There is an online nation­al data­base of fires​in her­itage build­ings that records all report­ed fires, and so far in 2019 they have 152 fires noted.

Archa­ic build­ings are par­tic­u­lar­ly sus­cep­ti­ble to the fast spread­ing of fire due to dry old wood, voids and cav­i­ties in walls, floors and ceil­ings, effec­tive­ly pro­vid­ing ​‘run­ways’ for the flames. Wind­sor Castle’s 1992 fire, for exam­ple, was sparked by a workman’s spot­light acci­den­tal­ly set­ting a cur­tain alight in Queen Victoria’s Pri­vate Chapel.

Build­ings under­go­ing refur­bish­ment are vul­ner­a­ble as they’re like­ly to have exposed wires and tim­ber, and poten­tial­ly hot works occur­ring as part of the ren­o­va­tion. All con­struc­tion sites are high-risk safe­ty areas in any case, as all it takes is a spark from a sander, an abra­sive chop-saw, a blow torch or ash from a cig­a­rette, to ignite com­mon and flam­ma­ble con­struc­tion mate­ri­als like wood, sol­vents, pack­ag­ing and fuel. Fire swept through the top floor of the Paris Ritz Hotel as it was under­go­ing refur­bish­ment a cou­ple of years back, with 150 build­ing work­ers evac­u­at­ed from the site, and more recent­ly, a huge fire destroyed a sev­en storey apart­ment build­ing under con­struc­tion in Raleigh, North Carolina.

So, fol­low­ing the tragedy of the 886-year-old Notre Dame fire in Paris last week, what can we learn from these occur­rences to try and reduce the risks?

First­ly, ensure there’s a reg­u­lar fire risk assess­ment in place – for ​‘sta­t­ic’ build­ings (i.e. not under­go­ing any repairs or refur­bish­ment works), they can vary from annu­al to every 3 or 4 years, but con­struc­tion sites or build­ings under­go­ing works can be very dynam­ic, with the site chang­ing almost on a dai­ly basis. In these cir­cum­stances it makes sense to have a more reg­u­lar fire risk assess­ment to ensure that any changes to the lay­out that the works have cre­at­ed are tak­en into account. One fire offi­cer gave me a tip recent­ly when walk­ing through a site. To ensure that all the fire doors have been checked and opened, inspec­tors stick a lit­tle date sheet on the inside of the door frame. Invis­i­ble when the door is shut, every time they inspect­ed and opened the door, they jot down the date on the paper list. A sim­ple but effec­tive way for the prop­er­ty man­ag­er to make sure the assessor/​inspector is car­ry­ing out their job. 

Sec­ond­ly, install tem­po­rary fire detec­tion equip­ment whilst works are being car­ried out. Wire­less tech­nolo­gies avail­able now allow for CE approved fire alarm sys­tems to be installed with­out hav­ing to be cabled in and dam­age the frame­work or basic infra­struc­ture of a her­itage site, or of a new build for that mat­ter. Fire extin­guish­ers, blan­kets and escape route sig­nage are all rel­a­tive­ly easy to obtain and install. For par­tic­u­lar­ly sig­nif­i­cant sites, or ones which are envi­ron­men­tal­ly at high risk, ​‘Smart’ CCTV Tow­ers can be deployed very quick­ly to main­tain a fire alert even when the site is desert­ed, say at night. They can also be eas­i­ly re-aligned in dif­fer­ent spaces as the repair works move through the premis­es. CCTV tow­ers can have fire sen­sors attached and be con­nect­ed to a 24⁄7 mon­i­tor­ing sta­tion. If an alarm is trig­gered, the mon­i­tor­ing cen­tre can ver­i­fy whether it is a fire or a false alarm, sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduc­ing the hin­drance of fire ser­vices being called out in error.

Final­ly, every­one on site should be made fire safe­ty aware – there’s plen­ty of sim­ple mate­ri­als avail­able on line – and there’s no bet­ter oppor­tu­ni­ty to do so than after a major blaze has occurred, such as Notre Dame. The dan­gers and risks are real­ly high in people’s minds after these sort of events, and staff may be less blasé about them. There should be a local­ly on-site fire safe­ty lead, to car­ry out reg­u­lar sweeps check­ing the site is com­pli­ant with the assess­ment. Even hav­ing some­one walk round on a dai­ly basis wear­ing a fire safe­ty arm band helps to raise awareness.

Nicholas Bye, Direc­tor, VPS Group

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Brenda Mathis
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