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Fire safety for historic and heritage buildings

Fire safety signage for heritage buildings

Historic and heritage buildings of traditional construction usually have a low fire risk and do not have a history of injuries and deaths caused by fire. However, arson attacks and accidental fires do occur and when churches are unoccupied there is a potential for serious fires to develop. The recent Notre Dame catastrophe provided a stark reminder: even though fires are rare in historic and heritage buildings, they can and do still happen, sometimes resulting in irreversible damage.

Historic and heritage buildings provide unique challenges when it comes to fire safety. Many will have little or no fire protection mechanisms within due to preservation measures and owners of these buildings are often afraid to implement modern fire detection and alarm systems because they will simply look out of place.

Whereas modern buildings will have passive fire protection measures built into them (compartmentation, structural protection and fire retardant materials), older buildings are often lacking passive fire protection, with many being built hundreds, if not thousands of years ago.

So how can these buildings be made safer?

There are ways in which these buildings can be made safer without refurbishments and costly structural upgrades...

Fire detection and alarm systems - It is written throughout UK fire safety law that buildings must ‘provide means for detecting fire and giving warning in case of fire’ and that premises must be equipped with ‘appropriate fire detectors and alarms’. However, no specific advice is given for heritage buildings on how these systems should be installed, so what are the options?

  • Some companies will provide customisation of modern fire detection and alarm systems to help them blend in with the feel of the building.
  • An aspirating detection system uses detectors that can be remote from the protected area, they are connected by small diameter pipes and can also be easily concealed.
  • Beam smoke detectors consist of infrared transmitters and receivers. The sensors simply measure the light level from the transmitter and beam smoke detectors have a proven track record.

Remember - Some members of the public will be hard of hearing or deaf, so if your evacuation procedure does not include visual alarms, then you’ll need to provide members of the public with tactile devices.

Emergency lighting - ‘Emergency routes and exits requiring illumination must be provided with emergency lighting of adequate intensity’ - the fire precautions regulations 1997.

‘Emergency light levels’ have increased dramatically since the late 90’s and many installers of emergency lighting were slow to realise this; that’s why many older heritage buildings have poor emergency lighting.

It’s arguable that heritage buildings should have clearer emergency lighting than other buildings due to the sheer number of people that visit these buildings (some of whom may have disabilities), so it’s incredibly important that escape routes, doors, signs and any potential hazards are clearly visible for the public.

"For emergency lighting to be implemented sensitively and not spoil the heritage environment, it is best integrated into the normal lighting at a design stage. If this cannot be done there are many light fittings on the market to help. There are very small light fittings with remote batteries or decorative fittings made of metal and glass. Spotlights may be used for large open spaces such as cathedrals. These can be mounted remotely from the area to be lit and, being relatively small, hidden away among the wall decoration. These solutions do not make fittings invisible but would make them less obtrusive."

The Fire Industry Association

Cases of fire damage to historic and heritage buildings

Each year a grade 1 building will be completely lost, every 4 months a grade 2 building will be completely lost, every 6 weeks a building of regional importance will be lost and at least 20 historic churches are destroyed or damaged by fire each year.

Notre Dame - On 15 April 2019, a structure fire broke out beneath the roof of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. By the time it was extinguished, the building's spire and most of its roof had been destroyed and its upper walls severely damaged; extensive damage to the interior was prevented by its stone vaulted ceiling, which largely contained the burning roof as it collapsed.

Clandon Park - On the afternoon of 29 April 2015, a fire started in the house's basement and quickly spread to the roof leaving it "essentially a shell", with only one room, the Speaker's Parlour, intact.

Trinity Cathedral - On August 24, 2006, while the cathedral was under reconstruction, a fire originating on restorers' scaffolding collapsed the main dome, destroyed one of the four smaller domes and severely damaged the interior.

The role of Fire Safety Training

Fire Awareness Training is a legal requirement for all staff, regardless of their job role. If all staff are aware of their responsibilities, understand the nature of fire and know what to do should a fire break out, you create a much safer workplace.

All workplaces also need designated fire wardens, who play a vital role in ensuring safety in a fire emergency.

We’re privileged to be able to offer a variety of Fire Safety courses here at iHASCO. Our IOSH Approved Fire Awareness Training provides an effective and hassle-free way of working towards current legislation and getting your staff up to speed with fire awareness.

We also offer IOSH Approved Fire Warden Training which covers fire wardens duties, preventative measures, the correct use of extinguishers and safe evacuation.

Fire Safety Training