Published on November 1, 2018.

Five Questions

NFPA staffers reflect on the Brazil museum fire

What will Brazil do in the wake of the incident?

Anderson Queiroz, NFPA’s representative to Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro

Whenever tragedies like this occur, there’s a huge push from the public and from all levels of government to make changes. The problem is, after a few months, all that initial desire to make the necessary changes in legislation, to invest in safety, and to enforce existing requirements starts to lose steam. Time takes on the role of the villain in this story, erasing from people’s minds the losses and reducing that sense of urgency that exists immediately after an incident. Brazil’s economy, which has been experiencing ups and downs, doesn’t help the situation, as issues with more immediate importance get addressed while preventing tragedies like the museum fire are put on the backburner. I simply don’t see any tangible solution in the short-term, except to count on luck and divine help that more fires like this don’t happen.

What responsibility do policymakers in the United States have now?

Meghan Housewright, director of NFPA’s Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

In a number of U.S cultural institutions, like the Smithsonian and the Getty Center, fire protection is overseen by specialists and included in their well-financed budgets. But not all of the country’s irreplaceable artifacts and historic treasures are in these marquee museums. Last year on the campus of the University of Vermont, a non-sprinklered historic building undergoing renovation was severely damaged by a hot work–instigated fire. Not only was the building itself important to the community, but it housed an extensive, 300,000-plus plant collection from the early 1800s, as well as a number of other natural history specimens. Luckily, it was reported that the collection was largely intact after the fire, but an important piece of history could have been destroyed.

Policymakers, collection holders, and the academic and cultural groups that understand their value should see the fire in Brazil as a call to come together to evaluate and prioritize the fire protection needs for the thousands of artifacts scattered across the country.

What makes it hard to secure funding for protecting priceless artifacts?

Joy Rodowicz, digital assets and records manager at NFPA

There is nothing exciting or sexy about insurance, and that’s the essence of what we’re talking about here. It’s the same as asking, “Why doesn’t everyone have a will or estate plan?” We all know these are important but something always seems to get in the way.

When it comes to budgeting, organizations see the need and often recognize the value of protecting their priceless cultural and historic assets. But financial officers are looking for return on investment, so when the time comes to set priorities and allocate funds, museums, libraries, and archives are too often seen as luxuries and placed at the bottom of the list while the immediate and near-term needs get addressed first. If we found a way to capitalize on our cultural and historic resources, the money would be there, too.

What do you say to people who worry sprinklers will cause water damage to artifacts in museums?

Greg Harrington, principal engineer in NFPA’s Building Fire Protection Division

Curators must evaluate their own risk and determine for themselves which scenario is more tolerable: likely restorable water damage to collections resulting from an unlikely automatic sprinkler system failure, or the complete destruction of collections by fire. Irreplaceable objects can be dried and restored. They cannot be reassembled from ashes. The recent destruction of the National Museum of Brazil is a testament to this. Curators shoulder tremendous responsibility: the preservation of often-irreplaceable, culturally and scientifically significant objects. An assumption that “fire won’t happen to me” ignores the reality that, in fact, it can. Just ask the citizens of Brazil whose national history literally went up in flames. Automatic fire suppression systems are the best defense against such a devastating loss.

How does the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem help prevent future incidents like this?

Jim Pauley, NFPA President

What the Ecosystem does is help frame the discussion around fire and life safety. Instead of saying, “It’s about one thing, like installing sprinklers,” it illustrates the importance of doing all the right things in total that lead to protecting people and property. The Ecosystem shows what actual safety looks like through eight cogs, representing elements such as government responsibility and the development and use of current codes. Ignore any one of them and the result can be catastrophic. After the Brazil museum fire, there’s got to be a lot of people in government thinking, “This is a problem.” So if we can start with the regulators, and explain to them the idea of the Ecosystem, I think that’s a huge step in the right direction to preventing catastrophic incidents like the Brazil fire. [For more on the Ecosystem, visit the ecosystem website.]