Effective Fire Protection for Museums and Libraries

Libraries and museums can pose a challenge when it comes to fire protection.

These types of buildings are potentially high occupancy buildings, so employee and visitor safety is crucial. Libraries and museums are also some of our most important, being home to irreplaceable valuables of historical relevance.

True Cost of Ineffective Fire Control

Museums, archives, and private and public historical buildings are home to truly one-of-a-kind objects and documents.

It’s not uncommon for a fire incident to account for millions of dollars worth of damage and the complete desolation of collections in a library or museum. Many items housed in these buildings are fragile, and excessive heat and smoke are enough to ruin paper, cloth and other delicate materials. Because of the high-risk nature of museum displays and archives of literature, fires can start easily and spread quickly.

In the event of a fire, priceless objects and literature are at risk, but so is the well-being of staff, visitors, and any other building occupants. Unless there is a fire safety plan put into effect, along with proper fire/smoke control mechanisms, damage can be devastating.

It’s crucial that these buildings be adequately outfitted to prevent damage, allow for safe evacuation and provide access to emergency officials.

Assessing Risk Areas in Libraries and Museums

The first step in fire protection is to determine the high-risk areas of each building. These zones may be labeled "high-risk" because of valuable items housed in the area, the potential for combustion, or a combination of factors that warrant special attention such as:

  • Exhibits featuring highly combustible materials like paper, wood or textiles

  • Labs and exhibits featuring preserved specimens housed in alcohol or other flammable liquid

  • Tightly packed rooms with exhibits or bookshelves

  • Rooms housing materials easily damaged by smoke, soot or water

It is not uncommon for historical buildings to lack updated fire control systems, especially if they were built previous to existing building and fire protection codes. Considering just how much total value a library or museum stores, it is crucial that they are outfitted with fire suppression systems that respond quickly, effectively, and in a way that reduces damage as much as possible.

Developing a Fire Protection Plan

An effective fire protection plan aims to complete four main goals:

  • Preserve important documents, data, artifacts, exhibits, and associated equipment

  • Reduce smoke and soot contamination

  • Reduce damage caused by sprinklers and fire hoses

  • Implement an emergency safety plan that can easily be followed by staff and visitors

When considering the potential catastrophe of a fire, it’s important to note that damage can be greatly reduced when smoke and heat are effectively controlled. The expanse of space inherent in museums and libraries means that smoke spreads quickly in these types of structures. Fire alarms and smoke sensor systems are an absolute must for these buildings, followed by physical systems that will deploy in the case of an emergency.

Effective Fire Protection Solutions for Museums and Libraries

Smoke and fire curtains are a high-performing solution for libraries and museums. These heavy curtains block off certain parts of the room, controlling the direction of smoke and thereby reducing damage and allowing for faster evacuations.

There are five main types of smoke control curtains - elevator, vertical, horizontal, perimeter and draft. Depending on the building, one curtain or a combination of curtains may be used effectively.

At minimum, consider installing curtains over elevators as well as vertical curtains over doorways.

Multi-floor buildings will benefit from installing horizontal smoke curtains in atriums. These serve the purpose of bisecting the building, which prevent smoke from billowing upwards and traveling down to other floors.

Additionally, perimeter control curtains quickly reduce the footprint of a room and can be used to block off staircases, even when no corner posts are present.

Keeping History Alive with Better Fire Protection

The potential risk of damage is more than enough reason to implement a safety plan and fire protection system in libraries and museums.

Luckily there are fire protection solutions that can meet the needs of any building, whether it’s newly constructed or centuries old. Having a solid safety plan in place, along with a fire protection system that addresses your building’s needs, will ensure we keep these pieces of our history safe and accessible to the public.