Cultural institutions are just as susceptible, if not more so, to the wide variety of common ignition sources that are responsible for most fires elsewhere. The most important factor in preventing a fire loss is through the maintenance of a good fire prevention program. The fire protection program (policy) needs to be in writing and updated periodically. Management and staff responsibilities need to be defined, and fire prevention procedures established. This program must be based on a high standard of housekeeping, orderliness, maintenance of equipment and continuous staff training and awareness in both recognizing and eliminating fire hazards (ignition and fuel sources).
Fire Detection Systems
Fires produce a variety of products and byproducts, including smoke, heat, light, sound, and various gases. There are a variety of fire detectors available today that can sense for each of these products, and usually one can mix and match detectors on a common fire detection system. For most historic properties, however, smoke detectors usually offer the best means for detecting a fire at its very earliest stages.
The most common types of smoke detectors available and used in buildings today are spot-type photoelectric or ionization. Without going into detail as to their principles of operation, photoelectric detectors react more quickly to smoldering fires that produce visible smoke, whereas ionization detectors react more quickly to invisible products of combustion and flaming fires. The type of detector(s) selected for use may vary from room to room depending upon the construction, furnishings and operations encountered. A fire protection specialist should be consulted for advice.
Perhaps the most sensitive smoke detection systems available are the air sampling systems that continually draw and examine the air from a room or rooms. These types of smoke detection are very expensive, and do not readily lend themselves to protecting an entire building. They do, however, offer an aesthetic advantage, in that no visible devices need be installed in the area(s) being protected. Instead, a very small diameter tubing can be discreetly inserted into the room, with nothing visible showing.
Fire Suppression Systems
If one were to examine every cultural property (historic building, museum, library, place of worship, etc.) lost to a fire, the only factor they would share in common would be lack of an automatic fire suppression system. Many would have had good housekeeping programs, or fire detection systems, or have been constructed of noncombustible materials, but they were still total fire losses. Being properly prepared for a fire often means incorporating an automatic fire suppression system. An suppression system, designed to quickly control or extinguish a fire that is beyond the means of a portable extinguisher, is the best insurance against a large loss fire.
Generally speaking, only gas based or water based automatic fire suppression systems are suitable for protecting cultural properties. Gaseous systems are suitable only for protecting the contents of a tightly sealed room that can contain the gas once it is discharged. Any breach to the room, e.g. open door or window, operating ventilation system, wall/floor openings around pipes or conduit, etc., will permit the gas to escape and void its usefulness in extinguishing the fire.
The alternative to a gas based fire suppression system is a water based one, such as sprinkler or watermist system.