Historic Underground Premises and Visitors Safety


During the international conference on safety issues of rescue operations in underground structures, held in Rome (Italy) on march 3rd, 2011, the argument of visitors’s safety of  secret wartime tunnels in Dover  has been discussed.

The presentation, made by Mr Steve Emery (English Heritage) has focused the attention on how fire safety engineering can be used to improve safety in historical buildings. In particular, the premise are underground. The first tunnels under Dover Castle were constructed in the Middle Ages to provide a protected line of communication for the soldiers. During the Napoleonic Wars, this system of tunnels was expanded to fortify the Castle. Seven tunnels were dug as barracks for the soldiers and officers. These were capable of accommodating up to 2,000 troops.

In May 1940 the tunnels became the nerve centre for ‘Operation Dynamo’ – the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and French troops from Dunkirk’s beaches. In the Cold War the tunnels were further expanded to form a Regional Centre of Government in the event of nuclear war.

The presentation, taken from the Conference proceedings, shows how fire simulations have guided in developing a correct safety management for visitors:


Historic Buildings Fire Risk Assessment Tools

Assessing fire risk in historic or heritage buildings is a defying task for every fire safety professional, as well as for every architect concerned with the problems of updating such buildings to new uses. Normally, fire risk assessment is carried out on the basis of check of compliance to the relevant fire safety standards. New office buildings, shops, schools, museums and many other occupancies are covered by codes in the most of countries. Thus, assessing the risk is a rather easy job.
In other cases, when standards are not available, guidelines or general criteria give the necessary hints to develop a good level fire risk assessment. But, when the building to be assessed has an historical value, the problems which arise do not always find a satisfying answer in the general principles or codes of fire protection. How to deal an important museums which is supposed to be extremely crowded if stairs to not meet fire standards? Which alarm system fits complex structure wooden roof? How to fight fire when water cannot be easily provided?
In order to give adequate answers to questions like

1Assessing fire risk in historic or heritage buildings is a defying task for every fire safety professional, as well as for every architect concerned with the problems of updating such buildings to new uses. In general, fire risk assessment in the case of a normal building is carried out on checking the compliance of the building to the relevant fire safety standards. New office buildings, shops, schools, museums and many other occupancies are covered by codes in the most of countries. Thus, assessing the risk is a rather easy job.

In other cases, when standards are not available, guidelines or general criteria give the necessary hints to develop a good level fire risk assessment. But, when the building to be assessed has an historical value, the problems which arise do not always find a satisfying answer in the general principles or codes of fire protection.

How to deal an important museums which is supposed to be extremely crowded if stairs to not meet fire standards? Which alarm system fits complex structure wooden roof? How to fight fire when water cannot be easily provided?

In order to give adequate answers to such questions, there are few tools which actually allow to assess fire risk and develop a correct protection strategy. One of the most interesting documents concerning the problem is the NPFA 914 Standard (Code for Fire Protection of Historic Structures), which addresses fundamental arguments as:

  • security
  • prescriptive and performance-based options
  • management
  • addition, alteration and rehabilitation works, and fire precautions during construction, repair and alteration works
  • special events
  • inspection, testing and maintenance
  • survey forms for conducting arson vulnerability assessments
  • guidance on the implementation of operational controls
  • Provisions for the use of arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) to protect electrical circuits
  • wildfire protection criteria
  • criteria for determining contractor qualifications
  • inspection, testing, and maintenance requirements for premises security systems
  • criteria for special event protection and security

Another tool available, quoted also in the NFPA 914 code but not dealt as a single topic by specific standards, is the performance-based approach, which is developed through the fire safety engineering instruments. Such approach implies that the objectives of the risk analysis are shared among the stakeholders and, consequently, that fire safety scenarios are selected using the expert judgement and verified through simulations of fire. The most significant part of such analysis is the scenario selection, since the results will show the adequacy or non adequacy of fire safety strategy respect to the selected fires.

At the moment, the main obstacle to be removed in using  fire safety engineering to cultural and historical building fire safety is a relative lack of data about fire behavior of historical material. Few data are available about fire damages or extinguishing agents damages to i.e. old canvas or papers (actually, historic or archaic materials cover a very wide range, from metal to almost every organic material object). An  extensive research in such field needs to be developed. An important step towards such goal has been recently undertook by the Fire Research Foundation in order to collect such kind of data.

