How Can We Better Protect Our Historic Structures from Fire?

By Christopher Marrion PE, FSFPE

Historic buildings, landmarks and sites are part of our collective cultural identity and heritage. They provide places not only for us to connect with our past, but also to participate in ceremonies and seek higher awareness and healing. These communal gathering places serve as physical anchors within our communities and significant contributors to local and national economies.  Visitors to cultural sites pump an estimated $170+ billion a year into the U.S. economy. In Nepal, cultural tourism represented approximately 9% of their GDP prior to the 2015 earthquake that damaged numerous World Heritage Sites.

Unfortunately, the recent blazes at Notre Dame Cathedral and Brazil’s National Museum (20 million artifacts destroyed) remind us that fires, climate change and other disasters continue to threaten our vulnerable and irreplaceable local, national and global treasures, along with their contents.

Fires present a particularly pernicious threat to historic structures and landmarks, since many were constructed long before modern fire and building codes were in place, and were rarely upgraded with effective and efficient protections.  Still, much can be done to help protect these historic sites and structures, particularly from fires. In researching past fire events involving historic structures and places of cultural significance (e.g. sacred sites, museums, libraries, historic structures/sites, etc.), common threads emerge as to why things went wrong and what turned these fire events into disasters:

  • Numerous ignition sources are typically present. These include older electrical and lighting systems, open flames, candles, temporary electrical equipment (e.g. space heaters, lighting, etc.) and cooking equipment, as well as fires that are intentionally set.
  • These ignition sources may be in close proximity to materials that are combustible. (e.g. construction elements, combustible interior finishes, furnishings, storage, etc.)
  • Once ignited, fires often grow undetected since there is typically no automatic fire detection system to help spot a fire and in turn speed warnings to occupants, building managers and emergency response personnel.
  • Fire suppression systems are often not present to extinguish a fire, or at least to suppress it and keep it from growing and spreading further. Frequently that is due to concern that such systems will cause significant water damage. However, potential water damage must be compared to the amount of fire damage that would occur should a blaze be allowed to grow and spread.  In most cases, water damaged artifacts and structures have a greater chance of being recovered and restored than those damaged by fire.
  • Limited/breached fire separations enable fire and smoke to continue to spread horizontally and vertically beyond the area of origin. Penetrations in fire walls as well as doors removed or held open can all be contributing factors.
  • Local emergency responders may face challenges being notified early before the fire gets too large as well as getting to the site and into the building and to the area of fire hopefully within a protected, fire rated stairway.  On site, equipment and resources like standpipes, fire hoses, fire pumps, and adequate water supplies may be limited or lacking, further impacting their ability to manage a fire.  It is therefore important to detect, notify, respond and extinguish fires while they are still very small.

Fires during restoration and construction at historic sites create further challenges.  Often, new ignition sources and combustible materials are introduced (e.g. hot works, temporary equipment, flammable construction materials) at times when the fire alarm and fire suppression systems are being installed or are under renovation, and thus not in service. Additionally, doors may have been removed to be restored or blocked open for access, and holes made in walls to introduce new building systems through, creating ventilation and pathways for smoke and fire.  Security fencing and gates installed around a site to secure the building and construction equipment may end up hampering the ability of the emergency responders to get close to the structure with their equipment and gain access while the fire grows.

Fire safety awareness, education, community involvement, proper risk assessments and appropriate prevention and mitigation measures are often limited. Misconceptions regarding historic buildings continue to persist, including that:

  • ‘The building meets code’– Codes typically focus on life safety of occupants and emergency responders, and limiting fire spread to adjacent buildings. They may not address the unique needs to protect historic structures, contents and unique artifacts in those buildings, especially to the degree often desired/assumed by relevant stakeholders. Oftentimes pre-existing vulnerable conditions are also ‘grandfathered’ and new fire/life safety systems not retroactively required, unless renovation work exceeding specific high dollar values triggers these requirements.
  • ‘Sprinklers will cause significant damage’– Sprinklers will help suppress a fire. The 20 gallons per minute discharged by sprinklers is significantly less than the 250 gallons per minute discharged from each fire hose.  All sprinklers do not go off at once. Plumbing/toilet pipes running throughout buildings carrying water actually pose a greater water damage threat and are often not addressed. Fire damage is typically not repairable. Damage from water is often repairable/recoverable.
  • ‘We never had a fire before’– Just because there hasn’t been a fire doesn’t mean a building is ‘fireproof’ or will never have one. It is often because hot/ignition sources have not been in contact with combustible materials long enough. Windsor Castle and Notre Dame did not have large fires for centuries, but when they did, the blazes were significant, causing extensive, irreversible damage.
  • ‘The emergency responders will put it out’– Yes, but there may be extensive damage by the time the flames are extinguished. Fires are not put out immediately upon the arrival of firefighters. Because of the challenges and risks to life from fighting fires from within historic structures, exterior attacks are often more typical. Difficulties then include getting water inside the building to the seat of the fire given weatherproof roofs, walls, etc. while the fire continues to spread.

Community leaders can take steps to address these challenges and misconceptions:

  • Establish and enforce local buildings codes, ordinances and laws specifically requiring not only the proper protection of occupants, but measures to further protect the historic structures and contents from fires and other credible disasters, including climate change.
  • Bring stakeholders including local building owners, managers, community members and emergency responders together with engineers, architects, conservators and other design professionals experienced with historic structures/contents to create awareness around the challenges, misconceptions and need to protect these structures from fire and other disasters.
  • Have a fire/disaster risk management professional with specific experience in preserving historic structures evaluate the fire risk and create a plan to protect vulnerable structures.  Any plan should incorporate effective/integrated fire protection provisions; minimize the aesthetic and visual impact to the structure, contents and historic fabric; and meet the intent of the prescriptive codes.
  • Ensure emergency responders discuss with stakeholders their team’s experience with historic building fires, the challenges they present, perspectives on how to proceed, and how they plan to respond to fires and disasters in specific buildings or sites.  Pre-planning activities should include installing or stockpiling needed resources and undertaking fire drills to identify vulnerabilities.
  • Develop an emergency response list of professionals available during and after a fire to help provide emergency responders and building officials with further technically informed input, including condition assessments and stabilization of unique structures.

Some disasters are unpreventable.  But fires we have a large degree of control over, both in terms of limiting ignition potential as well as the extent of development and spread. Being aware of the issues, including that the structure ‘meets code’, has no violations against it, or there have been no fires there in the past, does not mean it is safe from fire.

By clearly defining and adopting codes requiring the protection of historic structures and their contents, hiring expert consultants to undertake hazard assessments and mitigation work, enforcing provisions to maintain systems and conduct training and fire drills and ensuring appropriate safety measures are in place during any restoration/construction related work, communities can reduce the potential that future fire disasters will consume our cultural heritage.


Christopher Marrion, PE, FSFPE is the CEO and Founder of Marrion Fire & Risk Consulting in New York.