Notre Dame is the tip of the iceberg – it’s time to commit to protecting our heritage buildings during refurbishment

Companies should implement the most technologically advanced fire safety measures to protect their workers and keep the construction sites they are working on safe. Each year several historic, listed and ordinary buildings are lost to fire during refurbishment works, culminating most recently in the events in Paris.

According to fire safety expert Ramtech Electronics, following the recent devastating fire at Notre Dame and previous fires at other high-profile locations in the UK and internationally, businesses need to make a firm commitment to better protect the heritage and historic buildings they are trusted with during refurbishment projects.

Strict legislative guidance already exists for fire alarms on construction and refurbishment projects, which, if followed, would dramatically improve fire safety and prevent many incidents escalating to something far worse:

JCOP (Joint Code of Practice) created a step change in fire safety on site by clarifying the need for an EN 54 compliant fire alarm system. Version 9 of Fire Prevention on Construction Sites; The Joint Code of Practice on the Protection from Fire of Construction Sites and Buildings Undergoing Renovation (JCOP) contains the advice; Components of automatic fire detection and alarm systems should be marked as complying with EN 54 (paragraph 13.8). JCOP is not prescriptive on whether the system should be wired or wireless although the latter offers significant benefits because it is easy to set up – requiring no specialist trades – and avoids drilling holes in listed or historic structures or trailing electrical cables.

Paul Henson, Sales and Marketing Director at Ramtech Electronics said: This year should go down in history as a turning point for fire safety on refurbishment and construction projects as a result of the devastation at Notre Dame Cathedral. The massive fire engulfed the upper parts as it was undergoing a €6 million renovation, threatening one of the greatest architectural treasures of the western world. A stark reminder to construction, refurbishment and insurance companies of the high risk and cost of fires. Indeed, the UK government estimates that construction firms in England and Wales are affected by 104,000 fires each year, equating to 11 fires every day.

“The increased risk with many refurbishment projects is that the fixed, wired fire alarm that is used when the building is occupied is disconnected to expedite works. All too often, decision makers don’t consider the elevated risks of fire during refurbishment (welding, hot works, grinding/cutting etc) when they decide to disconnect the fire alarm system yet the cost of repairing fire damage even on a standard commercial building is very costly and results in severe project delays.”

“Several leading insurers to the construction sector have made it clear that there is an ‘expectation that customers comply with JCOP guidelines as far as is practicable and reasonable’. That means there is an expectation that all construction and refurbishment projects will have a fully compliant fire alarm system, meaning it carries CE marking. It is now suspected that Notre Dame did not have a fire alarm system installed in the refurbishment parts enabling earlier detection of the flames.”

If the Notre Dame fire was caused by an electrical fault and in fact, there are 25,000 electrical fires in a country the size of the UK each year, the most common causes are resistive heat build-up due to loose connections, faulty appliances or overloaded sockets and distribution boards, all of which are exacerbated on refurbishment projects due to, for example, use of high capacity power tools. This resistive heating of connections can generate heat in excess of 1000°C, well above the ignition point of many adjacent combustibles such as timber, PVC cable insulation and plastic consumer unit enclosures. Often businesses mistakenly believe that the presence of an RCD would prevent these fires, but a report by the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) in the UK estimates that only 20% of all electrical fires could be prevented by the presence of an RCD. In simple terms, Circuit Breakers, RCD's and RCBO's are unable to detect resistive heat (which causes the other 80% of fires). RCDs are designed principally to avoid a person from being electrocuted and cannot detect the elevated temperatures generated by resistive heating.

As a result of this anomaly, Ramtech Electronics developed WES Hotspot incorporating Thermarestor technology, which works by activating as soon as abnormal heat (80ºC ± 5°C) is detected.  Once activated, these Single and Multi-Point Sensors can either automatically isolate the circuit supply by operating an RCD or else provide a signal to an alarm system - long before the temperature can increase to the point of ignition. It can be connected to virtually any system to provide nominated personnel with instant notification or disconnect the electrical supply if the site is vacated, before it results in a fire.  The range has been independently tested and is compliant with all applicable statutory European regulations and requirements.

Paul adds that EN54 compliant wireless fire alarm systems, such as Ramtech’s WES3, have been available for some years now and are regularly used by over half of the top 100 construction firms in the UK. Despite this, localised decisions can still be made based on other factors and even though wireless fire alarms are a fraction of the cost of the project and easy to set up, a short-sighted approach can sometimes be taken.

If a temporary fire alarm system had been deployed at Notre Dame, the outcome could have been different; a wireless fire alarm system comprises manual fire alarm call points that are installed on site in accordance with the project’s Fire Plan. These call points are designed so that the system is interlinked, meaning that all areas receive the same audible and visual alert signal, even if the fire is contained to just one of them. Incorporating heat or smoke detectors into the system provides automatic cover 24/7, ensuring that the site is protected even when personnel are not present. No wires or drilling into the historic fabric of the building are necessary. An ability to add or remove units means that personnel in all areas of the building receive the same audible alarm, ensuring that everyone present can evacuate to a place of safety.

When a fire is detected – either by a person activating a manual call point or via the heat/smoke detectors – it triggers a site-wide alarm and sends an alert to nominated personnel. This enables immediate evacuation, saving lives, and rescue services can be notified at the earliest opportunity. That’s important because minutes are critical – when the flames at Notre Dame were first detected they were already three metres high and raging out of control.

“The benefits and potential costs savings of taking a planned approach to fire safety and utilising proactive and reactive technology to protect refurbishments and construction projects, both employees and stakeholders will have confidence that business is being as responsible as possible for its staff and the history it is protecting for generations to come.”