Protecting historic buildings from fire – conservation vs life safety


    Fire is still the greatest single risk to cultural heritage. Once established, and without robust control measures in place, a fire has the potential to destroy the historic fabric completely with inevitable damage to valuable and irreplaceable contents.

    In 1984 & 1986, there were two disastrous fires at Hampton Court Palace and York Minster respectively.  These fires were so severe that it prompted the formation of a working party on fire safety in historic buildings, bringing together 23 national and other organisations in the heritage field to produce a document on the dangers of fire in these types of settings.

    One of the key considerations is ensuring the correct balance of protection for the building and contents versus adequate means of escape and life safety.

    There can be many causes of fire in old buildings, for example:

    • Electrical faults
    • Arson
    • Building maintenance work, including Hot Works
    • Vandalism

    London Fire Brigade recommend the following fire prevention techniques:

    Fire doors and heritage doors

    Fire doors reduce the spread of fire however, it is not always possible for them to be fitted in historic buildings. When this is the case it is recommended you ensure that existing heritage doors are solid and fit well in their frames.

    Hidden voids

    Historic buildings that have been altered over the years can often have large void spaces, where a fire can go unnoticed for an extended period. Compartmentation surveys can be carried out to identify these voids, as well as remedial works like installing compartment walls.

    Hot Works

    This includes any work using open flames, or creating sparks or heat e.g., welding, grinding, and soldering. A permit must be prepared before carrying out hot works as this type of work increases fire risk and should be avoided if possible, however, if not the conditions of the permit must be followed. Key points to consider are appointing good contractors, identifying risks, and taking precautions.

    Since the 1980’s there have been many technical advances in fire protection equipment; for example, the ability to detect a fire earlier has improved enormously where smoke and heat alarms have been fitted. The ability to suppress a fire in the development stage has also ensured faster detection times, therefore slowing the development of a fire and while it is important that there is fire safety equipment in place, it ideally should be discrete and not detract from the building/décor.  Potential solutions might include coloured detectors, wireless detectors, air aspirating smoke detectors or beam detectors.

    It is also advised to take a phased approach when it comes to the installation and maintenance of fire safety equipment within the buildings rather than trying to complete this type of project in one go and to eliminate the possibility of fire false alarms as far as practically possible.

    The Equality Act 2010

    Within both the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 & the Equality Act 2010 it is required that employers or organisations providing services to the public take responsibility for ensuring that all people, including disabled people, can leave the building they control safely in the event of a fire. Solutions may include ramps for wheelchair users, evacuation chairs for the elderly, infirm or disabled and radio pagers for deaf visitors who may be unable to hear the alarm.

    The Firechief range includes high-performance fire extinguishers, fire blankets, first aid kits, lithium-ion fire extinguishers for your home and leisure time.  For more information, call us on +44 (0)330 999 0019 or email

    The information contained within this blog is provided solely for general informational and educational purposes and is not intended as a substitute for professional advice. Before taking any actions based upon this information, we advise the reader to consult any and all relevant statutory or regulatory guidance and where felt necessary to consult a qualified fire or industry regulation professional. The use or reliance on any information contained herein is solely at the reader’s risk.

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