Fire may be the greatest threat to heritage places, worldwide. Almost no building is immune from fire risk, and fire often results in significant loss of buildings and their contents. Recent studies in England (2018) and Scotland (2007-2009) have tallied several hundred fire incidents affecting heritage buildings in each country over a one-year period. Similar numbers may prevail in other parts of the world as well.
A number of high-profile incidents, affecting heritage places around the world, have expanded our understanding of the risk posed by fire: Windsor Castle in England (1992), the Rova of Antananarivo in Madagascar (1995), Venice’s La Fenice opera house (1996), Seoul’s Namdaemun gate (2008), the Kasubi Royal Tombs in Uganda (2010 and 2020), Scotland’s Glasgow School of Art (2014 and 2018), the National Museum of Brazil (2018), and Notre-Dame of Paris (2019).
And yet, unlike the risk posed by many other hazards, the loss of cultural value caused by fires can be prevented, by reducing the outbreak of fires and limiting the damage that any outbreaks cause. This resource page offers some key principles surrounding practical fire protection for historic buildings, and provides references to useful resources available in English and other major languages.
If you would like to suggest that additional resources be included, please contact us.
The Namdaemun gate in Seoul, South Korea, after a devastating fire in 2008.
Key principles and Resources
Practical fire protection encompasses prevention, detection, and suppression of fire, all within the context of broader disaster risk management and emergency preparedness. Another distinction can be made between “passive” and “active” (detection and suppression) means of limiting fire risk for a site.
Prevention: Planning to limit the risk posed by fire
The process for reducing fire risk is similar to many planning processes that are common in heritage management. It can vary depending on the scale of the site, but it usually encompasses the following stages:
- documenting significant features of a site, and understanding their cultural significance
- defining specific protection objectives for the site, in addition to life safety
- identifying fire hazards to the site
- examining and selecting solutions for protection that meet the safety objectives while minimizing impact on culturally significant aspects of the site
In many cases substantial risk reduction can be made at small cost and with a relatively small effort, through changes in how activities are performed and by ensuring that the means to control any potential outbreaks are readily available. Fire management experts can help carry out site-specific assessments and offer insights into the vulnerabilities facing each site.
There are fire/disaster management experts focused on protecting historic sites and structures to assist with both smaller, as well as more complex structures and sites as each may likely benefit from specific, tailored hazard/risk/vulnerability assessments and insights to at least get started in addressing issues and needs.
Heritage agencies and other bodies can provide guidance for heritage places under their care that takes into account specific conditions of heritage management practice and regulations in their jurisdiction. In some jurisdictions, periodic inspections and assessment of fire risk are required by law. If you are a manager of an historic site, collaborating with your local fire department to develop emergency procedures and protocols is always a good idea.
Prevention: What are some causes of fire?
Understanding the potential causes of fire can help any site manager improve fire prevention measures. Fire can be caused by natural events (such as lightning, or following an earthquake, or from wildfires), due to electrical failures (which can be common in older buildings), through activities such as cooking (for example, during special events), smoking, burning incense, fireworks, from other accidents and negligence, or due to arson.
Building repairs, involving so-called “hot works” (welding, cutting, grinding) represent a highly elevated risk of fire. Fire risk is elevated because new sources of ignition may be present, such as temporary electrical installations, as well as more combustible materials than usual. Chemical paint removers are especially flammable. In most jurisdictions a special permit for such works is required, and sites should have an overall fire safety plan tailored specifically to the additional hazards present during restoration or any construction work. For all the same reasons, even minor maintenance, carried by in-house personnel, can be very risky and requires extra special care.
Prevention: How should personnel be trained?
Whether a heritage place is managed by a small team or by a large professional staff organized into specialized roles, all custodians of a site should be familiar with the site’s emergency plan. This includes knowing how to raise and respond to a fire alarm. Some employees may be given specific tasks in the event of fire: for cultural institutions those may include salvage protocols, such as a plan for rescuing a set of key objects in a collection. Dedicated security personnel will likely receive additional training in emergency response.
Site managers should work ahead of time to put in place lines of communication with any local emergency management agency of office, fire department, hospitals, police, and utility companies (gas, electric).
What is the role of building codes?
Building codes typically specify minimum requirements for fire protection, aimed primarily at ensuring life safety. Common fire-protection features for modern buildings include smoke detectors and sprinklers, fire-rated stairs and other means to facilitate safe egress, and compartmented design, to limit the spread of fire. Codes also include provisions for existing buildings. When historic buildings don’t comply with modern design the need to protect culturally significant features can present a challenge for retrofitting, but products and techniques that can improve the fire resistance of elements like doors and floors are increasingly available.
In new construction, care is taken to limit the spread of fire through a building, within the same level and especially between levels. Historic buildings sometimes contain vertical voids that drastically increase the potential of fire to spread to other levels of a building. Undivided roof spaces pose the same challenge.
The U.S. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has issued two widely referenced standards relevant to heritage places: NFPA 914 (Code for the Protection of Historic Structures) and NFPA 909 (Code for the Protection of Cultural Resource Properties - Museums, Libraries, and Places of Worship).
Using tailored solutions to meet the desired fire protective objectives represents an alternative approach, in cases when coder requirements are impossible to meet, or when meeting the requirements does not address the desired protection objectives.
