Building an Emergency: Museums and Other Cultural Institutions Planning and Management

The experience of the damages that museums and cultural institutions in general have suffered from fire or other sudden events shows that a fundamental role in the mitigation of the damage is linked to the management of the emergency and, therefore, also to its preparation.

The training of the teams and their building are one of the most important aspects to take care of, in order to integrate the safety gaps that, especially in historic buildings, the design fails to completely resolve.

Some of the most significant documents published on this topic are listed below

The Getty Conservation Institute has published on its website the “Building an Emergency Plan”, which is the result of a GCI project that began in 1995 as a proposed series of training workshops to follow the 1992 workshop.

In the process of identifying written material to support these activities, the Authors recognized the lack of a clear, step-by-step guide to developing emergency plans tailored to meet the specific needs of museums and other cultural institutions. With that realization, the efforts have been focused on creating a publication that would fill this need.

the image shows the cover page of the guide
The “Building an Emergency Plan: A Guide for Museums and Other Cultural Institutions”, published by the Getty Conservation Institutions” is ” designed to guide an institution and its staff through the process of developing a team-based emergency preparedness and response program, which results in the creation of an emergency preparedness and response plan”

Among the main topics of the Guide there are:

Continue reading “Building an Emergency: Museums and Other Cultural Institutions Planning and Management”

Scottish Castle Saved by “Quick Actions” of Staff

1A positive example of how useful is keeping a good level of training and safety management in historical buildings has been given on Wednesday, 26 August 2009  by the staff working in the 18th Century Scottish Floors Castle near Kelso. Four person of the staff have been praised for saving it from widespread damage in a fire. The alarm was raised at 07:30 after the ignition occurred near a freezer and spread behind lath and plaster walls.

The “quick actions” of the staff  made the castle – the family home of the Duke of Roxburghe –  able to open to the public as usual the same day (some 35.000 persons each year visit the building, which is the most visited Scottish inhabited castle).

In particular, four persons of the staff were sent to tackle the fire and their actions brought the fire  under control avoiding its spreading so much that the house could have been opened to the public as normal.

Floors Castle was designed in 1721 by William Adam and extensively remodelled in the 19th Century.

Malfunctioning Sprinkler Head in Archive Damages Historical Documents

A malfunctioning sprinkler head reduced some historical documents kept in Columbia (USA)  by the Missouri State Historical Society to waterlogged paper and soggy cardboard on October 1st, 2009.

Columbia firefighters arrived after receiving a report of a fire alarm sounding in the library and they have found the source of the alarm to be an activated sprinkler head in a storage room. The room was used to hold documents, in the lower level of the library.

Probably, it was some sort of mechanical failure in the head of the sprinkler system, which did cause water discharge. Firefighters shut off the sprinkler head and began cleaning the storage room. “In some cases, they may not be salvageable,” Executive Director Gary Kremer said.

Three shelves of books and documents were soaked. No one was in the room when the sprinkler head was triggered. “If the same system of sprinklers is throughout the facility, there are rooms — for example our art gallery — has tens of millions of dollars of artwork in it,” Mr Kremer said. “If the sprinklers were to malfunction there, that would be a catastrophe.”

Are Wireless Sensors Suitable to Heritage Buildings?

1Wireless sensors can be used with fair advantages in historical buildings. They do not need the works that normally have to be carried out with traditional appliances.

In order to understand if this kind of sensor fits with the performances of reliability and effectiveness, Prof Mecocci (Siena University) and Mr Barneschi (Italian National Fire Corps) have studied the problem in order to gather data to develop specific guidelines and installation procedures capable of granting the proper performance and security level.

One of the sub-goals of the study was to gather real data from real operative condition to guide us toward the above main objective.


Fire Effects on Archaic Materials, Cultural Resources and Archeology

As specialists know, one of the main problems in applying fire safety engineering to cultural heritage is the lack of data about the behavior of artifacts and materials used in historic buildings to fire. Such problem concerns also the effect of extinguishing agents to the same materials.

Archaic wall in Rome. Although lithic materials are not immediately recognized as at risk of damage in case of fire, even the walls in large stone blocks, such as those in the image, can suffer significant damage if exposed to fire credit: fireriskheritage.