Fire Safety Retrofitting in Historical Buildings

1aImproving fire safety level of historical buildings is one of the most common problems to deal with after a fire risk assessment. The theme is not easy, since fire safety technical issues are relevant as conservation ones.  In August 1989, the US Government Agency General Service Administration published the paper “Fire Safety Retrofitting in Historical Buildings” in cooperation with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

The document provides guidance to ensure that fire safety retrofitting has minimal impact on the historic features of the property.


A small example of fire risk assessment in a heritage building

historic_windowDeveloping a fire risk assessment about a cultural heritage building it is not a common task even if, in many cases, the problems aren’t so different from ordinary buildings.

One of the most frequent issue to be considered during the assessment concerns the problem of matching fire safety rules with the special limits which the fabric of the building and its architectural features pose. For example, steep stairs or narrow doors cannot be modified in an historic building.

Sometimes, also windows cannot be involved in a upgrading project, so also ventilation issues have to be solved with special solutions, since creating holes in historical walls cannot always be considered as a possible solution. An example of fire risk assessment can consider the case of an archive room (for example, in a library) which cannot be provided with ventilation openings asked by many fire standards in normal libraries in order to let fire smokes flow outside the archives. Continue reading “A small example of fire risk assessment in a heritage building”

The Arson Threat to the Built Heritage and Historical Buildings

We publish the paper concerning the arson threat to the built heritage already published by the COST Action C17: Built Heritage: Fire Loss to Historic Buildings in its Final Report Part 1 (pages 90-92)

La Fenice Venice

On Friday 30 March 2001, a court in Venice found two electricians guilty of setting fire to La Fenice opera house in the city in 1996. Enrico Carella and his cousin, Massimiliano Marchetti, were found to have set the building ablaze because their company was facing heavy fines over delays in repair work. Mr Carella, the company’s owner, was sent to prison for seven years, while Mr Marchetti received a six-year sentence. The rebuilding of the famous theatre, for which Giuseppi Verdi composed several operas, was delayed and did not re-open until 2004. The fire on 29 January 1996 happened as the Teatro La Fenice was being renovated. The subsequent rebuilding did not go according to plan and the original German-Italian consortium of Holzmann-Romagnoli had asked for supplementary and fee waivers before the work was re-tendered by the City Mayor Paolo Costa.

Sinsheim Mosque, Germany

On the 18 November 2004 unknown individuals threw a Molotov cocktail at a mosque near Heidelberg in Germany. A glass bottle filled with flammable liquid was tossed against the entrance of the Sinsheim mosque. The fire was discovered and extinguished after it caused around €10,000 damage to the wooden door and the glass window.

Wooden Churches, Poland

In Poland, wooden church were found to be particularly at risk. Between 1999 and 2000, 50 churches burnt down. The most frequent cause of fire is not damage to electric installations, but a fire lit deliberately. Poland has a substantial amount of sacred wooden architecture, which make an important, often unique, contribution to European heritage. It consists in part of wooden churches, built between the C14 and C19, mainly Catholic, but there are also other churches, including Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic-orthodox, Dukhobor, Jewish and Mariavites churches. Wooden religious architecture also includes chapels, belfries and morgues. The scale of the task is significant, given that presently there are 2,785 items of religious wooden architecture in Poland and six of them (from the C15 and C16) are on the World Heritage List.

The Arson Threat

It is difficult to be precise about the growth in arson globally due to statistical variations, but there is good evidence that in many developed countries arson is a growing problem. The CTIF Centre of Fire Statistics demonstrated that, in 8 selected countries [Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, Japan, USA and UK] between 1993 and 1999, intentional fires accounted for 18 percent of all building and structure fires. This represents a huge level of unwanted and unwelcome activity, given the fact that a significant part of any country’s built environment contains numerous heritage sites (in some major cities like Edinburgh, Venice, and Rome the figure is very high) and that certain property classifications (like religious buildings) are subject to regular attacks of the sort identified earlier. To illustrate the growth trend in the UK, according to the UK Arson Prevention Bureau, the incidence of arson in occupied buildings has steadily increased over the past decade, as shown in the following Table.



Arson is now one of the most serious threats to heritage buildings throughout the world. The reasons for this form of attack vary enormously, from economic fraud to cultural disaffection. The nature of the attack can likewise arise from sophisticated fire raising by criminals using science and technology, to sudden unplanned attacks by vandals using any locally available materials. The impact however, regardless of the initiating event, may be the total loss of all the physical property both of contents and structure. The following real examples illustrate that the target can be a high-profile internationally-known building or a more generalised category of building-type. They serve to illustrate the task being confronted.

