Fire risk assessments and historic buildings
While many stately homes are actually someone’s home, others, such as Castle Howard near York and Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, combine a number of different functions - a tourist attraction, retail outlet and often a restaurant as well.
Since a private house is exempt from the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order, the family living quarters are usually not inspected but they ARE part of the building, which leads to a multiple-occupancy problem.
Administrative issues for inspectors to consider include the age of the building and which set of housing regulations they were built under. It is difficult to apply modern rules to old buildings. Most will have preservation orders and be listed which, in itself, is not a problem. But internal doors, walls and ceilings are often listed too, making it problematic to install fire safety systems.
The implementation of fire safety systems can also be difficult from an aesthetic point of view. Most owners don’t want bulkhead emergency lighting (EL) units, green signs and manual call points (MCP’s) spoiling the look of a 400-year-old building, let alone fire extinguishers sitting around looking unsightly.
David Middleton, technical fire safety consultant with one of the UK’s leading health and safety consultancies the ELAS Group, says it’s important to have a proper fire risk assessment in place in historic buildings, and assessors need to consider some of the unique challenges they present.
Sources of ignition are the same for stately homes as other more modern buildings (electrical, arson, portable or open flame), but within each there are considerations unique to old buildings.
Mains wiring has often been replaced or restored but many have several different mains fuse boxes to check, as well as spur systems. Some portable appliances can also be problematic. Most are PAT tested but there are often a huge number of items and they can get missed. Finding space for radiant heaters that is not near silks/oil paintings, etc., can also be a challenge.
Many historic buildings are on remote sites leaving them vulnerable to arson however they usually have very good security in place to mitigate this issue. Open fires and flames are often used in the winter and the use of candles also increases, particularly over the December holiday period.
One of the main areas of concern when doing fire risk assessments in historic buildings is the amount of potential fuel they contain. The way the buildings were constructed does not fit in with modern building material requirements.
Exposed wooden beams are unlikely to be treated, varnished or painted and there are often wooden frames for windows and doors. Materials used in the buildings will have no specific age or history and can often be coated in old paints and varnishes.
Decorative elements such as tapestries, thick and often multi-layered wallpaper, paints, varnished wooden panelling etc. mean that surface flame spread is likely to be much faster in stately homes.
Many will have huge amounts of Class A materials, such as old furniture and paintings, throughout the building and stored in attics; flyers, leaflets or promotional material for guests and goods for gift shops would all add fuel to any fire.
As discussed above, the risk of surface flame spread in historic buildings is considerably higher than in modern constructions. Paintings, varnished/painted walls and staircases all would help fire to spread quickly throughout the building.
However, it is compartmentalisation which is possibly the biggest issue when looking at spread. Long corridors, open staircases, secret passages or rear staircases which are not in use all cause problems when trying to stem the spread of fire. Internal doors are often not fire doors and cannot be replaced - either for aesthetic reasons or because they themselves are listed.
Doors might be propped open to allow visitors to pass from one area to the next, resulting in large open compartments. If these doors don’t have mag-locks or other automatically releasing mechanisms then it’s left to the guide to close them after guests have been evacuated, meaning the human factor has a big role to play in preventing fire from spreading. This is never good.
Hidden voids, such as suspended ceilings, can also cause problems. Where modern materials have been used for compartmentation they are sometimes mixed with older materials or plans, thus compromising compartmentation.
 People/means of escape
Historic buildings draw huge amounts of visitors every year. In 2015, Castle Howard saw 249,794 visitors pass through its doors. When members of the public are on site, there are a wide range of physical or mental disabilities that might be present and these can pose issues with stairs or behavioural issues - such as panic - during an evacuation.
Members of the public who are disabled would usually be part of a group, or have someone with them who could assist in case of an emergency, but is a Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan (PEEP) also required? Staff will need to be trained so they can recognise if someone needs help and how they can provide assistance.