The U.S Department of the Interior – Bureau of Land Department, has published on its website ( a page dedicated to the behavior of historic materials to fire. The study (Bare Bones Guide to Fire Effects on Cultural Resources For Cultural Resource Specialists), by Ms Kate Winthrop, synthesizes some of the technical information available on the effects of fire on cultural resources. In particular, much of the data published  is from drafts of articles for a publication to be released under the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station “Rainbow” series.

the most important aspects covered in the web pages are:

  • Fire Effects on Lithics
  • Fire Effects on Ceramics
  • Fire Effects on Organic Materials
  • Fire Effects on Historic Materials
  • Fire Effects on Inorganic Architectural Materials
  • Fire Effects on Rock Art
  • Effects of Fire Suppression on Cultural Resources
  • Effects of Fire on Archaeological Sites
  • Protection Protocols

Damage Limitation Teams: How to Improve Safety Management in Museums

Management is an important part of fire safety of the built heritage and of cultural resources.  To ensure permanent risk awareness it’s vital to keep documents of premises and collections, to assess artifacts at risk and structures to regularly update documents. Documentation on interventions (training, emergency rescue services‚ near misses, restoration and conservation) and documents of organisation (charts of hierarchy, Management Plans, regulations and controls) are important too.

The execution of exercises of the personnel assigned to limit damage in the event of events that put the historical artifact at risk is essential to deepen the understanding of the operational difficulties that operators would encounter during a real emergency.

Organizing Damage Limitation Teams it’s another part of the strategy. Every structure, in fact, should have the availability of a group of persons who can help rescuers in taking in safe places every object could be damaged by a fire.

Mr Wolfgang Kippes (Schönbrunn Company) explains how fire safety is managed in Wien’s Schönbrunn Castle. The slides that can be downloaded were presented during the 2008 International Conference  in Siena (Italy) Cultural Heritage and Fire Protection Issues:


Fire Risk and Restoration works: 6 years of Fire Data in Venice

1The problem of restoration-rehabilitation sites fires and their consequent severe damages to the historic-artistic heritage seems to not receive the due attention yet. There is probably a lack of adequate information, which would allow such heavy risk emerge and enable to establish the necessary landmark upon which the consequent initiatives could be organized.

The contribution of Mr Stefano Zanut (Italian Firefighters Corps), which is a part of a research carried out by Venice University Institute of Architecture (I.U.A.V. – Istituto Universitario di Arhitettura di Venezia), aims to begin filling up that gap through the data analysis provided by the Firefighters Corps operating in Venice, where, because of building fabric typology existing there, every of its building sites can be identified as “restoration site” of an heritage building.

The paper has been presented during the international meeting Cultural Heritage and Fire Protection Issue –  Siena, 23rd May, 2008: zanut_110_118

Did Rome’s Colosseum suffered a post earthquake fire in 271 A.D.?

Colosseum simulation of coaction stress distribution
Image showing the simulation of coaction stress distribution in the Rome’s  Colosseum according the Prof. Enzo Cartapati (Sapienza University of Rome), which presentated a study on the effects of the 217 A.D. earthquake and its possibile connection with a fire that damaged in the same period the monument 

In 217 A.D. Rome’s Colosseum was slightly damaged by a fire. Since Rome is built in a seismic area and there is an earthquake reported during September 217 A.D. ,Rome Univerity  La Sapienza’s Professor Enzo Cartapati has studied the possibility of a fire event due to the seismic event.

Together with Maurizio Cerone, Prof. Cartapati has conducted a structural analysis of Colosseum’s stone columns, in order to understand if actually the fire occurred after the seismic shock.

The presentation of such work, presented during the April 11th 2003 Conference “Integrating Historic Preservation with Security, Fire Protection, Life safety and Building Management Systems”,  can be downloaded from this website:


Rome 2003 Conference “Integrating Historic Preservation with Security, Fire Protection, Life safety and Building Management Systems”

aquilaOn April 10-11th 2003 the Conference “Integrating Historic Preservation with Security, Fire Protection, Life safety and Building Management Systems” has been held in Italy, in Rome. The Conference has been hosted by the Italian Fire Corps (CNVVF) structure which studies for fire safety of the built heritage, together with the NFPA 909 and 914 Committees.

The main topics of the Conference have faced the problems which arise with the management of safety conditions in cultural and heritage buildings.

The Conference proceedings can be downloaded by this website:


Fire Ratings of Archaic Materials


The US Department of Housing and Urban Development – Office of Policy Development and research ( has issued in 2007 the second edition of the Guidelines on Fire Rating of Archaic Materials, produced by the National Institute of Building Sciences.

