October 1, 2008

Codes & Standards Snapshot

By Nadile, Lisa

Q&A A STAFF LIAISON for NFPA 909, Protection of Cultural Resources Properties-Museums, Libraries, and Places of Worship, for less than a year, Principle Fire Protection Engineer Gregory Harrington has enthusiastically accepted the challenge of shepherding the code through its next edition. NFPA 909 and NFPA 914, Fire Protection of Historic Structures, "protect the irreplaceable," he says.

Often, we look at fires from a position of the value lost in dollars and cents, but the loss of one's home and belongings far outweighs any monetary assignment. The same is true for an art museum, a rare books library, or a community's cathedral. Protecting special buildings with distinctive contents has a unique urgency met by NFPA 909.

LN: When someone reads this code what are they equipped to do?

GH: They will be able to apply the principles and practices of fire safety to cultural resource properties and to develop and implement a comprehensive fire protection program. The requirements for NFPA 909 (and NFPA 914) are going to exceed what is in the typical building or life safety code because of the irreplaceable nature of the structure and its contents. They will supplement locally adopted building and fire codes.

If you want to protect your irreplaceable artwork, then you should look at these requirements. This code contains a lot of material. There are building requirements on such topics as providing sprinklers or fire alarms for these special buildings, to name two. But a lot of it has to do with operational types of issues like emergency planning and management of operational systems, in which you designate who is going to be responsible for meeting these organizational requirements.

LN: What is the question you are most frequently asked?

GH: One frequent question is if using sprinklers to protect libraries and museums is wise when the application of water would destroy the collections. I answer that many major collections are currently protected by automatic sprinklers. Systems can be designed so that the probability of accidental water discharge approaches zero-such as using double interlock preaction systems, clean agent systems as the first line of defense, on-off sprinklers to limit water flow, and water mist systems, which the National Gallery of Art uses.

I tell them that the fact is that if you do have a fire in a library, for example, and a sprinkler discharges, some books are going to get wet. But you can restore wet books whereas you can't restore burned books.

- Lisa Nadile

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Copyright National Fire Protection Association Sep/Oct 2008

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