Last reviewed 6 April 2022

Fires in heritage sites are fairly common. Mike Sopp explores the extent of the issue and what can be done to control damage from fire.

Introduction

The United Kingdom has a rich architectural legacy, with many heritage sites including numerous buildings of architectural or historic importance.

To put this into context, there are over 400,000 “listed buildings” in England alone with special architectural or historic interest.

With this in mind, it is perhaps shocking to find that in the UK, it is estimated that there are approximately 100 fires a month in heritage sites.

The need to plan for such fires, and have in place appropriate response and salvage plans to limited damage, is imperative.

Fires in historic buildings

The Institute of Historic Building Conservation states that “of all the threats facing our most important historic buildings, fire is potentially the most horrifying”. 

As the National Fire Chiefs Council note, “heritage buildings present unique hazards, having been built in a period with no fire safety regulations, using traditional materials and construction methods”. 

The materials and design of heritage buildings can increase the expected rate of fire growth and spread. Fire spread may travel in hidden voids, behind facades and in cavities to unexpected sections of the building. Vaults and ducts can cause unchecked fire spread underfoot.

Over the years there have been landmark fires, such as those in Hampton Court Palace in 1986 and Windsor Castle in 1992. More recently, there have been serious fires in Glasgow School of Art in 2104 and 2018, Clandon Park House  in 2015 and the  Royal Clarence Hotel in 2016.

Research undertaken by Historic England indicates that in 2019, fire services attended nearly 1000 incidents as follows:

  • Grade I/Grade II listed buildings: 405

  • World Heritage Sites: 16

  • Conservation Areas and locally listed buildings: 554

Clearly, steps should be taken to prevent fires from occurring and having appropriate passive and active systems in place to mitigate the impacts of fires, in line with best practice for heritage sites is essential.

Another mitigating measure is the need for appropriate emergency response planning for damage control and salvage operations

Emergency Response Plans

The concept of salvage operations and damage control is not new in fire safety management. BS 9999: Fire safety in the design, management and use of buildings — Code of practice notes that organisations might:

  • make plans for action both during and after an incident to limit loss and damage to the building fabric, contents and business operation

  • compile and keep up-to-date information packs to assist in the salvage and damage operations.

Following the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in 2019, London Fire Brigade wrote to a range of historic sites reminding them of the need to consider fire safety. They also developed a website providing further information on how to prepare an Emergency Response Plan (with a link to Historic England’s website).

Historic England states that an Emergency Response Plan “documents the actions to take during an emergency. The aim is to ensure salvage operations are undertaken safely and that damage and long-term deterioration of the building and its contents are minimised”.

The complexity and content of an Emergency Response Plan will naturally be site-specific. In its simplest form, an emergency response plan is just a collection of contacts, instructions and guidance aimed at supporting response activity in what could be a challenging environment. Historic England suggests that there are three parts.

The first element relates to emergency information. This contains the relevant details needed for the initial response to an emergency. It needs to be readily accessible at the front of the plan and includes:

  • contacts lists

  • site and building plans

  • salvage priorities

  • location of temporary storage facilities and “first-aid” treatment of salvaged objects

  • arrangements for the longer-term storage or treatment of damaged objects.

The second element relates to the actual response to an incident. It is about how a site will organise teams, what their roles, responsibilities and tasks are, and how to work with the emergency services. Details to include in this section include:

  • roles and responsibilities for staff and volunteers that are part of the salvage team

  • how plan will be instigated and how staff will be contacted

  • Fire Service Rendezvous Point (RVP) and fire crew access points

  • full list of salvage equipment required to be kept within storage

  • location of salvage equipment and personal protective equipment.

  • risks to firefighters.

The final part of the Emergency Response Plan is the provision of relevant guidance and documents. This would include documents on how to treat and store various items and/or materials.

Salvage plans

An integral part of the overall Emergency Response Plan is a more detailed Salvage Plan.

A salvage plan identifies not only what actions should be implemented by on-site representatives, but also clearly identifies priority items that need to be removed from the building, or protected in place, and allows fire crews to put recovery strategies in place in advance. Plans help firefighters to:

  • identify the items of historical value

  • find specific items to be removed first

  • know how to safely remove the items

  • know their way around the building

  • know who is responsible for a salvage plan.

Historic England suggests preparing individual information/identification sheets (grab sheets) for each priority object. This ensures objects are rescued in the correct order, with, if the incident allows, those of the highest significance first. These must include:

  • a description and photograph of the item

  • basic plan indicating where it is located within the building and its location within a room

  • number of persons required to remove and carry the object

  • details of items provided with security fixings and the correct tools required for removal

  • any PPE or other important information required for fire crews

  • if an item cannot be removed, how it can be protected.

It is also recommended that a list of suitable temporary and long-term locations for the handling, treatment and storage of all salvaged items should be included with consideration to the following:

  • whether the location is secure, suitable in all weather conditions, and during times of darkness

  • whether areas can be clearly split between “wet”, “dry” and “contaminated” salvaged items?

  • how will items be moved to a more permanent storage location (eg secure vehicles).

Summary

Every building of historic significance should have an Emergency Response Plan, but how complicated that plan is depends on the complexity of the building.

It is important that an individual is given responsibility for developing such a Plan and has the co-operation of all relevant parties to develop and keep the Plan up to date.

Both the Emergency Response Plan and Salvage Plan should be made available to all relevant parties and located at strategic locations.

Regular training exercises help test the plan and ensure that the people using the plan are familiar with it. Training which is practiced under simulated conditions using the emergency plan, often provides the most realistic feedback in terms of the strengths and weaknesses of the plan.

Desktop or practical training exercises could include reading plans, using grab sheets, manual handling and carrying out emergency treatment to damaged mock objects.