As well as long term disabilities, some people will have temporary conditions which can impede escape such as broken limbs or pregnancy. Given the increased spreading risks and likely speed of spread in stately homes this becomes a more serious problem. If someone with a broken leg is at the head of an escaping group they will slow everyone down.
There are limits on the number of people permitted to be on a second level if is there is only a single escape route down. Castle Howard has a rule that only two people in wheelchairs can be upstairs at a time due to their evacuation issues. Fortunately, most stately homes have at least two routes out of the second floor via servant or back staircases as well as the more visible main routes.
Stately homes were built on a grand scale meaning distances can be very long, particularly when combined with compartmentation as outlined above. How many times have you spent a day visiting a castle only to be worn out from all the walking afterwards?
A classic example is the Long Gallery at Castle Howard which is 160 ft long - well outside the usual requirements for escape distance. Combine this with potential high speed surface spread and you may have a real issue. Unfortunately, very little can be done except to accept the risk exists and put as much as possible in place to mitigate it.
Door widths can sometimes be an issue in older buildings, although this is rare. Occasionally there will be a very narrow door leading into a staircase or servants passage. There’s not much that can be done about this, as with escape distances, because they are part of the structure of the house.
Most stately homes these days will have a cafe or gift shop. These present the usual problems regarding storage of goods or placement of tables on or near escape routes. Members of the public can also be reluctant to evacuate when they’ve paid for a cup of coffee and are determined to drink it. All these issues have to be addressed with staff training.
 Training staff
Getting staff to accept recommendations can be sometimes be tricky, and Health and Safety Officers can have difficulty implementing recommendations; sometimes resistance will come from the owner of the house but more often the staff. Staff in historic buildings can often be third or fourth generation and might have a “my granddad did it this way so why should we change?” attitude.
Most stately homes also use seasonal staff, all of whom need fire awareness training on their first day and ongoing. The problems outlined above regarding escape routes, members of the public refusing to evacuate and so on, must also be addressed in training for regular staff.
Some sites do one or two mass training days where they try to catch everyone, others go piecemeal. Once again, the fact that this is a multi-purpose site can cause issues – training for the serving staff in the restaurant will not necessarily be the same as training for the guides in the house. Any training delivered will have to be carefully tailored to the specific needs of each location.
All four of the above factors can be controlled with the installation of a fire safety system, but this in itself can pose many unique problems in an historic building. Emergency lighting provisions can be patchy and fitting them can be difficult due to preservation issues, aesthetics and cost. Sometimes a half-way measure such as handheld torches will be adequate, but not always.
Signage is more of an issue for aesthetic reasons – no Duke wants to see his house defaced by bright traffic lights. There are some ways around this, for example at Chatsworth they have a system that uses guides to ensure everyone is going the right way and all parts of the building are clear. However, this puts a heavy burden of training on the fire manager and staff themselves and re-introduces the human factor.
Automatic Fire Detection Systems (AFDS) are usually fitted, simply because it’s good property protection, however there are sometimes gaps. This might be due to the engineer not being able to access a particular room or area to put a detector or sounder in; or because the system is old or it’s been installed piecemeal with omissions.
Fire extinguishers can be particularly problematic. It’s impossible to assess how many extinguishers an older building should have just by looking at the number of floors, exits and square footage. Loading and spreading may be higher in some area than other, and most loading will be class A.
Generally, this is not a job for a Fire Risk Assessor. The provider of the extinguishers should do a full survey on the site and determine the number needed and where they should be located. However, this is sometimes neglected, or not reviewed for several years, resulting in inappropriate placement of some extinguishers; placement that has become redundant due to changes or an extinguisher that is ‘missing’ because the use of a room has changed but the extinguisher provision has not been re-assessed.
Generally, fire management is not too much of an issue, provided the fire manager is competent. Some managers are less aware than others, but it is a simple training issue that can be fixed. Regular professional and in-house inspections usually take place, but sometimes a little nudge is required to remind the manager of their importance.
This article was written by The ELAS Group. For more information, visit their website.
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