Older buildings often contain materials that are fire safe but not listed in current fire ratings sources. This lack of documentation hinders the modernization and reuse of our nation’s building stock. The Guideline on Fire Ratings of Archaic Materials and Assemblies is a compilation of fire ratings from earlier sources for a wide vari ety of materials and assemblies found in buildings from the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. This guideline also provides methods for calculating the fire resistance of general classes of archaic materials and assemblies for which no documentation can be found.

First published in 1980, this guideline has found widespread use and acceptance among architects, engineers, preservationists, and code officials. It has been incorporated into numerous state and local building codes, three model code publications, and two NFPA standards.

Now, for the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH) program, the Guideline on Fire Ratings of Archaic Materials and Assemblieshas been updated to reflect changes in assessment techniques and to provide additional information on doors. HUD is pleased to reissue this important and time-tested publication, knowing that it will remain a valuable resource for preserving and reusing our nation’s housing and building stock.

The publication is downloadble also from this website: fire_ratings

Car Museum Suspected Arson

WreckDenghbig’s (North Wales, UK) Cae Dai cars museum has suffered extensive damages after a fire broke out on December 1st, 2009, night in a suspected arson that has damaged a collection of tens of vehicles.
Fire engines attended the fire at the Cae Dai museum after receiving a call at 11.07 pm on Tuesday.
A man that was staying at a caravan on the museum site, was taken to hospital by ambulance as a precautionary measure to be treated for possible smoke inhalation.
Fire and Rescue Service said: “The building suffered extensive damage and it is believed that all the vehicles were destroyed in the fire.”
A caravan situated near the building was also completely destroyed.
Firefighters used two main jets and two sets of breathing apparatus to tackle the fire. An investigation is now being conducted by Police into the cause of the incident, but it is too early to confirm if it was arson.

Fire Destroys Historic Inn and Restaurant

1At approximately 8:00 a.m. on Saturday, October 29, 2005, The Reluctant Panther Inn & Restaurant, a landmark in Manchester, Vermont (USA) for decades, was devastated by a fire that destroyed the main inn building, the restaurant, and the tavern.
This building was a 3 story 1850’s vintage wood-framed, balloon construction building.
The staff was tending to their morning chores when they went to the basement to investigate an odor of smoke. Upon entering the basement laundry area, the owner witnessed a fire within the barrel of the commercial dryer.
He immediately activated the building fire alarm using a manual pull station and called 9-1-1. The building contained only 2 guests at the time of the incident and their evacuation was facilitated by the fire alarm and hotel staff.
Upon the arrival of the Manchester Fire Department, fire was found in the walls and floor/ceiling assemblies of all floors and there was fire showing in the attic space. Suppression efforts were hampered by balloon framed construction and the installation of false ceilings and floors during previous renovation projects. About 75 firefighters from Rutland and Bennington Counties fought courageously throughout the day, but the 150 year old structure was declared a total loss by Fire Chief Norman Bowen by the end of the day. Continue reading “Fire Destroys Historic Inn and Restaurant”

Scottish Historic Buildings National Fire Database – Risk evaluation

In an attempt to evaluate and reduce the different level of risk in heritage building, in Scotland, a unique approach under the project title of the Scottish Historic Buildings National Fire Database (SHBNFD) was developed. The database provided a different kind of insight and approach to historic buildings at risk.

The SHBNFD project is an ongoing partnership between Historic Scotland and the eight Scottish Fire and Rescue Services. Initially covering the 3,500 Category A Listed Buildings across the country, the project’s overall aims are:

• to improve the effectiveness of fire-fighting operations in historic buildings by making available relevant information in a format suitable for use by fire crews attending an incident at these properties;

• to facilitate the improved reporting and gathering of statistics on fires in Scottish historic buildings

• to inform Historic Scotland’s Technical Conservation, Research and Education Group’s future research programme from the feedback material

The database has been developed as a ‘living document and provides an exchange of information between Historic Scotland (who hold reference details on listed buildings), the National Monuments Record of Scotland (NMRS) –located with the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (who hold a survey, drawing and photographic archive of sites and buildings) – and the eight Scottish Fire and Rescue Services (who hold fire inspection information on buildings). Combining all of this material for each of the listed sites provides a unique insight into the location, quality and relevance for fire fighting crews.

