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Fire Alarm System Challenges in Historic and Cultural Properties

St. Patrick's Cathedral Image by Bruce Emmerling from Pixabay
Image by Bruce Emmerling from Pixabay

Depending on where you live, you may either have only one or two historical or cultural properties, or you may have a much larger group that will need your services. Regardless of the number of historical or cultural properties with which you could become involved, as a professional contractor, you have the training and ability to install a fire alarm system in a building so designated. This statement remains true to the extent that you understand the physical and technical requirements of installing such a fire alarm system.

The first question you should ask yourself: How does installing a fire alarm system in a historical building differ from installing a fire alarm system in any other type of existing building? Furthermore, does any other code or standard besides NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code or NFPA 70, National Electrical Code apply, and will you need to understand and reference them? The answer to the second question is “yes.” You should review 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. This, of course, also supplies the answer to the first question.

The titles of these documents will guide you as to which one you should reference. But, your primary challenge comes from the importance of not damaging the historic fabric of the property during the installation of the fire alarm system.

Apart from an occasional large hotel or office building, many of the historic or cultural institutions you encounter will have a rather small footprint. The small buildings will employ a volunteer management team with little to no construction experience. Thus, you can become the trusted advisor and ensure the property receives the attention it deserves.

The first step: walk the property with the person or team in charge and understand not only the property’s historical significance but the challenges presented by the property’s construction. You will find each area of a historical property will present different challenges.

For example, historic St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City has an attic that you could label as a “forest” because of all the wood construction. Narrow stairs lead to the attic through numerous levels before you reach the attic itself. This presents obvious challenges. As the trusted advisor to the Diocese, what type of detection would you recommend? The forest of wooden members means beam-type smoke detection will probably not work properly. Nether would spot-type detectors, due to the ceiling height and configuration. You must always look to the future of the installed system after you have finished the installation. Spot-type smoke detectors would prove difficult to maintain and keep clean.

You will eventually determine an active air sampling system will make the most sense. These devices generally have three levels of sensitivity settings you could use to provide alarm verification. Assuming you choose this detector, what other challenges does this attic present?

False alarms will become the first and foremost challenge. How do you avoid this issue, and how do you really confirm the presence of an actual fire?

As I just mentioned, the air sampling type smoke detection system could provide alarm verification or confirmation. In other words, when Level 1 alarms, only the facility personnel would receive the alert. This will prompt them to investigate. However, if Level 2 alarms before the facility people can investigate, the alarm would transmit to the fire department and alert building occupants to evacuate.

Because of the attic's size, it would prove useful to the first responders if they could observe the condition before they make the arduous trek up the stairs. Thus, you could recommend the installation of cameras—and extra LED lighting, if necessary—so that the first responders can determine what conditions they will face.

In the case of St. Patrick’s, the attic has a water spray system that will control the fire until the first responders can get to the fire location. And, they have cameras to assist them in evaluating the fire conditions. Likely, you will need to coordinate with another contractor who will install the fire suppression system. But, your fire alarm system will monitor the operational condition of that suppression system.

One more recent code to review would include NFPA 241, Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration, and Demolition Operations. The reading of these referenced codes and standards will provide you with a good background in how to approach a fire alarm system installation in an historical or cultural property.

One final suggestion: make certain that the technicians you plan to use to install the fire alarm system understand the historical significance of the property. They must understand why they need to take extreme care while performing the installation.

By following these suggestions, you will become known for the care you take with these properties and will continue to build not only your reputation but add profits to your bottom line. Remember, knowledge and skill will always lead to professionalism.

About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist

Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and expert in the life safety field, is a principal member and past chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24. He is a vice president with Jensen Hughes at the Warwick, R.I., office and can be...

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