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How to prepare for a fire in a historic building

With the recent fire that broke out at Notre-Dame in Paris, there has been a lot of discussion about how best to deal with fires in historic or listed buildings. The firefighters who arrived at the scene had a protocol to follow, that had been previously planned in the case of such events. This procedure expressed the order of priority of what needed to be saved: people, art, the altar, any furniture possible and then the building. Following this protocol meant that no one was harmed and most of the historic treasures had been saved. Some of the building was completely destroyed, however, the fire was eventually controlled and a lot of the interior survived, meaning that there is hope for a full restoration.

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So, how should fire be dealt with in historic and listed buildings?

Plan and prepare

It is vital that there is a procedure in place that states exactly what needs to happen in the event of a fire- just like the one in place for Notre-Dame. This will not only help people to be saved but for irreplaceable items to be retrieved.

To plan for the event of a fire, you will need to have up to date building plans. These can help to locate key artefacts, fire exits, evacuation routes and fire safety equipment. All of this information will show how best to respond.

The Technical Director from the Fire Protection Association has also pointed out the importance of planning and preparing, saying:

“It could be considered amazing that anything was saved, but this will not be by accident. It is likely the French fire services would have prepared for and rehearsed for this event many times over the years, and whilst the resulting outcome may look quite devastating, there will certainly be more fabric to rebuild from going forward, as a result of this pre-planning.”

Prevention methods

Avoiding a fire is the obvious best scenario. A fire risk assessment is a good place to start as this will identify the areas of concern. Once these have been identified, you can take steps to reduce the risk. For example, in a church, a big risk area could be curtains and drapes hanging over walls. To minimise the risk of these, you would ensure they are not placed near any ignition sources such as a lamp or candle and move them away from any fire exits or evacuation routes.

Protect

Fire safety equipment is key when it comes to tackling a fire. This can include: fire extinguishers, sprinkler system, fire curtains, alarm systems, and anything else that will prevent the spread of fire.

Installing fire safety products can be controversial as they can affect the aesthetics of historic and listed buildings, however, there are options that will create minimal disruption to the structure and visuals, whilst still offering protection.

Maintain

After the assessments, plans and modifications have been carried out, they will need to be routinely reviewed. If anything changes, there may be new risks, for example, if there is construction work on site. Or, you may carry out a fire drill which uncovers faults in the original plan. By carrying out regular checks, you will avoid any shortcomings in your plan.

Historic and listed buildings are extremely meaningful and important to heritage as they hold so many memories and have survived through events that shape a country. Just like how the Notre-Dame has been standing tall for 800 years, even surviving through two world wars.

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