Up to Code: Fire alarm system challenges in cultural and historic buildings

A woman stands in front of three words framed on a wall: "Up," "To" and "Code." | Shutterstock / Think A
Shutterstock / Think A

All u.s. cultural resource properties need fire alarm systems. These facilities represent challenges due to their use and historic fabric that can be damaged as much by poor installation techniques as by fire. Treat an opportunity to install a fire alarm system in a cultural resource property with pride. To that end, you and your technicians should tour the property to better understand its importance.

Two codes are directly concerned with cultural properties and historic buildings. NFPA 909, Code for the Protection of Cultural Resource Properties—Museums, Libraries, and Places of Worship, and NFPA 914, Code for Fire Protection of Historic Structures. Both codes require fire detection and alarm systems to comply with the requirements of NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code.

To begin with cultural resource properties, NFPA 909 provides the principles and practices to protect their contents against conditions that have the potential to cause damage or loss. There are different requirements based on the operations and rehabilitation use of the facility. NFPA 909 acknowledges the need to preserve culturally significant and character-defining building features and sensitive, often irreplaceable, collections while also providing continuous operations. Your job during the fire alarm system design and installation is to accommodate each of these important issues.

Although NFPA 909 “includes provisions for maintaining means of egress and controlling occupant load, it is to facilitate the evacuation of items of cultural significance, allow access for damage limitation teams in an emergency, and prevent damage to collections through overcrowding or as an unintended consequence of an emergency evacuation,” it does cover or include any practices or requirements from NFPA 101, Life Safety Code. NFPA 909 applies to all museums, libraries and places of worship, including:

“(1) New buildings or portions thereof occupied as a cultural resource property

(2) Additions made to a cultural resource property

(3) Existing buildings or portions thereof upon change of occupancy to a cultural resource property”

It is very important that when first approached to bid on a fire alarm system in a cultural or historic building, you take the time to ask questions of the representative of the governing body and ensure they are aware of NFPA 909 and NFPA 914.

Generally, the cultural institution has three goals: collection preservation, building preservation and continuity of operations.

The governing body’s protection goals and objectives tell you the acceptable level of loss for items of cultural significance and how much service interruption is acceptable. Their objectives for collection preservation are to ensure the fire alarm system provides them with enough time to evacuate, relocate or defend them in place.

Even though early warning is not required for occupant evacuation, it is required to meet this objective. In fact, NFPA 909 requires that “where a fire detection system is required, smoke detectors shall be installed where ambient conditions permit and where ambient conditions will adversely affect the performance, reliability, or normal operation of smoke detectors, other forms of detection technology, such as heat detection, shall be used.”

In addition to not damaging the historic fabric during installation, the system must be designed to minimize disruption consistent with the cultural resource property’s mission and protection goals.

The fire alarm system must also be designed to ensure that external first responders are notified immediately of a fire condition.

Several areas within cultural institutions use approved, listed, delayed-egress locking systems. These must be interfaced with the fire alarm system in accordance with NFPA 72 and only where permitted in Chapters 11 through 43 of NFPA 101. They must also be installed in accordance with the criteria set forth in NFPA 909, which states:

“The door leaves shall unlock in the direction of egress upon actuation of one of the following:

(a) Approved, supervised automatic sprinkler system in accordance with NFPA 13

(b) Not more than one heat detector of an approved, supervised automatic fire detection system in accordance with NFPA 72

(c) Not more than two smoke detectors of an approved, supervised automatic fire detection system in accordance with NFPA 72.”

Many cultural institutions use the fire alarm and smoke detection systems to provide an opportunity for occupant action with portable fire extinguishers before fire development activates the automatic sprinkler or another fire suppression system.

In addition to sounding an alarm to alert the occupants, it is imperative that these fire-detection systems also transmit signals to a listed or approved central station or fire department that is staffed or attended 24 hours a day, especially in the case of an unoccupied building. Maintenance and testing of the detection system are important, particularly in any building where it is the only automatic-protection system. Research on past fires has demonstrated that failures of fire-detection systems have been due to three major factors: bad design, poor maintenance and lack of testing.

The codes also recommend that the operation of any fire detection or suppression system or signals from their supervisory systems should activate a supervisory signal at a constantly attended location.

Other items, such as collection storage rooms in museums, exhibit cases and temporary exhibits, require special consideration. You need to ensure the temporary walls and exhibit components do not interfere with the coverage of planned fire alarm notification appliances or the operation of fire alarm manual stations or automatic detection devices. If there is interference, you need to modify the system to accommodate. All modifications must meet the applicable requirements in NFPA 72.

Fire alarm system impairments are equally as important in cultural resource properties as they are in occupant life safety applications. Therefore, when an emergency or a preplanned impairment takes the fire alarm system out of operational service, measures shall be taken to minimize increased risks and limit the duration of the impairment. If the fire detection and alarm system is out of service for 4 hours or more, the codes requires the fire safety manager to notify the fire department and post a fire watch.

Another challenge can occur when a portion of a building, most often a place of worship or meeting hall, becomes a homeless shelter. These areas must be protected with early-warning smoke detection and the appropriate notification of individuals in a sleeping environment. Low-frequency notification appliances must be used in the shelter’s sleeping area.

The challenge in cultural or historic buildings that have existing fire alarm systems is that codes require the existing system be maintained in working order during the project to the extent consistent with the nature of the construction.

Regardless of the hurdles you might encounter when installing a fire alarm system in a cultural or historic building, you can feel pride knowing that your installation met all code requirements and did not impact the historic fabric of the buildings. Pride in workmanship is always a worthy goal.

About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist

Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker, writer and expert in the life safety field, has been a principal member and chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24, as well as a former principal member of NFPA 909 and NFPA 914. He is the...

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