Everything Old (and Fire Prone) is New Again

Emergency exits that wouldn’t open. An unreliable smoke detection system from the 1980’s. A lack of audible and visual fire alarm signals. Faulty emergency lighting.

Edgartown District Court BuildingAll of these were to be found in the 161-year-old Edgartown District Court building on Martha’s Vineyard. Conditions were so bad, the fire chief ordered that the building be closed … that, or court officers patrolled the hallways every 15 minutes, conducting fire watch tours.

Which is exactly what they did until upgrades were made and the patrols could be stopped, according to an article from National Fire Protection Association Journal.

Many American courthouses were built in the 19th and 20th centuries. Nothing in their design or construction includes the robust fire and life-safety protection systems we expect and count on today, such as fire sprinklers and modern fire alarm systems.

Due to the love of these old buildings, many communities have chosen to preserve and update the structure rather than erecting a new, modern facility. There’s a pride and dedication to the structures, many of which are the grandest building in a town in which the work of local artisans was employed. The courthouses are often prominently located, their presence a symbol of community pride.

In Texas alone, there are 242 county-owned historic courthouses that were built 50 or more years ago and are still in active government use. Architects have had to figure out how to update these buildings while maintaining its historic look. It’s also important to remember that these facilities house the archives of the community: paper files for birth, marriage, and death records, so easily destroyed by fire.

Some clever solutions to this problem include discreet, fire-resistant curtains which drop down to close off an atrium in which a smoke evacuation system couldn’t be installed, recessed sprinkler heads, retractable emergency lighting, and transparent frameless exit signs. In one case, a fire sprinkler head was placed in the center of a decorative ceiling rosette, causing it to appear more a part of the interior design and less a piece of hardware.

There are a number of changes planned for the 2019 edition of NFPA 914 – Fire Protection of Historic Structures, including removing the word “Fire” from the title. In a day where concerns about active shooters and other threats are being considered, the code will be expanded to cover a wider array of dangers.

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