The Arson Threat to the Built Heritage and Historical Buildings

un angolo dal teatro feniceWe publish the paper concerning the arson threat to the built heritage already published by the COST Action C17: Built Heritage: Fire Loss to Historic Buildings in its Final Report Part 1 (pages 90-92)

La Fenice Venice

On Friday 30 March 2001, a court in Venice found two electricians guilty of setting fire to La Fenice opera house in the city in 1996. Enrico Carella and his cousin, Massimiliano Marchetti, were found to have set the building ablaze because their company was facing heavy fines over delays in repair work. Mr Carella, the company’s owner, was sent to prison for seven years, while Mr Marchetti received a six-year sentence. The rebuilding of the famous theatre, for which Giuseppi Verdi composed several operas, was delayed and did not re-open until 2004. The fire on 29 January 1996 happened as the Teatro La Fenice was being renovated. The subsequent rebuilding did not go according to plan and the original German-Italian consortium of Holzmann-Romagnoli had asked for supplementary and fee waivers before the work was re-tendered by the City Mayor Paolo Costa.

Sinsheim Mosque, Germany

On the 18 November 2004 unknown individuals threw a Molotov cocktail at a mosque near Heidelberg in Germany. A glass bottle filled with flammable liquid was tossed against the entrance of the Sinsheim mosque. The fire was discovered and extinguished after it caused around €10,000 damage to the wooden door and the glass window.

Wooden Churches, Poland

In Poland, wooden church were found to be particularly at risk. Between 1999 and 2000, 50 churches burnt down. The most frequent cause of fire is not damage to electric installations, but a fire lit deliberately. Poland has a substantial amount of sacred wooden architecture, which make an important, often unique, contribution to European heritage. It consists in part of wooden churches, built between the C14 and C19, mainly Catholic, but there are also other churches, including Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic-orthodox, Dukhobor, Jewish and Mariavites churches. Wooden religious architecture also includes chapels, belfries and morgues. The scale of the task is significant, given that presently there are 2,785 items of religious wooden architecture in Poland and six of them (from the C15 and C16) are on the World Heritage List.

The Arson Threat

It is difficult to be precise about the growth in arson globally due to statistical variations, but there is good evidence that in many developed countries arson is a growing problem. The CTIF Centre of Fire Statistics demonstrated that, in 8 selected countries [Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, Japan, USA and UK] between 1993 and 1999, intentional fires accounted for 18 percent of all building and structure fires. This represents a huge level of unwanted and unwelcome activity, given the fact that a significant part of any country’s built environment contains numerous heritage sites (in some major cities like Edinburgh, Venice, and Rome the figure is very high) and that certain property classifications (like religious buildings) are subject to regular attacks of the sort identified earlier. To illustrate the growth trend in the UK, according to the UK Arson Prevention Bureau, the incidence of arson in occupied buildings has steadily increased over the past decade, as shown in the following Table.

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Arson

Arson is now one of the most serious threats to heritage buildings throughout the world. The reasons for this form of attack vary enormously, from economic fraud to cultural disaffection. The nature of the attack can likewise arise from sophisticated fire raising by criminals using science and technology, to sudden unplanned attacks by vandals using any locally available materials. The impact however, regardless of the initiating event, may be the total loss of all the physical property both of contents and structure. The following real examples illustrate that the target can be a high-profile internationally-known building or a more generalised category of building-type. They serve to illustrate the task being confronted.

Whilst there are many documented causes and solutions to the arson threat, there are also particular circumstances related to heritage buildings that raise the risk presented from intentional attacks. For example, historic structures may

• Contain or be constructed in materials particularly vulnerable to fire, like wood

• Elements of structure will contain voids due to adaptations that spread fire and its products

• Modernisation may hide building services and associated features or structural elements that heighten the risk of undetected initiation or early structural failure

• Transfers and unclear ownership may lead to poor risk management

• Economic and funding priorities sometimes prevent investment in mitigating passive or active systems of fire defence

• Hazardous materials may be present on industrial or military heritage sites

• Criminal activity such as smuggling or theft may give rise to arson to cover the original crime

There are many documented responses to combating arson that suggest there is a strong onous on the heritage community to develop a sustainable and internationally-supported strategy to help preserve the national heritage of each country.

This is especially so when it is realised that within the European Union there are few special requirements placed in law on heritage buildings. A recent study supported by the European Union Community Action Programme in the Field of Civil Protection coordinated by Raddnings Verket, the Swedish Rescue Services Agency, found that no heritage-specific fire safety legislative requirements were in force in Austria, Belgium, Denmark (except a 5 yearly inspection), Finland, Germany (other than a building permit for certain uses), Greece, Sweden, The Netherlands (subject to some heritage and safety controls) and the UK. In Ireland, Italy and Norway, guidance or in Italy’s case technical controls, exist.

