4 Lessons from Heritage Building Fires

Why historic buildings should be at least as protected as any other

Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, France.

Recent catastrophic fires at high-profile arts and heritage facilities have some of us asking whether we are truly learning from our history. Unprotected buildings are especially vulnerable to fire, and once destroyed, they are nearly impossible to replace. Yet many heritage buildings remain unprotected.

Just as our past has a lot to teach us, there are also lessons in fire.

Here are four lessons FM Global would respectfully pass on to owners of heritage and other properties:


Automatic sprinklers should be non-negotiable

Automatic sprinklers are the absolute best method for controlling or suppressing fires in numerous types of occupancies. Researchers have found that when sprinklers operate, they control or extinguish 99% of fires; the operational reliability of well-designed and maintained sprinklers is at least 94%.* 

Despite the effectiveness and reliability of this 150-year old fire protection technology, sprinklers can still be a controversial subject. The controversy is not about how a sprinkler performs during a fire but rather the fear that sprinklers will open in small-fire or non-fire situations, causing water damage to the building contents. However, the chance of losing a precious building or its contents to fire is far greater than that of sustaining water damage from an unwarranted sprinkler activation, and fire damage stands to be far more severe.


Hot work should be under constant surveillance

Hot work is any work that involves burning, welding, the use of fire- or spark-producing tools, or that produces a source of ignition. Improperly managed welding, soldering or grinding has proven to be a leading cause of fires each year; flying sparks or hot particles can easily fall into contained, often inaccessible spaces, posing a fire threat. This is especially true with historic properties, where wooden frames, combined with dust and oil that have built up over the course of hundreds of years, pose significant fire risk.

FM Global suggests a continuous fire watch during hot work activity, throughout all break and lunch periods, and for at least one hour following the completion of the hot work. After the one-hour fire watch period, the hot work area (including any regions where hot materials might have fallen) should be monitored for up to an additional three hours.


Renovations should bring structures to at least current code

Renovations should always bring structures at least up to current code, especially in high-value historic buildings that often serve as significant public spaces. The irreplaceability of these buildings should be a motivating factor to exceed many local codes, which are focused on life safety and generally represent the lowest common denominator of special interest groups.

Often these older buildings contain combustible wooden construction and features. The collections they house may themselves be combustible and could aid a fire in spreading.


Electrical risk management should be part of the plan

Every building with electricity has switchgears and circuit breakers. When circuit breakers and switchgears fail, catastrophes can ensue. The frequency of failures depends on factors such as the age and history of the electrical equipment, maintenance, inspection, and operating conditions.

Well-protected facilities have a regular preventive maintenance program that includes checking electrical connections for tightness and inspecting electrical equipment for signs of overheating; ensuring that electrical systems are adequately sized, properly maintained and protected, and appropriate to the occupancy; and that electrical equipment is kept clean, cool and dry.

Employees should be trained to operate electrical equipment properly, especially in emergencies. Newer technologies now allow remote monitoring, which saves labor cost and can reduce response times.

Related content

"What 'Game of Thrones' Teaches Us About Urban Resilience," published in Forbes, May 20, 2019

"After Notre Dame: Examining a major risk for heritage buildings," published in Insurance Business Australia, April 30, 2019.

Contact an FM Global representative.