Image of the Corgarff Castle, Aberdeenshire, taken from the 2008-2009 Report of the Scottish Historic Buildings National Fire Database. The database ensures that more accurate statistics are available on the extent of fire loss in the built heritage. Picture© Crown Copyright: RCAHMS

Continue reading “Scottish Historic Buildings National Fire Database – Risk evaluation”

Is cultural heritage compatible with coffee machines? The TU Delft faculty of Architecture fire case study

TU-Delft The combination of a coffee machine and a broken water pipe led to the destruction of the TU Delft faculty of Architecture, containing one of the world’s finest architectural libraries and a collection of furniture models by Rietveld, Le Corbusier, Adolf Loos, etc.

In particular the fire on May 13, 2008 began at approximately 9:00am when a water leak caused a coffee vending machine, located at the 6th floor of the  southwest wing, to spark, smoke, then finally flame. The building did not have fire sprinklers, but firewalls divided it  into three compartments. Such walls  revealed to be not effective in confining the fire to the compartment of origin.  All building occupants were evacuated safely, but  the fire spread has severely impacted firefighting  operations. As a consequence, the fire has burnt uncontrolled for hours, causing the structural collapse of an important section of the building. In fact, the northwest wing collapsed at 4:40 pm (some  7.5 hours after the first flames were observed) .The damages revealed to be so severe  the building had to be demolished.

West Elevation at 2:35 pm – From West Collapse investigation of the TU Delft faculty of architecture building : preliminary evaluation of member capacities – Elevation at 2:35 pm- Adam Jess Kirk 2010

Luckily firefighters were able to save historic models and books from the library but the building itself was lost with its content, a loss for culture and heritage anyway.

An interesting thesis by Dr Adam Jess Kirk concerning the analysis of the  the building and fire together with an overview of available methods for calculating the ultimate strength of reinforced concrete members at elevated temperatures has been published by the University of Texas at Austin.  In the document a preliminary models of the fire have been also developed and applied to selected structural elements.

Water mist for Protection of Heritage – Cost C17 Final report

In the final Report of the Cost C17 Action different aspects of fire protection of Cultural Heritage buildings have been addressed, as the water mist for fire protection, which at the time was a relatively new technology with specific advantages to the built heritage.

The standard design and manufacturing processes do not currently address heritage applications, but performance-based codes are favourable for introducing new water mist systems. This report establishes the current level of experience, and presents basic information about water mist for the heritage community. The challenges, implications and perspectives of the technology are outlined in order to ensure the best protection of European heritage. A guide on how to accept or approve mist systems in heritage properties is given. Continue reading “Water mist for Protection of Heritage – Cost C17 Final report”

Fire of historical building in Naples (Italy)

fire residential naples

On November 5th, 2009, a building in the historical center in Naples (Italy) has been damaged by a fire occurred in a flat in the early afternoon hours (around 2.00 p.m.).

The building has a residential use and the fire seems to have been ignited by a faulty electrical appliance in the bedroom of an apartment at the third floor. The occupants of the apartments escaped, as the fire grew very fastly and made it impossible to extinguish it.

Also other residents could escape immediately, while a woman and her five children who lived in the building have been saved by firefighters.

Continue reading “Fire of historical building in Naples (Italy)”

Impacts of Fire on Stone-Built Heritage

Spalling Fire is one of the major threat to stone-built cultural heritage and this    paper is a review of the existing research into fire damage on building  stone. From early research based on anecdotal evidence of macroscopic  observations, scientists have moved on to develop various techniques  for approaching the investigation of fire damage to stone (high-    temperature heating in ovens, lasers, real flame tests), different aspects    of the damage that fire does have been learned from each, developing    understanding of how microscopic changes affect the whole.

This paper, published on the Journal of Architectural Conservation seeks to highlight the need for a greater awareness of the threat that fire poses (and the need to take precautionary measures in the form of fire-suppression systems), of the immediate effects, and of the long-term management issues of natural stone structures which have experienced fire.


Castello di Moncalieri (Italy) fire

moncalieriOn April 5th, 2008, Italy’s Castello di Moncalieri (near Turin), a royal residence on World Heritage List, has been seriously damaged by a fire occurred under the wooden roof. The fire has been seen around 5 a.m. by a bypasser, on saturday morning. Firefighters have been working with 30 teams and needed several hours to extinguish the fire.

It is possible that the fire has been caused by  renovation works which interested also the wooden structures of the roof.

Three important rooms of the historical castle (built in 1100) located in the tower where fire probably started have been completely destroyed. The massive bed of the King of Piemonte has been severely damaged by the fall of the stories of the tower.

Damages sum up to 10.000.000 euros.

