Peter Barker, Senior Consultant at Chiltern International Fire , outlines the issues and offers practical advice on managing the fire risk in historic buildings.
Under the requirements of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment (FRA) is required for all premises other than private dwellings. For historic buildings it is of paramount importance that a well structured and properly implemented fire safety management plan accompanies the FRA.
In fact it is recognised in Approved Document B (ADB) that the most appropriate means of ensuring life safety in an historic building with respect to fire, is to take into account a range of fire safety features and set these against an assessment of the hazard and risk peculiar to the particular case.
The essential components of an FRA and fire safety plan for a historic building can be broken down into four steps: preparation, prevention, protection and management. There is no standardised format for recording or presenting the findings of a risk assessment or safety plan, but in every case the goal should be to produce clear and comprehensive documentation that is regularly reviewed.
Preparation - Before undertaking an FRA it is necessary to obtain accurate plans of the building, as this will not only save time and effort in the long run, but can also be useful when preparing business continuity plans, inventories of artefacts, cleaning regimes and security assessments.
Ultimately it will be the building plans, with relevant and up-to-date information on hazards, fire fighting equipment and salvage strategies, which will form the basis of how the fire and rescue service will respond in the event of a fire.
Prevention - Preventing a fire in the first place is the obvious ideal situation and is the first stage of physically assessing the risk of fire within any building. By identifying ignition sources and flammable materials and either removing them or introducing alternative methods of storage, the fire risk will be greatly reduced.
Identifying measures to reduce the risk of fire in historic buildings makes eminent sense, as remedial measures can often be put in place almost immediately. Some approaches can be relatively inexpensive and involve minimum intervention in the fabric of the building.
Relevant questions to ask when looking at preventing fire within a historic building could include the following (not exhaustive):
- When were the electrical circuits last tested and have all appliances both fixed and portable been tested for safety?
- Are all drapes/curtains/tapestries a suitable distance from potential ignition sources (such as halogen lamps)?
- If smoking is allowed outside the building, have adequate precautions been taken e.g. dedicated smoking shelters located away from the building?
- Are waste and/or flammable materials appropriately stored?
- Is there significant threat from arson and can it be deterred?
Protection – Once the risk of fire has been mitigated as far as practicable, protective measures need to be introduced to safeguard occupants, the property and important artefacts in the event of fire.
Although the guidance in ADB can be unduly restrictive for historic buildings, the philosophy behind the five sections (B1 – B5) of Part B of the Building Regulations comprehensively covers all aspects of fire protection within a building. Therefore, by dealing with each of the requirements in turn, and introducing practical solutions suited to the building and its contents, a holistic fire safety strategy can be developed that will not only satisfy the functional requirements of the building regulations but ensure a safer environment for occupants, reduce the risk of fire and minimise the impact of fire should one occur.
Protective measures are often controversial because they can be disruptive to the original fabric of the building, and the physical installation of the systems can sometimes be difficult in a heritage building.
It is possible, however, to take suitable protective measures that are sympathetic to the historic fabric of the building, but which can also be designed for individual premises. It is highly recommended that a third party-approved company with a proven track record of installations in historic buildings is chosen for this.
Examples of protective measures, their relationship to the five sections of Part B and common issues and potential solutions with respect to heritage buildings are given below:
|Building Regulation requirement||Common issues in heritage buildings||Potential solution(s)|
|B1 – Means of warning and escape||
|B2 – Internal fire spread (linings)||
|B3 – Internal fire spread (structure)||
|B4 – External fire spread||
|B5 – Access and facilities for the fire brigade||
Management - Once the FRA has been completed and suitable protective measures are in place, a robust management system in the form of a fire safety management plan must be drawn up, as poor management can render the most comprehensive risk assessment and protective measures ineffectual.
Key points to incorporate within any fire safety management plan are:
- Measures identified during the prevention step are regularly reviewed/revisited to prevent fires from developing
- Maintenance schedules to ensure the protective measures put in place are still capable of performing as intended
- Comprehensive and regular training of staff in evacuation procedures, raising the alarm, first aid fire fighting and salvage plans
- Emergency drills must be performed and any shortcomings recorded and rectified as soon as possible
- Periodic review of the risk assessment and fire safety management plan, especially after a change in use of the building or a 'near-miss' incident.
A business continuity plan should be integrated within the fire safety management plan so that in the event of fire, restoration work can proceed as quickly as possible. Being prepared for an emergency will significantly improve recovery rate.
Safeguarding our heritage from the ravages of fire should be considered as conservation of our historical record for future generations. Provided that there is co-operation between all persons with a vested interest (e.g. building owners, the fire and rescue service, fire safety consultants, historians, architects, staff and visitors), historic buildings and the treasures within will be preserved and enjoyed for many years to come.