Last week, a fire engulfed a Tudor mansion to the south of Manchester. The fire at Wythenshawe Hall broke out in the early hours of Tuesday morning, according to the Manchester fire and rescue service.
The building has been standing since 1540, and has survived the five centuries since admirably – including being besieged by Cromwell’s parliamentary forces during the Civil War. But that run was finally brought to an ignoble end, when the bell-tower, roof, first floor and timber beams were all reduced to blackened husks of their former selves.
It’s since been confirmed that this blaze was started deliberately. All of this should serve as a reminder that older buildings are particularly vulnerable to such attacks, thanks to the wooden materials that make up the roof.
Such fires, once they’ve been started, can inflict enormous damage. But what exactly can be done to protect buildings like this against them?
New buildings are better for fire
Construction technology has advanced enormously over the centuries. Buildings are now far sturdier, more cost-effective, and generally more structurally sound than they ever have been. Thanks to an improved understanding of fire and what causes it to spread, and the advent of better, flame-retardant materials, new buildings are far more difficult to set light to – and when they do go up, the fire will spread a great deal less quickly, buying fire crews valuable time to get to the scene and put out the blaze.
But where does that leave historic buildings? Obviously we don’t want to knock them down and start again – doing so would demolish valuable heritage, and many older buildings are beloved works of art.
Thankfully, there are many ways in which we can safeguard older buildings against fire. And we can do so without compromising the structural integrity or the look of the building in question.
The first few minutes
When it comes to minimising the damage a fire can inflict, time is of the essence. A span of just a few minutes can spell the difference between minor, superficial damage and widespread destruction. The longer a fire remains undetected, the worse the eventual result.
A great deal can be said for having constant, manned surveillance on site. But this is an extremely costly and impractical solution – particularly for historical buildings which are open to the public and must rely on charity to maintain themselves. Fortunately, modern technology offers several solutions which allow us to respond to fires very quickly.
In a historical property, wiring is a major concern. Having reams of cable strewn about the place is going to enormous impact the look of the place. At the same time, poking holes in the walls in order to install cabling might not be desirable or indeed possible for a listed building – especially if you’re looking to preserve the authentic look of a house that was built during the reign of Henry VIII. In such properties, threading wiring through the walls will be impossible, as there will be no cavity for such wires to occupy – that development didn’t arise until the 19th century, and was not widespread until the 20th.
Fortunately, modern technology has a solution. Through the use of radio waves, fire alarm signals can be broadcast without the use of expensive and invasive wiring. This will provide fire-protection that’s affordable for period properties.
Fire detection systems come in many different forms. Let’s examine a few of the technologies on offer from TAG Systems. These systems all comply with the eighth edition of the Joint Code of Practice – a list of recommendations which aim to minimise the risk of fire.
When you see a fire, your first response should be to call the fire brigade. So, you take out your phone. Using your trembling, sweaty fingers, you dial 999. You tell the operator you’d like the fire brigade. You tell them the address – assuming that you know it. All of this wastes valuable seconds, and presents opportunity for error – and it assumes that you have your phone handy.
Break-glass units make this task all the more simple – rather than placing a call, you just smash the glass. These devices come equipped with a cover, which prevents accidental activation. They can also be used internally.
Of course, you might not want human involvement in detecting your fire at all – as there won’t always be humans on site to detect the fire. Sophisticated fire detectors, such as those provided by TAG Systems, will consist of two components – a universal base, and a head which can be swapped out according to your circumstances.
Optical heads are designed for environments where a little transient smoke is to be expected. They’re appropriate for slow-burning fires, and are suitable for escape routes. The risk of false alarm is low, and they’re easy to install. Heat-rise heads work by detecting changes in ambient temperature – when it rises beyond a given threshold, the alarm will sound.
You might also consider a solution comprising both these technologies in a single head. This will allow you to cover every base.
When there’s a fire, you’ll want everyone in the vicinity to be aware of it. That way they’ll be able to take the appropriate action to ensure their own safety, and others around them. TAG Systems provide two different sorts of klaxon – a single-push call point with an integrated 100db(a) klaxon, and a remotely-activated, 127db(a) version which can be placed at a high point and thereby broadcast its message across the entire site.
Remote monitoring via a base-station
In order to provide a solution that’s intelligent, a human observer is enormously useful. With these devices (and possibly additional CCTV measures), connected to a remote observation station that’s manned 24/7, a site can be given the strongest possible protection against fire.
The same can be said of preventing arsonists from entering the premises in the first place – if they’re caught in the act on CCTV or by intruder detection devices, the fire can be avoided, along with all of the pain and damage it might have otherwise caused.