Navigating fire safety for historic sites involves unique challenges. Learn about essential steps and strategies to protect these invaluable structures and their contents.

Hannah Eales, Partner, and Kathryn Sheridan, Senior Associate at Kingsley Napley, discuss the intricacies of fire safety for historic buildings.

Heritage buildings, often constructed long before modern fire safety regulations existed, present unique challenges due to their use of materials now considered outdated and vulnerable to fire. This can jeopardise not only the structure but also the priceless artefacts within. The Notre-Dame Cathedral fire in April 2019 is a reminder of the potential risks faced by such landmarks. It's crucial for those responsible for these sites to understand and act on their fire safety obligations. 

Emergency response plan

Every historic building must have a comprehensive Emergency Response Plan (ERP). This plan should outline actions to take during an emergency, tailored to the building's size and complexity. It must be clear, regularly reviewed, and accessible to all authorised personnel. For sites like museums, palaces, and galleries, the ERP should include:

  • Fire risk assessment
  • Fire strategy
  • Emergency evacuation procedures
  • Salvage/damage control plan
  • Emergency contact list

Under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, a Competent Person must conduct a fire risk assessment, recording all findings. For historic buildings, this assessment should be done by someone experienced in heritage sites, as these come with unique risks requiring specialised expertise.

Fire Strategy and evacuation procedures

A Competent Person should develop a fire strategy that formalises the basic fire safety requirements for a building. While prioritising life safety, this strategy should also protect the building's contents and outline necessary training and its frequency. The strategy must consider the building's occupancy, including public visitors, staff, or on-site residents, to ensure a prompt and effective response.

Salvage/damage control plan

This plan prioritises the removal of valuable objects in case of fire, tailored to the incident's scale and the building's size. It should identify a Salvage Incident Coordinator, a contacts list, salvage priorities, procedures, and emergency conservation instructions. Historic England advises including detailed site and room plans, photographs of items, their positions, and any special removal measures. The plan should also specify areas of the building that must be protected from fire, smoke, or water damage.


Balancing fire prevention with the preservation of a historic site's authenticity is challenging. The LFB Fire Safety Guidance Note for Heritage Buildings suggests practical measures such as:

  • Compartmentation using fire-resistant materials
  • Identifying and mitigating hidden voids
  • Ensuring heritage doors are solid and well-fitted
  • Upgrading or replacing doors to be more heat, flame, and smoke resistant
  • Installing Automatic Fire Suppression Systems and reliable fire warning systems
  • Using visual and thermal fire detectors
  • Considering low voltage or LED lighting for the lighting system
  • These steps highlight the complexities of protecting historic buildings from fire risks.


Ensuring fire safety compliance in historic buildings is a complex task, fraught with unique challenges. Regular assessments and strategic planning are essential. Those responsible for these treasured structures should seek expert advice to address the specific nuances of fire safety in heritage sites, recognising that the approach differs significantly from modern buildings.

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