THE MAGAZINE

Arson, Texas: Anatomy of the East Texas Church Fires

By E. Floyd Phelps, CPP

 Lessons Learned

 
In a little less than six weeks, ten rural churches were set on fire. All were easy targets. If some of the following precautions had been taken, undoubtedly some of these fires might have been prevented.
 
The most expensive option for churches is to install a sprinkler system. Often churches in rural areas are not required by code to install sprinkler systems. Installing protection is a sound business decision, however: it will reduce loss and provide better use for church funds rather than rebuilding the church.
 
Another layer of security that will cost a congregation some money is a burglar alarm. The East Texas arson suspects broke church windows before entering. It is believed they were testing to see if the church had a burglar alarm before they tried to enter. If there was a burglar alarm, as investigators believe in the case of the Heritage Baptist Church and two other churches, they would go to another church. Another relatively inexpensive layer of security is lighting. Churches should use motion activated lights to illuminate the exterior of the building at night. As Bourque and McAllister’s suspected arson rampage shows, minor target hardening practices could have saved many structures.
 
The serial arsons also teach another valuable lesson: secure flammables in a locked storage area. This includes cleaning materials and paper supplies. It is the habit of most churches to leave hymnals in place in the sanctuary. In most of the East Texas church fires the perpetrators used the hymnals as the fuel source to start the fires. It’s also smart to keep trash dumpsters or other flammables away from the building.
 
Churches should also create a culture of security awareness. One option is to establish an arson/security crime watch with church members that live in the area or travel past the church. These members should then be trained to be observant of unusual circumstances: an unknown car in the parking lot when the church is closed, strangers hanging around the church when nothing is scheduled, exterior door standing open, a broken window, or smoke coming from or near the building.
 
Finally, when securing the building and contents use good solid doors and locks. Aesthetically pleasing doors and locks that are burglary resistant can be purchased at most home improvement stores. It’s surprising how many churches either do not lock their doors or use inferior locks that do nothing to stop a committed adversary.
 
Church leadership has a tendency to think themselves immune to violence and destruction. The events in recent years have proven this idea wrong. All organizations—governmental, commercial, and non-profit—are faced with the stewardship of their assets and charged with the protection of people, property and public image. Houses of worship are no different. Using these precautions can drastically reduce the vulnerability of places of worship. As the East Texas arson rampage shows, a simple burglar alarm can send the criminals looking for an easier target.
 

E. Floyd Phelps, CPP, is a current member of the Fire & Life Safety Council and the former chair. He is a frequent contributor to Security Management and a member of the ASIS Quarter Century Club.
 
Note: As of publication, Jason Robert Bourque and Daniel George McAllister have not gone to trial for their alleged arson of the Dover Baptist Church. The contents of this article are based on law enforcement press releases and official public record documents.
 
♦ Photo by herval/Flickr

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