Choosing the Best AES for Each Historic Building

By carefully weighing the pros and cons of automatic extinguishing  systems, we can create a more effective and comprehensive approach to  protecting our cultural heritage historic buildings from the threat of  fire

As the world’s cultural and historical treasures continue to fascinate us, so too does the threat of fire and its devastating impact on these  irreplaceable assets. The protection of historic buildings has become a pressing concern, with automatic suppression systems or fire extinguishing systems (AES or AFES) emerging as a crucial tool in this endeavor. However, the effectiveness of AES in  safeguarding cultural heritage sites is a topic of ongoing debate.

The fire of 64 AD in Rome led to the definition of fire prevention regulations and the establishment of the first documented fire prevention and rescue service. Hubert Robert’s painting – 1785 (

AES: Only Enhanced Protection and Reduced Response Times?

One of the most significant advantages of AES lies in its ability to rapidly respond to fires, thereby minimizing damage and preserving the integrity of cultural heritage sites. Traditional firefighting methods  often rely on manual intervention, which can lead to delays in detection  and response times. In contrast, AES systems utilize advanced sensors and  algorithms to detect even the earliest signs of fire, triggering an  immediate extinguishing response. This expedited reaction time is particularly critical for historic buildings, where every minute counts in preserving priceless artifacts and architectural features. Moreover, AES systems can be designed to specifically target specific areas of a building, allowing for targeted suppression of fires rather  than blanket coverage. This precision-based approach reduces the risk of over-suppression or damage to adjacent structures, further minimizing the  impact of fire on cultural heritage sites.

While AES systems offer enhanced protection and rapid response times, they also present several challenges and limitations that must be carefully considered. One of the primary concerns is the significant upfront  investment required for implementation and maintenance. The cost of designing, installing, and regularly servicing these systems can be  prohibitively expensive, particularly for smaller institutions or those with limited budgets. Furthermore, AES systems are often complex and require specialized  training to operate effectively. This added layer of complexity can create difficulties in maintaining system functionality and troubleshooting issues when they arise. Additionally, the rigidity of AES systems may limit their adaptability to unique building layouts or evolving fire scenarios, potentially compromising their overall effectiveness.

Human Factors: Operator Error and System Dependence

A frequently forgotten topic in the management of the security of cultural heritage, also with regard to AES, is that of the human factor. While AES systems  can provide rapid response times, they are ultimately only as effective as the individuals responsible for operating and maintaining them. The  potential for operator error or complacency can lead to system failure or  reduced effectiveness, underscoring the importance of robust training  programs and regular maintenance schedules. Furthermore, an over-reliance on AES systems can create a false sense of security, potentially leading to complacency among building occupants or management. This dependence on technology can also distract from other critical fire safety measures, such as regular inspections, proper storage practices, and staff education.

Why the Human Factor is a Key Component in Managing Fire Automatic  Extinguishing Systems Safety for Cultural Heritage? When it comes to protecting cultural heritage historic buildings from  fire, the human factor plays a crucial role in ensuring the safety and  effectiveness of automatic extinguishing systems. While technology can  provide rapid response times and precise suppression capabilities, it is  only as effective as the individuals responsible for operating and  maintaining these systems.

Proper training and awareness are essential for those involved in managing fire automatic extinguishing systems. This includes not only system  operators but also maintenance personnel, security guards, and building  occupants. Training should cover topics such as:

  • System operation and maintenance
  • Hazard recognition and response
  • Firefighting procedures and techniques
  • Communication protocols

A Common Concern is the fact that despite proper training, operator error can still occur. This may be due  to a range of factors, including:

  • Fatigue or distraction
  • Lack of familiarity with the system
  • Insufficient maintenance or testing
  • Human bias and judgment errors

To mitigate these risks, it is essential to implement robust quality  control measures, such as regular training sessions, system audits, and  performance evaluations. Moreover, regular maintenance and testing are critical in ensuring the continued  effectiveness of fire automatic extinguishing systems. This includes tasks such as: performing routine inspections and checks conducting regular testing and calibration and maintaining accurate records of system performance and maintenance activities

