Parishioners celebrate end to 24/7 ‘fire watch’ after lightning strikes North Carolina church’s alarm system

By David Paulsen
Posted May 18, 2023

Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Southern Pines, North Carolina, celebrates Easter Sunday on April 9. The service and other activities in the church were possible because volunteers kept a fire watch for four months, as required by the local fire marshal, until a fire alarm system could be replaced. Photo: Emmanuel Episcopal Church, via Facebook

[Episcopal News Service] A lightning strike – that actuarial “act of God,” as junior warden Mark Hamilton puts it – brought together the congregation of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Southern Pines, North Carolina, in a most unexpected way this year.

The storm damage wasn’t as remarkable as what it required of parishioners: When the lightning knocked out the church’s fire alarm system on Jan. 4, leaders at Emmanuel and the school on church grounds quickly mobilized a human fire watch, a rotation of more than 50 volunteers. They maintained 24-hour-a-day protection of the facilities from fire, a human alternative to the automated alarm system, while the old system was replaced.

“You never realize how thankful you are for what you take for granted until you lose it,” Hamilton told Episcopal News Service.

“We thought that might be a couple weeks, maybe three weeks,” Jill Connett, head of school at Episcopal Day School, said. Instead, repairs dragged on, and the human fire watch lasted nearly four months. “When this hit, I will tell you, it brought the church and school community together a little more.”

Now, the church and school are celebrating the end of the fire watch. Fire marshals certified that the newly installed replacement fire protection system was operational on May 4. A party for fire watch volunteers is planned for later this month, with matching T-shirts in the works.

“Some people said they’re going to kind of miss it, the form of exercise, the form of fellowship,” Hamilton said. But he made sure to add an obvious caveat: “I don’t think we’d want to do it forever.”

A fire watch works exactly like you might imagine. For each hourlong shift, at least one volunteer had to stroll the entire church campus and its six buildings. They span more than four acres across one city block in this central North Carolina community, about a 40-mile drive west of Fayetteville. It usually took volunteers about a half hour to complete one circuit, so twice an hour they would look in every room of each building, checking for signs of smoke or fire. And “if you did detect fire, your job is to call the fire department,” Hamilton said.

The initial emergency happened around 6 a.m. Jan. 4, when the lightning struck somewhere on the church campus. “I happened to be at the church when it hit, and it sounded like a bomb went off,” Hamilton said.

The power stayed on, but Connett reported that internet service in the school was down and the fire alarm system was beeping. The church founded the now-independent school in 1963, and the church and the school still share an interconnected fire alarm system.

Within a day or two of investigating the problem, the church’s fire security firm informed leaders that the old system couldn’t be fixed and had to be replaced. The fire marshal further informed them that, without an automated system, the church would have to form a fire watch to rely on human eyes, or else face closure because of the exposure to potential harm and property damage.

Under the emergency plan developed by Connett and the church’s wardens, the fire watch began on Jan. 6, with a logbook for each shift proving that volunteers were doing the checks required by the fire marshal. The school took responsibility for overnight coverage, largely with hired contractors, while the church recruited the volunteers who would walk the grounds during the day. Some school board members also took some shifts, and Connett covered nights when no one else was available.

“It almost became like a second job,” Connett said, describing how she and Hamilton coordinated shifts on a spreadsheet. “It’s been quite an ordeal.”

Because of the fire watch, no church services were cancelled, and no days of school were missed. The upgrades to the fire protection system cost more than $100,000, including hiring people to take overnight fire watch shifts, though all of that is expected to be covered by the church’s insurance policy.

Frank Holt, a vestry member who volunteered for fire watch shifts, told ENS he and others took the fire watch responsibility in stride. “It’s good exercise,” he said. “You can put in some miles.”

A few others brought their dogs with them. “We had some really great volunteer folks who really stepped up,” Hamilton said. And when the fire marshals came May 4 and said they could end the fire watch, it “was a great day.”

Connett agreed. “If you had seen my face,” she said, “it was like a huge weight was lifted.”

“What we kind of developed was a bit of a new community,” Hamilton said, a community of fire watch volunteers. “I think that was one of the benefits, one of the silver linings to this.”

After the fire system was restored, Connett spoke during the congregation’s annual day school Sunday service on May 7. Her message: “There are blessings that can come out of any circumstance.”

And the logbook? It got pretty thick after 17 weeks of fire watch shifts, but Hamilton sees no sentimental value in keeping it. He’s thinking of having it unceremoniously – and safely – burned.

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at