Whilst there are many documented causes and solutions to the arson threat, there are also particular circumstances related to heritage buildings that raise the risk presented from intentional attacks. For example, historic structures may

• Contain or be constructed in materials particularly vulnerable to fire, like wood

• Elements of structure will contain voids due to adaptations that spread fire and its products

• Modernisation may hide building services and associated features or structural elements that heighten the risk of undetected initiation or early structural failure

• Transfers and unclear ownership may lead to poor risk management

• Economic and funding priorities sometimes prevent investment in mitigating passive or active systems of fire defence

• Hazardous materials may be present on industrial or military heritage sites

• Criminal activity such as smuggling or theft may give rise to arson to cover the original crime

There are many documented responses to combating arson that suggest there is a strong onous on the heritage community to develop a sustainable and internationally-supported strategy to help preserve the national heritage of each country.

This is especially so when it is realised that within the European Union there are few special requirements placed in law on heritage buildings. A recent study supported by the European Union Community Action Programme in the Field of Civil Protection coordinated by Raddnings Verket, the Swedish Rescue Services Agency, found that no heritage-specific fire safety legislative requirements were in force in Austria, Belgium, Denmark (except a 5 yearly inspection), Finland, Germany (other than a building permit for certain uses), Greece, Sweden, The Netherlands (subject to some heritage and safety controls) and the UK. In Ireland, Italy and Norway, guidance or in Italy’s case technical controls, exist.

The proposal, therefore, is that the Cost Action C17 Working Group 3 should consider extending its investigations into the area of arson reduction and protection. This will require research into national statistics, identification of the national risk profile and subsequent identification of preventative action. Whilst there are cultural and national variations in the risk presented in any approach, there is high value in sharing best practice to help improve sustainability and add intelligence to create an effective response to what is an increasingly alarming threat.


In the earlier section, threats arising from vandals, criminals and activists have been described. Unfortunately, it is now necessary to add to that form of attack the increased threat of extremist action from disaffected groups in society. Prior to 11 September 2001, it was the case that the number of lethal terrorist incidents in Europe had declined, although the total number of incidents rose. The escalation of the terrorist incidents that had occurred in Europe and Eurasia were, in fact, often acts of arson or vandalism. However, terrorism has become an increasingly worrying threat to all those responsible for national icons or places of large public assembly. This, in part, reflects the paradigm shift that occurred in New York when vehicles like aircraft became weapons, instead of buildings being defended against weapons. Major sites that have crowds offer the terrorist anonymity and are internationally recognisable. Frequently, they offer hard construction materials that cause maximum personal damage and lead to economic losses, including tourism. They have become the new targets. Well-known and frequently visited heritage buildings and sites that fall into this category are therefore susceptible. In addition, security measures at higher-risk sites like government centres, can serve to move the terrorist further away from the obvious iconic or transport centres to softer geographically open locations. It is, of course, important to retain a sense of perspective. Lethal events are often infrequent, and in comparison to the routinely accepted loss of life in any country, are of a low order of magnitude. Usually, the risk is simply disruptive, as with left luggage (one example is 2.5 million emergency calls to unattended bags in a 10-year period in a transport environment, with no active explosive devices found). Society, however, demands active consideration of this threat and positive action to reduce both the possible occurrence and mitigate impact. This demands a sensible and systematic review of the likelihood and practical measures. In many areas action taken to reduce prevalent and active life-threatening events such as fire and security, will coincide with action designed to contain this extremist threat. There are many previous examples of this type of attack, especially where intolerance has existed, when individuals over generations have attempted and sometimes succeeded in destroying artefacts or symbols that they consider represent that intolerant burden.

Currently trans-national ideology based upon an Islamic fundamentalist cause that is globally, not geographically, regionalised, together with localised extremism, is seen as the new threat. This, some commentators suggest, is a misunderstanding of a threat that in reality comes from local groups that may share a common ideology, but act independently and in sympathy, without any central direction or control. Personal relationships and sympathetic supporters therefore form the basis of the unstructured network of loose alliances. This is considerably different to the earlier, and in some cases still current, more usual form of threat, in which the perpetrator belonged to an organisation that wanted to find a balance between mass innocent casualties and its political aim. That form of terrorist attack was often characterised by a warning and the terrorist seeking to escape and survive.

