As the world around us changes, we must continue to adapt our protection strategies so that the level of fire safety we enjoy is not compromised. This is the theme for the Fire Protection Research Foundation’s strategic research agenda, which we are currently revisiting after its initial development five years ago. A lot has changed during that time: the way we construct buildings and cities, gather and use data, adapt to changing climate conditions, and more. In November, we will explore the impact of these changes on fire safety at our strategic research agenda conference in Washington, D.C.
But sometimes the reverse is true — sometimes it’s a fire safety system that introduces a change in an environment where change may not be welcome. While many new materials and methods of fire protection are available to achieve the current (or higher) level of safety, the impact of these innovations on the physical environment must be addressed.
An ongoing project shows how the Foundation is addressing this challenge. In 2009, the NFPA Technical Committee on Cultural Resources asked us to explore the impact of fire extinguishing agents on the artifacts and collection pieces typically found in these properties. The Committee includes representation from museums, libraries, and other conservation centers around the world, people who are charged with the preservation of historical collections. These relics include an array of materials — paintings, furniture, historical records, costumes, and more — from various periods of world history, and an important part of that preservation strategy is protection against fire.
While fire prevention is the best strategy, there are situations where fire cannot be prevented and where suppression systems come into play. In those cases, a second and more difficult preservation task is the restoration of the collections in the post-fire and post-fire-suppression environment. Our initial study identified a range of materials commonly found in cultural resource collections — wood, fabric, paper, ceramics, and others — as well as the various fire extinguisher suppression agents that are commonly used in these environments.
We were recently invited by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Williamsburg, Virginia, to participate in a follow-on comprehensive test and evaluation program funded by the Institute of Museums and Library Sciences. The project consists of a series of suppression agent applications on common materials found in relic collections, exploring both the initial physical impact of the suppression agent and the subsequent chemical interaction between the agents and the objects. The Foundation’s role is to bring together the fire protection and conservator communities to advise them on these impacts and to inform both suppression system design and conservation techniques.
I believe this project is a perfect example of the Foundation’s role in bringing together very different worlds — fire suppression chemistry and archival preservation science — to solve a practical problem addressed in NFPA codes and standards. It’s also a reminder that fire protection does not exist in a vacuum, and that the strategies and techniques that we use to make the world safe from fire must be appropriate for the environment where they are used. The good news is that studies like this one can give us the information we need to make that happen.
Kathleen H. Almand, P.E., FSFPE, is the executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.