History in the Making

St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York
Published On
Sep 20, 2019

Depending on where you live, there are maybe large groups of historical or cultural properties, or possibly only a few that will need your services. As a professional electrical contractor, you have the training and ability to install a fire alarm system in a building so designated, to the extent that you understand the physical and technical requirements of installing such a system.

The question you should ask is, “Do any codes or standards besides NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, NFPA 70 or National Electrical Code apply when installing a fire alarm system in a historical building?” 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. Also review NFPA 241, Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration, and Demolition Operations. These referenced codes and standards will teach you how to approach a fire alarm system installation in a historical or cultural property.

The contractor’s 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 historic or cultural institutions 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 adviser and ensure the property receives the attention it deserves.

The first step is to 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. Each area may present different challenges.

For example, historic St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York has an attic that you could call 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 adviser, what type of detection would you recommend?

The forest of wooden members means beam-type smoke detection will probably not work properly. Neither 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 demands does this attic present? False alarms are the first and foremost challenge. How do you avoid this issue, and how do you really confirm the presence of an actual fire?

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, first responders would benefit if they could observe the condition before making 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 first responders can get to the fire location, and there are cameras to assist in evaluating the fire conditions. Likely, you will need to coordinate with the contractor installing the fire-suppression system because your fire alarm system will monitor the operational condition of that suppression system.

One final suggestion is to 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, 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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