by Eric Bonetti
Arson? In my church? Not likely.
If you’re like most people, you dismiss arson as a remote possibility–something that never could happen at your parish. “It mainly happens in urban churches,” is heard all too often. Or, “We’ve never had an issue here.”
The reality, however, is very different. Church arsons are commonplace and far more likely than, for example, a fire caused by candles or incense. Additionally, church arsons can be disastrous, wreaking havoc with church finances and the emotions of church members.
Here’s what you need to know about church arson, and how you can prevent it.
1. Church arson is common
According to federal crime statistics, arson is a leading cause of church fires, led only by cooking and HVAC fires, and far more likely than candle-related fires, which are the fifth most likely. Approximately 130 churches are damaged or destroyed by arson every year.
2. Churches are particularly vulnerable to arson
Churches often follow a predictable schedule that increases risk. Additionally, churches typically are soft targets, with problematic design and landscaping features and lax attention to security issues.
The risk is exacerbated in the case of churches that are involved in controversial social issues, or that serve at-risk populations — which describes the vast majority of Episcopal parishes. Consideration also must be given to disgruntled church members or employees.
3. Insurance is no solution
All too often, people say, “But we’re insured–we even have full replacement value coverage.” But that rarely solves the problem.
Time after time, law enforcement officials investigating church arsons hear people express their profound sense of shock, dismay, and even betrayal that arise when a fire is deliberately set. Such events typically rock a parish to its very core and take years to fully resolve, if ever.
Complicating these matters is the priceless nature of many church contents. Many churches contain beautiful stained glass windows, furniture and other items given in memory of deceased parishioners that carry with them great sentimental value.
Additionally, many churches that suffer a catastrophic fire discover that the skills needed to replace hand-carved stone and wood, mosaics, and other features common in churches are difficult, if not impossible, to come by.
Lastly, a major building project takes a long time and serious project management capabilities. Thus, even with insurance, parishes that have suffered an arson often face a long, uphill battle to recover.
4. Warning signs often abound prior to an arson
Law enforcement, government officials, and insurance carriers all agree that warning signs typically are present well in advance of an arson. These include vandalism outside the building, particularly if several incidents occur in a brief period of time, and if there are signs of activity (trash, debris, footprints) around remote parts of the building, such as basement windows.
5. There’s nothing we can do to prevent arson
Nothing could be further from the truth. While it is impossible to completely eliminate the risk of arson, you can take simple, easy steps to reduce the risk.
Fortunately, it’s easy to reduce the risk of church arson, and often costs little. Here’s what you can do to make it less likely that your church will suffer a deliberate fire.
1. Assess the risk
Many local police and fire departments, as well as insurance carriers and locksmiths, are willing to conduct a free security survey of your facility. You also can do your own: Look for burned out lighting around the building, plantings or architectural features that create shadows around the building, and locks that are not deadbolts or old and worn. Look for flammable materials around the building, like dead grass, dumpsters full of paper or other risky debris, or containers of gasoline or other accelerants. Mulch also is risky–it’s not only flammable, but it carries the added drawback of attracting termites.
When doing your survey, don’t ignore the interior of the building. For example, ask yourself the question, “If someone breaks in, how easy is it to get into the sacristy, offices, nave, or other high-value areas?” While even a small fire can cause extensive smoke damage, your goal is to close and, preferably lock, as many interior doors as possible to limit the damage, and to reduce the likelihood of multiple intentional fires.
2. Know who has access
Do you know who has keys to your building and how many copies of those keys exist? If you’re like most churches, you have no idea. Re-key locks every three to five years, and mark all keys “do not duplicate.”
Don’t hide keys on the property. Locksmiths and law enforcement alike will tell you almost every church they visit has one or more keys hidden near the office or sacristy. Such hiding spots become readily known, and are all too predictable. Even if you have an alarm system, someone who discovers keys in an office or elsewhere may have plenty of time to get into trouble before police can respond, even in a suburban church. And control access to your church after normal business hours–there are few legitimate reasons to be in the building between 10:00 p.m and 6:00 a.m.
In the event of lock-ins, vigils, or other legitimate overnight events, consider maintaining security in unused portions of the building. Particularly in large buildings, the presence of people in one area does not mean that other areas are automatically safe.
3. Don’t rely solely on one type of security
The best security programs rely on three things: physical security, electronic security, and security awareness. None can fully substitute for the others, although you should of course start with good locks and lighting.
Most locksmiths can provide easy, affordable suggestions to improve physical security. Similarly, alarm system installers can provide recommendations for electronic systems, which are often very affordable. Just make sure that you own, versus lease, any alarm system that you install. Leased systems often involve expensive monitoring fees, combined with terms and conditions that make it difficult to change providers.
Another suggestion: Consider fencing areas around your church that cannot be seen from the street. While costly, fencing can be a powerful deterrent, as it makes it difficult to flee the area in a hurry. Just make sure you use chain link or other fencing that maintains visibility, or you will trade one issue for another.
Security awareness involves enlisting the aid of friends and neighbors, and taking note of anything unusual. See an unknown car in your lot when the church is empty? Get the tag number and call the police to request that they check on the property. But don’t challenge questionable individuals yourself. Parishioners who live in close proximity to the church also may be willing to check the exterior of the building at random times, which can be particularly useful if a rectory is not located on the grounds.
4. Keep up with maintenance
Dealing with a difficult door? Get it repaired, before it provides unwanted access to your church. Burnt out lights? Same thing.
It’s particularly important to quickly deal with vandalism, which often escalates to more serious issues. Repair any broken windows or graffiti immediately, and notify the police for even the smallest incidents. Even if the culprits aren’t apprehended, police can increase patrols and prevent disaster.
Pay close attention, too, to maintaining fire and security alarm systems. Security professionals who work with churches often hear, “We have an alarm system, but it causes a lot of false alarms, so we don’t use it much.” Or, “But it’s inconvenient to lock unused portions of the building!” Possibly true, but arson is a far greater inconvenience.
5. Recognize that prevention carries multiple benefits
Preventing arson involves increasing security, which in itself provides multiple benefits, including reducing the likelihood of vandalism and burglary. Additionally, steps such as controlling keys and access to unused areas of the building comports with many guidelines for preventing sexual misconduct, which recommend eliminating areas where inappropriate conduct can occur unobserved.
In short, while it’s important to maintain your parish as an open, inviting place, that are easy steps you can take to reduce risk and maintain a safe environment for all who use the building.
Eric Bonetti is a former nonprofit professional with extensive change management experience. He now works as a realtor.