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Author(s): Wayne Moore. Published on September 1, 2017.

In Compliance | NFPA 72

Installing detection and alarm systems in culturally significant buildings


What words come to mind when you think about providing a detection and alarm system in a culturally significant building? A few pop into my mind right away: challenging, difficult, time consuming, and, most of all, privileged. No matter what, you don’t want to begin by simply drawing circles and squares on the design plans or making holes for your installation.

It’s important to first understand the nature and cultural significance of the building. As a designer or installer, you need to take the time to learn why the building has cultural significance and clearly understand that what you do for protection must not affect the historic fabric or nature of the building.

Spend time walking the building, making sure that you know where you might be able to install equipment without impacting the cultural or historic fabric. Fire alarm systems, by their nature, will become intrusive, so you must look for alternative locations for detectors, investigate alternative technologies, and determine the best way to install the wiring.

You may determine that you cannot install detection in some areas that require it without seriously damaging the historic fabric. Fortunately, today’s wireless technologies can protect these challenging and important areas. Older wireless technologies often could not transmit in all areas of a building and proved ineffective. However, with the new mesh radio devices and controls, you can hardwire devices where access exists and use the mesh wireless devices for those areas that either prove too difficult to hardwire or where the impact of installing the cable will destroy historically significant portions of the building.

The 2017 edition of NFPA 909, Protection of Cultural Resource Properties—Museums, Libraries, and Places of Worship, and the 2015 edition of NFPA 914, Fire Protection of Historic Structures, provide guidance and requirements that apply to fire alarm and detection systems. Both of these codes reference NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, for all installation requirements. NFPA 914 serves much like a building code for historic structures, and you would use it in conjunction with NFPA 909.

NFPA 909 specifically allows the use of alternative means and methods for any fire protection system, as long as you submit technical documentation to, and receive acceptance by, the authority having jurisdiction. Additionally, NFPA 909 allows the use of risk-based decisions to determine building safety compliance. Specifically, it states that “cultural resource properties or portions of such structures that do not strictly comply with this code shall be considered to be in compliance if it is shown that equivalent protection is provided or that in the opinion of the authority having jurisdiction no unacceptable risk is created or continued through noncompliance.”

NFPA 909 offers more than just code requirements related to fire protection. It insists on a review of all threats to the property, or the property’s contents, and then requires the use of a risk analysis to determine the risks and how to mitigate them.

Good practices followed by those installing fire alarm systems include blue taping each device location where an installer must drill a hole to mount any device or appliance. The historical design architect would then review and approve each location before an installer performed any work.

Remember that NFPA 909 “covers ongoing operations and rehabilitation and acknowledges the need to preserve culturally significant and character-defining building features and sensitive, often irreplaceable, collections and to provide continuity of operations.” It does not contain the principles and practices for life safety.

Fire alarm system design and installation in cultural properties present a number of challenges. But with a thoughtful, risk-based approach, you can install these systems to appear as if someone had installed them when the building was first built.

WAYNE D. MOORE, P.E., FSFPE, is vice president at Hughes Associates.