The proposal, therefore, is that the Cost Action C17 Working Group 3 should consider extending its investigations into the area of arson reduction and protection. This will require research into national statistics, identification of the national risk profile and subsequent identification of preventative action. Whilst there are cultural and national variations in the risk presented in any approach, there is high value in sharing best practice to help improve sustainability and add intelligence to create an effective response to what is an increasingly alarming threat.

Terrorism

In the earlier section, threats arising from vandals, criminals and activists have been described. Unfortunately, it is now necessary to add to that form of attack the increased threat of extremist action from disaffected groups in society. Prior to 11 September 2001, it was the case that the number of lethal terrorist incidents in Europe had declined, although the total number of incidents rose. The escalation of the terrorist incidents that had occurred in Europe and Eurasia were, in fact, often acts of arson or vandalism. However, terrorism has become an increasingly worrying threat to all those responsible for national icons or places of large public assembly. This, in part, reflects the paradigm shift that occurred in New York when vehicles like aircraft became weapons, instead of buildings being defended against weapons. Major sites that have crowds offer the terrorist anonymity and are internationally recognisable. Frequently, they offer hard construction materials that cause maximum personal damage and lead to economic losses, including tourism. They have become the new targets. Well-known and frequently visited heritage buildings and sites that fall into this category are therefore susceptible. In addition, security measures at higher-risk sites like government centres, can serve to move the terrorist further away from the obvious iconic or transport centres to softer geographically open locations. It is, of course, important to retain a sense of perspective. Lethal events are often infrequent, and in comparison to the routinely accepted loss of life in any country, are of a low order of magnitude. Usually, the risk is simply disruptive, as with left luggage (one example is 2.5 million emergency calls to unattended bags in a 10-year period in a transport environment, with no active explosive devices found). Society, however, demands active consideration of this threat and positive action to reduce both the possible occurrence and mitigate impact. This demands a sensible and systematic review of the likelihood and practical measures. In many areas action taken to reduce prevalent and active life-threatening events such as fire and security, will coincide with action designed to contain this extremist threat. There are many previous examples of this type of attack, especially where intolerance has existed, when individuals over generations have attempted and sometimes succeeded in destroying artefacts or symbols that they consider represent that intolerant burden.

Currently trans-national ideology based upon an Islamic fundamentalist cause that is globally, not geographically, regionalised, together with localised extremism, is seen as the new threat. This, some commentators suggest, is a misunderstanding of a threat that in reality comes from local groups that may share a common ideology, but act independently and in sympathy, without any central direction or control. Personal relationships and sympathetic supporters therefore form the basis of the unstructured network of loose alliances. This is considerably different to the earlier, and in some cases still current, more usual form of threat, in which the perpetrator belonged to an organisation that wanted to find a balance between mass innocent casualties and its political aim. That form of terrorist attack was often characterised by a warning and the terrorist seeking to escape and survive.

The economic cost of mounting a terror attack is low, yet the economic impact can be extremely high. Reducing the risk is also difficult from the perspective of vigilance, since the defender has to be systematically in advance of the terrorist, who needs only one success. This is a problem that some observers say will remain a real issue for some time, with terrorism of this kind expected to last the next 20-30 years.

Again, the practice of risk evaluation supported by sound policy and practice is the key. Co-ordination of best practice, education, investigation, advice, crisis management, business continuity planning, threat monitoring and risk assessment are all required. Technical issues that arise include the threat to people and contamination of the heritage site or workplace, physical violence, and detection of weapons and malicious actions. The identification of specific high-risk sites and event scenarios, like those affecting faith premises as already observed in acts against Muslim and Jewish places of worship, is priority action, since in this threatening environment, physically high levels of protection of all sites is impractical.

Intelligence, and the recognition of connections attributed between causes (as with the desire to see the USA leave Islamic countries or resolve the Palestine issue) are important features to research and understand. Whilst these are simplifications, they do serve to raise the matter as an important concern for those who have a responsibility to protect national heritage.

Conclusion

There is a real and urgent need to evaluate the risk presented at heritage sites from malicious acts of vandalism, criminal attack and local or international terrorism. Many of the issues have common features. There would be a benefit in gathering intelligence and knowledge collectively. That task could be an extension of the current role of the COST Action C17 activities. The proposal would require modest financial support, to initially scope the issue and to prepare a more definitive action programme bid, seeking financial support from the European Union.

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