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June 4, 2024

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What are the fire safety considerations for a historic site? Is there a careful path to tread for making a site compliant?

Hannah Eales, Partner and Kathryn Sheridan, Senior Associate at law firm Kingsley Napley, discuss fire safety considerations for historic sites. 

Heritage buildings were constructed well before there were any fire safety regulations to adhere to. As such, many historical sites were built using materials that have not been used in over a century which can make them particularly vulnerable to fire damage, resulting not only in the potential loss of the structure itself but the valuable contents housed inside.

All of us will recall the terrible fire of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris in April 2019 which was undergoing renovation works at the time. This sadly will not likely be the last time a fire threatens one of the world’s iconic historical buildings and it is therefore vital that the responsible person(s) for such sites takes the time to understand their responsibilities and act upon them.

This article seeks to summarise what those responsible for protecting heritage sites must consider by way of fire safety and offers some tips on best practice.

Emergency Response Plan

All buildings of historic significance must have an Emergency Response Plan (“ERP”) which sets out the actions to take in the event of an emergency. The detail of this plan will vary depending on the size and complexity of the building. It should be written in clear language, be easy to understand and should be reviewed regularly to ensure accuracy. It must be made accessible to any authorised person who needs it.

In buildings of historical significance – such as museums, palaces, art galleries etc – the ERP will be comprehensive and must consist of the following:

  • Fire Risk Assessment;
  • Fire Strategy;
  • Emergency Evacuation Procedures;
  • Salvage plan/Damage control plan; and
  • Emergency contact list.

Fire risk assessment

Kathryn Sheridan, Senior Associate at Kingsley Napley

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005replaced the Fire Precautions Act 1971 and other fire-safety legislation in England and Wales. It covers general fire precautions and other fire-related duties needed to protect ‘relevant persons’ in case of fire in and around premises. Under the Order, a fire-risk assessment must be carried out by a Competent Person and all findings must be recorded.

For those responsible for a building of historical significance, the fire risk assessment should be carried out by a Competent Person who has experience of fire safety within heritage sites as they come with a unique set of risks which requires specialist expertise.

Fire strategy / evacuation procedures

A fire strategy should be created by the Competent Person which formalises the basic fire safety requirements for a building in the event of a fire. Whilst the primary focus of this strategy will focus on life safety, for historical buildings it should also address how best to protect the contents of a premises in the event of a fire, as well as identify what training is necessary and at what frequency that training should be delivered.

A key factor in fire strategy is linked to whether the building is occupied – and whether this consists of members of the public and staff or if anyone lives on site (such as a curator or collections manager)- and who will be the first line of defence by raising the alarm from a fire safety perspective.

Salvage / Damage Control plan

The Salvage/ Damage Control plan is an agreed strategy as to which objects in collections should be prioritised for removal in the event of a fire. The procedure for salvage will be dependent on the scale of the incident and the size of the premises – but good practice is to plan for the worst-case scenario of having to remove all objects from the site.

The plan should identify the Salvage incident co-ordinator and any deputy, a contacts list, salvage priorities, salvage procedures and emergency first aid conservation (i.e. instructions on the temporary storage facilities for collections and any instructions for the treatment of damaged objects).

Historic England recommends that the Salvage/ Damage Control Plan should also include detailed site and room plans as well as photographs of the items to be rescued, their position in the room and any special measures needed to remove them- so that if the Fire & Rescue Service need to assist with salvaging objects they can navigate the premises and locate high value items more easily.

The plan should also address which areas of the building that, wherever possible, cannot be damaged by fire, smoke or water.

Practicalities

Fire prevention in historic buildings requires careful assessment. There will always be that tension between preserving a historical site so that it remains as authentic as possible whilst also complying with legal requirements to put in place appropriate measures to reduce the risk of fire.

Hannah Eales, Partner at Kingsley Napley

The LFB Fire Safety Guidance Note for Heritage and Buildings of Special Interest offers a number of practical tips which include:

  • Compartmentation of the building using fire resisting walls, partitions and ceilings;
  • Identification of hidden voids and undertaking remedial works to reduce the risk of a fire going unnoticed;
  • Ensuring that existing heritage doors are solid and well-fitted;
  • Where appropriate, upgrading and/or replacing existing heritage doors so that they are more resistant to heat, flame and smoke;
  • Where appropriate, installation of Automatic Fire Suppression Systems and/or a reliable automatic fire warning system;
  • Installation of visual and thermal image fire detectors;
  • Assessing the lighting system in place and considering using low voltage or LED lighting.

Whilst this list is not exhaustive it provides a useful insight into the added complexities of guarding a heritage building from the risk of fire.

Conclusion

Ensuring a building is fire-safety compliant is often not without its complications – but undertaking this task for a historical building is even more difficult. There are practical challenges that need to be considered and planned for and reviewed regularly.

The key takeaway is that those responsible for preserving these special, unique buildings should always consider seeking expert, specialist advice – as the nuances to tackling fire safety in heritage sites is a completely different beast to modern structures and should not be under-estimated.

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Ian
Ian
1 month ago

When discussing historic buildings it’s important to consider this often includes bridges, many of which are of cast iron or a mixture of steel/wrought iron/cast. When tackling bridge fires the use of water extinguishing this can cause cast iron to fracture or even explode causing structural failure.