Come hell or high water: Is your parish ready to handle a fire or flood?

| July 5, 2018 | 0 Comments

A church damaged by fire. iStock

Are your parish’s fire extinguishers full? Computers backed up off-site? Can its thermostat alert someone if it senses unusually high temperatures? Mark Larson hopes the answer is yes. As owner and president of Clean Response in St. Paul and a parishioner of Our Lady of Grace in Edina, Larson is an expert on the restoration of property following flooding or fire, including churches. He took The Catholic Spirit’s questions on what parishes can do to prepare for and respond to property damage.

Q. Can you define “disaster”?

A. To me, a simple toilet overflow or coffee line leak can be a disaster. Although these types of events are usually not as costly, they are still disruptive and can be expensive if not corrected immediately. Mold in a structure can be considered a disaster, as it is a health hazard and can be expensive to remediate. Water does not always enter a structure as a liquid; it can come as a vapor when there is high humidity and then condenses on a cooler surface. Mold needs oxygen, moisture and a carbon food source to grow, and it typically grows in areas with little air movement.

Q. Do parishes or churches have unique concerns when it comes to preparing for or responding to disasters?

A. Churches have very unique concerns due to the religious, monetary and unique value of the contents and also because areas are frequently unoccupied. Their calendars are full of events such as funerals, weddings and Masses which may need to be moved or rescheduled. Companies responding to disasters need to be aware and respectful of the holiness of the Church and religious items which may need to be removed for cleaning or repairs.

Q. What concerns you about disaster preparedness for churches?

Having a disaster that requires major cleaning, drying and reconstruction is certainly an unusual event that is very disruptive and may leave parts of the church unusable for an extended period of time. Most churches (and other property owners) are not ready for the process of restoring affected parts of the church and the property contained inside. It is important for computer systems to be backed up regularly and stored off-site. Normal maintenance of the church, both inside and outside, will go a long way. Always have an abundance of fully charged and maintained fire extinguishers (and pick a day and mark your calendar to check them annually — All Saints Day, for example). If possible, have a temperature sensor on the thermostats which communicates live information to a responsible individual.

Q. Are there areas in which you see parishes often ill prepared when they experience fire or water damage?

A. A church is a vital, and often historically, significant space and home to many. Much of what is contained in our churches is irreplaceable. Artifacts need to be stored properly. Water always move to the lowest level, so if churches must use these spaces for storage, make sure the stored items are properly protected in waterproof containers and on pallets to keep them off the ground.

Q. What kinds of fire and water damage have you seen? What typically causes it?

A. Fires are usually caused by candles or kitchen fires, of which many are left unattended. Make sure all fires are not next to flammable materials. Water damage has multiple causes including frozen pipes, failed pipes (they do corrode and wear out) failed hot water heaters/dishwashers, unmaintained HVAC systems and a lot of human error, especially around sprinkler pipes.

Q. What can parishes do to prepare in case of a disaster?

A. Having a list of phone numbers to call to get the resources needed to address the problem should be part of preparing for losses. The list should include the Catholic Mutual Insurance office and the risk manager, a trusted restoration company and all essential personnel from the church. Monthly inspect vacant or infrequently used areas, looking for signs of moisture, mold and fire hazards.

Q. What should parishes do within the first 24 hours of a fire or water disaster?

A. It’s important to start emergency services as soon as possible, as a major factor in the cost of a water loss is how long the structure is abnormally wet. The sooner the drying process is started, the less costly the loss, as more materials can be restored rather than replaced. If you are dealing with a fire, smoke is very corrosive. Items which are smoke damaged need to be cleaned immediately. Computers and electronics can also be cleaned and salvaged. Water should also be extracted immediately to prevent further damage. Hardwood and antique flooring and paneling can be salvaged with drying techniques if addressed early in a flooding process. Ignoring even small water leaks will only result in mold growth and will cost more to properly remediate.

Q. What can be done to preserve church valuables, such as art, linens and vessels?

A. Again, proper storage is essential and understanding all the professional resources a restoration company can make available to you, such as restoring art, draperies, pianos and electronics is important.

Q. How can time of year impact cleaning and restoration?

A. We are busy throughout the year with losses, but changes in weather patterns certainly create work for us. Beginning in late November and continuing through February, the cold weather will stress heating systems and building insulation, causing failures and water pipes to freeze and break. Also, as more candles are used, more fires and smoke damage will occur. Spring and summer rains will cause groundwater flooding and, as summer repairs to churches occur, simple mistakes and mishaps may require remediation and cleaning.

Q. What should parishes include in their disaster plan?

A. The parish disaster plan should start with a review of their insurance policy to make sure there is adequate loss coverage for the church and contents and to understand the deductibles and co-pays. This may require appraisals. Next, always review the church for changes in physical condition that may have been caused by repairs to the church or age deterioration. These changes may suddenly allow rain to enter or, moving insulation around, may allow a pipe to freeze that has been unaffected for years. Make sure everyone working in the church knows where the water shutoffs are located and how they work.

Q. What else should people, especially parish leaders, know about disaster preparedness?

A. Timing is always of the essence in mitigating losses. The best preparedness action is having a relationship with a disaster restoration company before you need it, so time is not lost and those types of decisions do not need to be made at a time of significant stress. Our experience is that sooner or later everyone will experience some type of loss. Be prepared, as it will happen to your parish.

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