Where the Fire Things Are

Most fire protection designers and authorities having jurisdiction place historic buildings in a special class. When the owner of a historic property asks you, as a professional contractor, to provide a fire alarm system, you will need to preserve the historic fabric while protecting it with an appropriately designed fire system. If providing the design for the system, you will need to clearly define the project’s scope, goals and objectives, just like you would for any property.

First, develop and prioritize goals that include life safety, historic fabric and collection preservation, protection of property, continuity of operations, the building’s heritage and environment.

Goals and objectives must reflect the maximum level of loss and service interruption those responsible for the cultural resource property are willing to accept as a result of a fire. Fulfilling the continuity of operations goal will provide a reasonable level of protection that is consistent with fire safety goals.

As with any renovation of a historic structure, upgrading to absolute code compliance may prove impractical. Therefore, work with all the stakeholders to determine what level of life safety—below that required by the applicable code—they will accept.

NFPA 101, The Life Safety Code (LSC), provides criteria for existing buildings, thereby establishing a safety level that recognizes existing structures require special consideration. In addition, allowances in both the LSC and the building codes permit historic buildings to use performance alternatives to meet the code requirements.

In addition, NFPA 909, Code for the Protection of Cultural Resources, provides guidance for renovations of historic structures. And, NFPA 914, Code for Fire Protection in Historic Structures, also provides a performance-based approach for renovations of historic structures.

Know what will affect your choice of detection. Identify the hazards, and determine whether early warning will properly protect the historic value or if you should consider alternative methods.

NFPA 909 requires the building owner to install smoke detectors in every area and space where ambient conditions permit. The standard also states that “where ambient conditions would adversely affect the performance, reliability, and normal operation of smoke detectors, other forms of detection technology, such as heat detection, shall be used.”

These requirements mean the owner must install more detection in a cultural property than the building code or the LSC would normally require in an ordinary building.

Of course NFPA 72-2007, The National Fire Alarm Code, provides application and installation requirements and guidance for detection devices and notification appliances required by NFPA 909. NFPA 909 also requires that all fire detection and alarm systems and automatic fire suppression systems installed in a historic property transmit alarm condition signals to an approved monitoring facility, and the communications method used for alarm signal transmission must comply with NFPA 72.

NFPA 909 requires that contractors selected to work on historic buildings have a demonstrated knowledge and experience in working with cultural resource properties.

As the annex of NFPA 909 states, “Knowledge and experience in working with cultural resource properties are critical to ensure that the contractors are sensitive to the value and damageability of the building and its collections.”

NFPA 909 also requires that, prior to beginning work on the project, the stakeholders must attend an introductory meeting. This meeting will include the contractors, subcontractors and representatives of the institution. You may also wish to invite a representative of the authority having jurisdiction.

This meeting helps to ensure that, prior to beginning work, all those involved with the construction process receive a thorough briefing on the significance and importance of the structure, spaces, character-defining features and collections. This initial meeting should also ensure that the contractor understands the project fire safety program, including special protection for the existing facilities and contents, emergency precautions, notification of both emergency services and curatorial staff, and security issues pertinent to the project.

NFPA 909 advises that “it is important that time be spent at the beginning of the project to make sure that all contractors and subcontractors understand the nature of the project, special building features or collections that require special protection during construction, and other curatorial concerns.”

This meeting also provides an opportunity for contractors and other workers to ask questions or review alternative approaches that might affect other contractors, or better address curatorial concerns or the systems’ effect on the historic fabric.

Providing a fire alarm system for a culturally significant property will offer you a sense of pride.

MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a co-editor of the current National Fire Alarm Code Handbook. Moore is a principal with Hughes Associates Inc. at the Warwick, R.I., office.

About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist
Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a principal member and past chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24. Moore is a vice president with JENSEN HUGHES at the Warwick, R.I., office. He c...

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