evacuation. The list includes:

  • Portable heating equipment (including electric heaters) or heating equipment that uses naked flames;
  • Lighting equipment that is not part of the fixed mains wiring;
  • Bins and rubbish bags;
  • Notice boards (unless small and the notices are kept firmly pinned onto the board).

If a building has only one exit route, even greater care would be expected to ensure that fire cannot start in the general area of the exit.

Many building have 'fire doors' that are designed to prevent the spread of smoke and fire throughout the building. These doors are typically provided to protect exit routes and it is very important not to prop or wedge these doors open, even through the self closing mechanism might be an inconvenience.

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