One of the downsides of being involved in the running of a church is that from time to time you get really daunting issues to deal with. One of those daunting issues turned up in my inbox this week – a really thorny issue with regards to fire safety.
In case you weren’t aware, last year the government passed the â€œRegulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005â€?. This snappily titled bit of legislation essentially sorts out all the fire safety related legislation into one place, so in theory makes the whole process of complying with the law a lot easier. However, one change that makes life considerably more difficult from the point of view of a church is that many of the rules that have previously not applied to churches are going to come in to force, more than that it will be a criminal offence to break key parts of the order.
In the case of our little church in Finchampstead, especially bearing in mind that our congregations are over 100 people almost every week, it has a big effect as whilst we have always been careful to provide fire extinguishers, detail escape routes at major services and so on, we now become subject to a set of rules that fundamentally the physical building cannot meet. The specific area of concern is the exits, which in terms of safety are badly placed, and in the case of the 1590 door, totally unsuitable because of it’s narrow size and treacherous steps. The other fundamental problem is that like the majority of church buildings, all the doors open in the wrong direction for a fire exit – fire exit doors must always open outwards.
What really adds to the complications is that our building is also grade one listed, and even without the listing, many would regard it as architectural and cultural vandalism to mess with historic external features such as the 1590 door purely for fire safety reasons. I can hear the arguments now – highlighting that there hasn’t been a fire in the past 1000 years so why are we proposing to change things now! Of course if we aren’t able to make the required building changes then we’re left trying to make other changes so that our use of the building enables us to meet the fire regulations.
Perhaps the only solace in this whole issue is that considering all the other churches around almost all of them will have the same problems – that the ancient buildings do not meet modern standards in terms of health and safety.
Incidentally, if like me, you are involved in a church and you had no idea of the new rules, there is a good leaflet available from the Church Safety web site. Unfortunately, despite planning to introduce these regulations in April, the government still haven’t managed to publish relevant official advice on compliance with the law. It may also be worth talking to your local fire service, as they will ultimately be responsible for ensuring that your building meets the requirements of the order.