Effects of Different Extinguishing Agents on  Historic Materials

When it comes to protecting cultural heritage historic buildings from fire, the choice of extinguishing agent can have significant consequences  for the materials involved. Each agent has unique properties that can  affect different types of materials in distinct ways. A monumental work, in this regard, is the publication of the Fire Protection Research Foundation “Measuring the Impact of Fire Extinguisher Agents On Cultural Resource Materials – Final Report“, which illustrates the effects of different extinguishing agents on a large number of materials and typical supports of historic buildings and many cultural heritage works. A brief reminder of the main aspects of the extinguishants most frequently used in AES is:

Water: A Double-Edged Sword. Water is a commonly used extinguishing agent, but its effectiveness  depends on the type of material being protected. Water can be beneficial  for extinguishing fires involving ordinary combustibles, such as wood and  paper, by cooling the surface and smothering the flames. However, water  can also cause significant damage to delicate or sensitive materials like  paintings, textiles, or manuscripts. The absorption of water can lead to  swelling, warping, or even disintegration of these materials.

Water Mist: A More Precise Approach. Water mist, a mixture of air and water droplets, offers a more targeted  approach than plain water. This agent is effective for suppressing Class A fires (ordinary combustibles) while minimizing damage to surrounding  materials. Water mist can help prevent the absorption of excessive amounts of water by historic materials, reducing the risk of damage.

CO2: The Silent Killer. Carbon dioxide (CO2) extinguishing systems are often used in data centers  and other sensitive environments where electronic equipment is present.  However, CO2 can be detrimental to historic materials like wood, paper, or fabric. CO2 displaces oxygen, which can lead to the decay of organic  materials and accelerate the degradation process.

Oxygen Depletion: Another Double-Edged Sword. Oxygen depletion extinguishing systems work by reducing the amount of  available oxygen to starve the fire. While this approach can be effective  in suppressing fires, it may also accelerate the decay of organic  materials or accelerate chemical reactions that can damage historic materials.

Powder: A Dry Alternative. Dry powder extinguishing agents are often used in situations where water  would be ineffective or potentially damaging. Powder agents like  monoammonium phosphate (MAP) or sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3) are generally  safe for use around most types of materials, including electronic  equipment, machinery, and artworks. However, the risk of accidental  discharge or over-suppression must still be considered.

The Prinkipos Orthodox Orphanage in Turkey is one of the tallest existing wooden buildings (

Accuracy in Fire Suppression: Manual Action vs. Automatic Extinguishing Systems

When it comes to extinguishing fires, accuracy is crucial in ensuring  effective suppression and minimizing damage to people, property, and the  environment. Both manual action and automatic extinguishing systems have  their own strengths and limitations when it comes to achieving high levels of accuracy.

Manual Action: Human Error and Variability. Manual fire suppression by humans involves a range of factors that can  affect the level of accuracy, including:

  • Operator error or judgment
  • Fatigue, distraction, or stress
  • Limited visibility, hearing, or other sensory impairments
  • Variable response times due to different scenarios

As a result, manual action is inherently prone to human error and  variability, which can lead to incomplete suppression or even exacerbate  the fire.

Automatic Extinguishing Systems: Precision and Consistency. In contrast, automatic extinguishing systems are designed to provide  precision and consistency in suppressing fires. These systems:

  • Respond rapidly and accurately without human intervention
  • Can detect and suppress fires at early stages, reducing damage
  • Minimize the risk of human error or variability
  • Provide consistent performance under various scenarios

However, automatic extinguishing systems also have limitations, such as:

  • Potential for false alarms or malfunctions
  • Limited ability to adapt to changing fire conditions
  • Dependence on proper installation, maintenance, and testing

Comparison of Accuracy Levels. While both manual action and automatic extinguishing systems have their  strengths and limitations, the level of accuracy is generally higher with  automatic systems. Automatic extinguishing systems can provide precision  and consistency in suppressing fires, whereas human error and variability  are inherent in manual fire suppression. By recognizing the differences in accuracy levels between manual action  and automatic extinguishing systems, we can better understand the  strengths and limitations of each approach and develop more effective fire safety strategies.

