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The threat of fire as one of the Ten Agents of Deterioration is a major concern for all collections and institutions, as well as for the personnel and the surrounding area. While an emergency plan for fires is essential, preventing a fire begins at recognizing what fuels them. The source of a fire can be a determined by three categories:[1]

·      Ordinary combustibles (wood, paper, textiles etc.)

·      Chemical fires due to flammable materials such as oil-based paints and solvents

·      Electrical fires activated by energized electrical equipment, faulty wiring, or fuse boxes

Any one or more of these categories can be the source of a fire in a collection, so it is important that fire prevention is commonplace in order to mitigate their risks. Types of prevention include:[2]

·      Proper storage of hazardous and flammable materials

·      Clean collection areas

·      Regular electric inspections (exposed wiring, etc.)

·      Comprehensive rules of use of electronic tools in collection areas

·      Correct/current fire protection equipment

It is of utmost importance that where a collection is housed, there is fire protection equipment which works with your collection. Effectively together, this includes:[3]

·      A fire detection and alarm system

·      A fire sprinkler and/or suppression system

·      Fire Extinguishers

When it comes to choosing the best fire equipment for a collection there are several types, and each must be evaluated according to the materials within your collection. All the equipment must have scheduled upkeep and testing, make sure they are working properly.[2]

Once a fire has begun, the damage can not only result in the total loss of a collection but more likely include by products such as:[1]

·      Soot

·      Smoke

·      Water and physical damage from fire sprinkler or suppression systems, hoses, and fire extinguisher discharge.

Soot and smoke can not only leave behind a film of surface discoloration and grime that settles over the entire collection but it also permeates deeper, causing a residual odor. Covering up the collection using smoke barriers and duct fire/smoke dampers can be a deterrent in these cases[2].

The way the collection is housed can be a huge factor in regards to water impact. It may be preferable to store a collection in closed cabinets, and off the floor preferably 4-6 inches.[2]  Once the threat of fire is gone, salvage procedures should be implemented as soon as possible, under the leadership of a conservator, to prevent further damage such as mold growth or rust[4]:

·      If possible, move any adjacent but still dry collection pieces to an unaffected space

·      Keep the affected space cool (below 65 degrees F if possible)

·      Reduce the humidity (below 40% if possible) by circulating air, removing water from the floors, etc.

·      Wear latex or nitrile gloves before handling items covered in smoke or soot; hand oils will drive smoke and soot particles into items and cause more damage

·      Blot (do not rub) smoke/soot off with a vulcanized rubber sponge

Finally, an under-used tool of assistance in emergency preparedness are your local first responders. When including them in designing an emergency plan you not only will learn from their wealth of knowledge in emergency situations, but they will become acquainted with your collection.[5] They are the ones who will be taking control of your space during an emergency, so the more they know about the collection, your facility, and surrounding area, the better. It leads to faster response time during incidents and can help streamline the recovery process.

This entry was submitted by Elisse Brautigam, November 2020.

Suggested Further Reading[edit | edit source]

Tétreault, J. "Fire Risk Assessment for Collections in Museums". Journal of CAC, vol. 33 (2008) pp. 3-21.

  1. 1.0 1.1 (1)   Dorge, Valerie, and Sharon L. Jones. 1999. Building an Emergency Plan: A Guide for Museums and Other Cultural Institutions. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Conservation Institute. (pp. 95-6, 150-51)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 (1)   Bacharach, Joan and Dara Shore. 2019. “Chapter 9: Museum Fire Protection.” In NPS Museum Handbook, Part I. Washington DC: National Park Service Museum Management Program. 9:1-78
  3. (1)   Wilson, J.A. (August 15, 2016) Fire Protection In Cultural Institutions.
  4. (1)   Library of Congress. What To Do When Collections Get Wet. Library of Congress. Accessed November 11, 2020.
  5. (1)   Working with Emergency Responders. 2009. Heritage Preservation llc.