Fire detection and suppression
Even after the risk of outbreaks has been reduced as much as possible, early detection of fire should be a goal for every site. Fire detection systems work by detecting the presence of heat, smoke, or gases produced by fire. Several different technologies exist, and it is possible to minimize the visual impact of detectors in a historic setting. An alarm is raised, which is also typically received by a remote monitoring center that can immediately call emergency responders. Detection systems should be installed especially throughout spaces containing combustible materials.
Most sites should have ready access to firefighting equipment on their premises, or be equipped with an automatic fire suppression system, or both. The nature and extent of the site will determine what’s appropriate, in accordance with applicable regulations. Firefighting equipment can be as simple as portable fire extinguishers, or even simpler.
Site managers should also ensure that firefighters have easy access to the site.
Sprinklers are the most common automatic fire suppression system. Where they have been installed, sprinkler systems are effective at extinguishing or controlling virtually all fires that break out. Water is only released from outlets immediately close to the fire. Alternatives to sprinklers include water mist systems, which discharge less water, or gas-based systems, which may be ideal for small spaces containing items of high heritage value. Specialist guidance should be consulted, but all these systems can be appropriate for use in historic buildings.
After a fire
The period immediately after a fire is critical. A burned site must be secured and protected from further damage, which can involve a temporary shelter, and supervision. It is crucial to document the site after a fire and salvage any material that can be salvaged. Buildings will require a structural assessment, while plans should be made for emergency drying of any water-damaged collection items, and to prevent any mold growth. Decisions about reconstruction will depend on a number of factors, including the level of prior documentation, the feasibility of reconstruction, and a community’s desire to rebuild.
Guidance from Heritage Agencies
The following publications issued by heritage agencies and other organizations contain useful guidance that’s applicable across different contexts. Some are more thorough, while others are more concise or focus on specific building types.
- London Fire Brigade: Fire Safety Guidance Note 80 (Heritage and Buildings of Special Interest) (2015), and Heritage Advice Letter issued after the April 2019 fire at Notre-Dame of Paris summarizing the same guidance.
- Historic Environment Scotland: Guide for Practitioners 7 (Fire Safety Management in Traditional Buildings) (3 parts, 2010). A thorough three-part guide covering all aspects of protecting historic buildings from fire, with reference to UK regulations and equipment standards, and several case studies illustrating fire protection measures for historic buildings in Scotland.
- New Zealand Historic Places Trust Pouhere Taonga: Fire Safety and Heritage Places (2012). Section 4 describes the planning process for improved fire protection. This document also covers the protection of rural heritage places and the threat of wildfires.
- Historic England: Fire Safety for Traditional Church Buildings of Small and Medium Size (2017). A guide relevant to smaller church buildings, emphasizing the risks most common to such sites, and recognizing that resources are often limited.
- Confederation of Fire Protection Associations Europe: Managing fire safety in historical buildings (2013). A summary guide produced by the Slovenian Fire Protection Association and intended to be applicable across Europe.
- National Board of Antiquities (Finland): Can we learn from the heritage lost in a fire? Experiences and practises on the fire protection of historic buildings in Finland, Norway and Sweden (2004). Practical advice contained throughout this publication on a project to exchange knowledge among Finland, Norway, and Sweden, focusing especially on buildings made of wood.
- Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the General Services Administration: Fire Safety Retrofitting in Historic Buildings (1989). Contains guidance on retrofitting historic buildings while maintaining common historic features.
- Appendix 1, “Fire Protection of Historic Buildings” from Between Two Earthquakes: Cultural Property in Seismic Zones (ICCROM and Getty Conservation Institute, 1987). Contains useful checklists for several aspects of site operations that may pose a risk of fire.
How to find a specialist
The Society of Fire Protection Engineers can help you identify a fire protection engineering consultant in the United States and in many other countries. Consultants should ideally have experience in working with historic buildings and heritage sites.
The website Fire Risk Heritage: Engineering for Heritage Safety has collected many more specialist resources linked to as blog posts.
The following recordings of presentations by qualified professionals can be a very helpful place to start:
- Fire: Its Impact on Historic Buildings and Cultural Heritage Properties (Nick Artim, for the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, 2018)
- Protecting Our Cultural Icons From Fire: Lessons learned from Notre-Dame and Beyond (Chris Marrion, for the American Institute of Architects New York, the Center for Architecture, and World Monuments Fund, 2020)
- Protección Contra Incendios en Museos y Edificios Históricos (Jaime A. Moncada, for International Fire Safety Consulting, 2019)
- Renforcer les dispositifs de prévention incendie dans les églises (Thierry Burger, for Département du Calvados, 2020)
- Boas Práticas, Tendências e Tecnologia Contra Incêndios Para o Patrimônio Cultural (Chris Marrion and Renata Motta, for the Institute of Advanced Studies of the University of São Paulo, ICOM Brasil, the United States Consulate General in São Paulo, and Fórum Permanente, 2019)
In historic city centers
Specific guidelines apply to the protection of an ensemble of historic buildings, aimed at limiting the spread of fire from building to building. English Heritage (now Historic England) and local partners from the city of Chester produced a paper on Fire Safety in Historic Town Centres (2002, updated 2008), pointing also to potential difficulties of access for firefighters in historic city centers. The issue of fire protection in wooden towns has also been taken up in Scandinavia, where the installation of sprinklers between buildings was found to be effective.
For buildings containing collections
While many museums, libraries, and archives are housed in historic buildings, this guide does not focus especially on collections. Resources on emergency preparedness and response for collections are available from the Heritage Emergency Task Force of the Smithsonian Institution and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (United States).