However, with museums and other cultural structures, the
building can become an additional primary concern.
“The world’s heritage is in these buildings,” he said. “Also,
quite often, the buildings themselves are world heritage sites.”
As an example, he cited one of the signature structures for
which he’s aided in the fire-protection planning: Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia home.
“That building is an artifact,” he said.
Analyzing the risk
For Deborah Freeland, area senior vice president with corporate insurance and risk-management company Arthur J.
Gallagher & Co., Washington, D.C., planning for fire protection
in a museum begins with understanding the facility’s collection—in terms of protection priorities and the specific fire risks
it might present.
“The first thing is going to be the valuations,” Freeland said.
“Any one piece can be worth millions.”
Also, the general categories of collections must be studied
to understand how a potential fire might start and grow. For
example, oil paintings burn differently than tapestries or taxi-
“People often forget to ask, ‘What are your collections com-
prised of?’ and that’s the question people need to ask first,” she
said. “If you have taxidermy collections or dioramas, you could
get a slow, smoldering fire with a very different profile than, say,
a plastic sculpture you might find in a modern art museum.”
“Don’t forget, where things are stored, you got a lot of pack-
aging material, too,” Freeland said.
That material can either accelerate or slow a fire’s progress.
Artim agreed that getting an understanding of the collection and how it is housed is a critical first step in the planning
process. He added that learning how staff members and visitors
interact with a facility can be equally important.
Fire-suppression technologies have evolved along with
detection devices. Where water-based sprinkler systems
were the over whelming standard, now fire-protection engineers have a range of gases
and foams to choose from. As with heat- and
smoke-sensor selection, determining which
of these to specify requires a clear understanding
of the museum structure and its collections.
“Suppression is more dependent on
what you have inside the collections,” said
Deborah Freeland, area senior vice president
with corporate insurance and risk-management
company Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., Washington, D.C. “For
example, if you have a collection with which you expect to
get a slow, smoldering fire and you have something that can
stand to be wetted, then water is good. Some of the gases,
if they don’t get the fire out immediately, can begin to break
down into corrosive byproducts.”
Another option, which Freeland said is more often used
in Europe, is to deprive a fire of what it needs most to grow:
oxygen. Called “hypoxic” air technology, this approach, which
might be most appropriate in storage rooms and other low-
occupancy areas, reduces the oxygen levels in a space to just
below what is required for ignition. The air is considered safe
to breathe for most people, but can pose problems for those
with some health conditions.
While suppression-system selection is typically not part
of the electrical contractor’s project responsibility, electrical
pros are critical to ensuring the system actually engages as
required if a fire occurs. Freeland said it is essential these ECs
understand how the entire system is
intended to work and not just their
specific wiring diagrams.
“We have a lot of really high-end
sprinkler systems with some rather
intricate wiring requirements, where you’re
initiating a pre-action system,” she said. “I’ve
seen a number of installations where people
really didn’t understand how the connections
should work. We need to make sure different
contractors really understand how their work
interacts with the other person’s work.” —C.R.