Cost/Benefit Assessment: An Approach to Installing AES  in Historic Buildings

When considering the installation of an AES in a historic building, it is essential to conduct a  thorough cost/benefit assessment. This evaluation helps determine whether  the benefits of installing an AES outweigh its costs and potential  impacts on the building’s integrity.

Step 1: Identify Potential Risks and Benefits. Begin by identifying potential risks and benefits associated with installing an AES in the historic building. Consider factors such as:

  • The building’s age, condition, and occupancy
  • Hazardous materials present (e.g., flammable liquids or gases)
  • Fire hazards from electrical equipment, open flames, or other sources
  • Compliance with local fire safety regulations
  • Potential damage to historic materials or structures in the event of a fire

Step 2: Determine Installation Costs. Estimate the costs associated with installing an AES, including:

  • System design and engineering fees
  • Material and labor costs for installation
  • Any necessary modifications to the building’s electrical or plumbing systems
  • Testing and commissioning expenses

Step 3: Evaluate Maintenance and Operating Costs. Consider the ongoing maintenance and operating costs associated with an  AES, such as:

  • Regular testing and inspection fees
  • Replacement parts and supplies for system components
  • Power consumption and energy costs (if applicable)

Step 4: Assess Potential Losses or Damages. Estimate potential losses or damages that could occur in the event of a  fire without an AFES, including:

  • Property damage to historic materials or structures
  • Business interruption or revenue loss
  • Potential harm to building occupants or staff

Step 5: Weigh Costs Against Benefits. Compare the installation costs, maintenance and operating costs, and  potential losses or damages against the benefits of installing an AES.  Consider factors such as:

  • Compliance with regulatory requirements
  • Reduced risk of fire damage or injury
  • Potential cost savings from reduced insurance premiums

Step 6: Develop a Comprehensive Plan. Based on your assessment, develop a comprehensive plan that outlines the installation, maintenance, and operation of an AES in the historic  building. This plan should include:

  • System design and engineering specifications
  • Installation timelines and milestones
  • Maintenance and testing schedules
  • Operating procedures for building occupants and staff

Conclusion: Balancing Utility with Caution

In conclusion, automatic extinguishing systems offer a valuable tool in  the protection of cultural heritage historic buildings. While they provide enhanced protection and rapid response times, their implementation must be carefully considered within the context of each unique institution or  site.

As we move forward in balancing the utility of AES with caution, it is  essential to acknowledge both the benefits and drawbacks of these systems. A cost/benefit assessment is essential when deciding  whether to install an automatic fire extinguishing system in a historic  building. By weighing the costs against the benefits, you can develop a  comprehensive plan that balances fire safety with the preservation of  cultural heritage treasures

A comprehensive approach that incorporates AES with traditional  firefighting methods, regular inspections, and robust training programs  can help ensure the long-term preservation of our cultural heritage  treasures.

Final Recommendations

From this brief summary of the pros and cons of AES, some rules can be drawn to follow to decide whether an AES can be installed in a given building and which type of system and extinguishing substance may be most useful:

  • Conduct thorough cost-benefit analyses before implementing AES systems.
  • Develop and implement rigorous training programs for system operators.
  • Prioritize human factors in system design and operation.
  • Regularly inspect and maintain AES systems to ensure optimal  performance.
  • Develop flexible AES systems that can adapt to unique building layouts  or evolving fire scenarios.

By carefully weighing the pros and cons of automatic extinguishing  systems, we can create a more effective and comprehensive approach to  protecting our cultural heritage historic buildings from the threat of  fire.