State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan and state Department of Public Safety Commissioner Thomas G. Gatzunis announced that the Board of Building Regulations and the Board of Fire Prevention Regulations passed tandem regulations for using houses of worship as temporary shelter during cold weather. These regulations are in effect as of December 1.
State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan said, "This balances the need to protect people from extreme weather with the basic public safety concerns reflected in the fire, building and health codes."
Commissioner Gatzunis said, "Places of worship are not necessarily designed to accommodate overnight guests. However, board members recognized the need to provide warm, safe shelter to those who may otherwise be subject to the, sometimes, brutally cold conditions of a New England winter outside and on their own. The new regulations take into consideration the limitations of an existing place of worship and overlays additional safety features and inspection processes"
Limitations, Keeping Exits Clear, No Smoking and Alarms
Houses of worship can now be used as temporary shelters for a maximum of 35 days between September 15 and June 15 each year with a maximum of seven consecutive days to ensure a truly temporary use. No smoking is allowed inside. The installation and maintenance of smoke and carbon monoxide alarms is also required. A plan showing the occupant load, seating diagram and location of exits and of aisles leading to them must be posted near the main entrance and a copy given to the fire department. If the Governor declares a state of emergency, there is a provision that would allow these limits to be extended.
Gatzunis said, "This is an important piece of regulation that will assist municipal authorities and well-intentioned citizens to provide safe assistance to those in need during the long winter ahead."
Response Person on Premises
A responsible person must be on the premises to maintain clear exits, assure there is no overcrowding, and initiate a fire alarm if necessary. The person must also have training in emergency evacuation, a landline to report an emergency, and enforce the no smoking rule.
Notify the Building Department
In order to operate a temporary overnight shelter a temporary certificate of occupancy must first be obtained from the city or town building official. The building official must forward the application for a temporary certificate of occupancy to the fire chief and health official for review. Finally, the building, fire, and health officials must conduct a site visit with the building owner and the applicant.
Notify the Fire Department
The fire department must be noticed before a house of worship becomes a temporary shelter and must be provided with the number of people to be housed, the hours of operation, and the name and contact information for the responsible party, as well as when the property ceases to be used as a temporary shelter.
"Most fatal fires occur in homes at night when people are asleep. When we temporarily convert a house of worship to a place where people sleep, we need to make sure safety from fire is adequately provided for so we don't trade one risk of harm for another," said Coan.
In the past five years (2004-2008), there were 392 fires in houses of worship according to the Mass. Fire Incident Reporting System (MFIRS). They caused 16 firefighter injuries and $16.4 million in property damage. "Fires in houses of worship profoundly affect not only the worshipers but also the entire community," said Coan.