The economic cost of mounting a terror attack is low, yet the economic impact can be extremely high. Reducing the risk is also difficult from the perspective of vigilance, since the defender has to be systematically in advance of the terrorist, who needs only one success. This is a problem that some observers say will remain a real issue for some time, with terrorism of this kind expected to last the next 20-30 years.

Again, the practice of risk evaluation supported by sound policy and practice is the key. Co-ordination of best practice, education, investigation, advice, crisis management, business continuity planning, threat monitoring and risk assessment are all required. Technical issues that arise include the threat to people and contamination of the heritage site or workplace, physical violence, and detection of weapons and malicious actions. The identification of specific high-risk sites and event scenarios, like those affecting faith premises as already observed in acts against Muslim and Jewish places of worship, is priority action, since in this threatening environment, physically high levels of protection of all sites is impractical.

Intelligence, and the recognition of connections attributed between causes (as with the desire to see the USA leave Islamic countries or resolve the Palestine issue) are important features to research and understand. Whilst these are simplifications, they do serve to raise the matter as an important concern for those who have a responsibility to protect national heritage.


There is a real and urgent need to evaluate the risk presented at heritage sites from malicious acts of vandalism, criminal attack and local or international terrorism. Many of the issues have common features. There would be a benefit in gathering intelligence and knowledge collectively. That task could be an extension of the current role of the COST Action C17 activities. The proposal would require modest financial support, to initially scope the issue and to prepare a more definitive action programme bid, seeking financial support from the European Union.

NFPA 909 (2010 edition) – Code for the Protection of Cultural Resource Properties – Museums, Libraries, and Places of Worshi


The need for fire standards in cultural resources buildings has been addressed by NFPA 909: Code for the Protection of Cultural Resource Properties – Museums, Libraries, and Places of Worship. This Code describes principles and practices of fire safety for cultural resource properties (museums, libraries, and places of worship); their contents; and those who operate, use, or visit them, through a comprehensive fire protection program.

The 2010 Edition adds important addition about security. The main technical changes are:

  • Expansion of the code’s goals and objectives to include ‘hazards other than fire
  • New requirement for a vulnerability assessment
  • New chapters on planning for protection, emergency operations, and security
  • A new annex describing commonly used premises protection systems and equipment

The 2010 Edition deals also with new issues as:

  • Reorganization of requirements pertaining to construction, alteration, addition, and renovation projects into one chapter
  • Addition of design and installation requirements to reduce the risk of corrosion damage in dry-pipe and preaction sprinkler systems
  • New requirements for sprinkler protection inside some exhibit cases
  • Annexes pertaining to renovation of historic structures and fire ratings of archaic materials have been deleted and are now part of NFPA 914: Code for Fire Protection of Historic Structures

Measuring the Impact of Fire Extinguisher Agents on Cultural Resource Materials – Final Report (2010)

1One of the main problems posed by fire protection of cultural resources is the behavior of archaic and support materials to the effect of flames and extinguishing agents. We do not know, for example, how a watercolor painting or a fresco behave in case of fire and how water or other extinguishing agents  affect theme. Until now, there is an extremely small number  of testing and research activities carried on to improve our knowledge about this field of data. In particular, portable fire extinguishers and their associated fire extinguishing agents play an important role in reducing the impact of fire on cultural resource collections.  While conservators are well versed in the effects of moisture and water on collections, little data is available on the effects of other non-water based extinguishing agents. To fully evaluate the appropriateness of an extinguisher, its extinguishing effectiveness should be compared to the potential collateral damage to collection materials from the agent and its thermal decomposition products. Such contact with collection materials can occur by overspray during firefighting efforts or the direct spraying of collection materials in an act of vandalism.

This report, produced by the Fire Research Foundation, is downloadble from the website http://www.nfpa.org and documents Phase I of a project designed to quantify the impact of discharging portable fire extinguishing agents on cultural resource materials.

The report includes a comprehensive literature review and the development of prototype specifications and procedures to test the effects of extinguishers. In an anticipated Phase II, the test specifications would be validated and a final specification produced. The results will be used by the NFPA Technical Committee on Cultural Resources (NFPA 909 and 914) to provide users with guidance on extinguisher selection.

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”