Royal Palaces of Abomey (Benin) damaged by a vegetation fire

On 21 January 2009 the Royal Palaces of Abomey (Benin) have damaged by a fire  which destroyed some buildings. In particular, the fire seems to have been caused by a brushfire.

The flames have consumed the straw roof and the framework of six buildings (which enclosed two temples to Agasu, the tombs of King Agonglo, King Ghezo, and each king’s 41 wives). The fire run fastly due to the strong winds.

Even if the alarm has been raised and the arrival of help has been immediate, when the rescuers arrived the buildings were engulfed in flames.

The restoration will include drying the water damage and the installation of fire hydrants.

Evaluating Physical Interventions as a Function of Hazard and Risk

Because historic structures vary by condition, extent of surviving historic fabric, past and proposed use and other factors, no universal means exists to evaluate inherent fire safety or the impact of potential improvements. Further, buildings have different roles in the ongoing operations of their institutions, ranging from organisations where exhibition of the building is a primary purpose, to those where the primary value is associated with the ability to house the functions required of that organization, eg schools or commercial ventures. Decisions regarding physical interventions should be appropriate to recognised hazards, which may be identified by a building survey or by review of relevant statistics.

foto 3.4

Higher risk hazard occupancies such as residential uses, or higher hazard     operations such as those using flammable materials, warrant higher levels  of intervention than occupancies presenting minimal risk. Each building  warrants an assessment of its unique hazards, as identified.

Fire risk assessments are tools for analysing site-specific hazards, and       ultimately selecting fire safety interventions that will satisfy an    organisationÕs established objectives. For historic buildings, fire risk  assessments consider the hazards in the context of the ability to undertake  architectural improvements, or to install technological systems in a manner    that has an acceptable physical and visual impact, and the approaches  established by building regulations or permitted alternatives.

Scottish Historic Buildings National Fire Database. Annual Report 2008-2009


The Minute of Agreement between Historic  Scotland and the Scottish Fire and  Rescue  Services  for the development of The Scottish Historic  Buildings National  Fire Database (SHBNFD)  continues to provide the structure to enable  Scotland to  remain a world leader in the  protection of the built heritage from the  devastating  effects of fire.

Mike Coull of Grampian Fire and Rescue Service  continues to serve in the role  of Heritage Co-  ordinator for the Scottish Fire Services. This post is  considered  crucial in not only delivering the key objectives set out in the Minute of  Agreement, but also to enable further research developing strategies with the Fire S ervice that will contribute to the protection of the built heritage.

The current Minute of Agreement was signed in October 2007 and sets out a wider set of outcomes to reflect the fact that the SHBNFD is much more than a database, it is a project setting out objectives driving forward the protection of the built heritage. To meet those objectives it was vital to ensure effective partnership working, through this it has been possible to establish protocols with each of the eight Scottish fire and rescue services for the exchange of information on Category B-listed buildings.

This Annual Summary Report aims to demonstrate that significant progress has been made in many of the outcomes identified within the Minute of Agreement over the past twelve months. In addition to the agreed outcomes, two significant tasks have been undertaken; a major International conference on ‘Fire Protection of the Built Heritage’ was held at Elphinstone Hall, Aberdeen on 5th May 2009 and a research project involving a series of fire tests on historic doors. Further details of these two initiatives are included within this report.


COST Action C17: Built Heritage: Fire Loss to Historic Buildings


The European Commission funded Cost Action C17 – Fire loss to historic buildings – has been one of the most  important activity on fire safety of historical and cultural buildings developed with EU funds that ended its activity in 2006. The intention of the Action was to address the significant physical and cultural loss of Europe’s built heritage to the damaging effects of fire.

Cover of the Cost C17 action booklet publications fire loss to built heritage
Cover of the Cost C17 action booklet publications fire loss to built heritage

Cost Action C17 (financed by the European Science Foundation under the European project of Cooperation in the field of science and technology program) has been active in the years 2002-2006 and has focused its  work on:

    • establishing a well-documented survey of up-to-date technical expertise to assist in influencing future developments in fire protection technology for use in historic buildings
    • defining an appropriate range of passive and active technical equipment countermeasures
    • considering alternative approaches to assist in stemming current loss levels
    • organising a series of conferences and/or workshops to develop thinking for effective risk assessment techniques and risk mapping using insurance company and other data
    • promoting findings and benefits of relevant risk assessment methodologies and property management support
    • effecting know-how dissemination through publishing proceedings and recommendations

Continue reading “COST Action C17: Built Heritage: Fire Loss to Historic Buildings”