Skip to content

Fire Safety for Historic Buildings

By Scott Newman

Why is that obviously new building sited on that historic streetscape? The answer is almost always, the old one burned. The U.S. National Fire Protection Association reported one structure fire every minute in 2015, with over 19,000 deaths and injuries and $14.3B in property loss. In Vermont, fire has damaged and destroyed numerous landmark buildings over the past several years. How can stewards of historic commercial and public buildings avoid having their properties become part of these sobering statistics?

Fundamentally, it’s a building manager’s responsibility to acknowledge that fire safety is among the highest forms of preservation, of life and irreplaceable cultural property. This, combined with a good faith effort to address fire safety concerns will have a significant impact when the following steps are taken. First, consider every source of heat in a building as a potential fire hazard: cooking (#1 cause of structure fires), heating, electrical, and lightning. Other heat sources may be introduced by tradespeople using torches or welders. Fire ignition and resulting damage from all these sources are preventable by identifying and minimizing risks.

The application of building codes and permitting requirements for work to public buildings ensures that new work meets standards and minimizes the risk of fire. But this still leaves large gaps in protection for many historic structures. To begin your fire safety evaluation, address each source of heat separately. Cooking: Are you warming food or grilling on a gas-fired cooktop in a church basement or other historic public building? Have the equipment inspected and certified yearly, and replace older cooking appliances. Heating: Have all heating equipment cleaned and inspected yearly with special attention to chimneys and flues. Electrical: Have a certified master electrician conduct a safety inspection and prioritize needed repairs. Lightning: Consider lightning rods for exposed, taller structures such as churches and barns. Trades: Talk to your tradespeople about fire risks during work and their plans to ensure fire safety. Fire ignition from an errant ember or spark is far more likely in an older building.

With risks being addressed, the second step is planning for the possibility of a fire, including detection, reporting, suppression, and egress. Depending on the type of building occupancy, you’ll want professional assistance from an experienced architect and the local Fire Marshall to ensure code-compliant systems are in place. Some immediate measures you can take for Detection include ensuring you have an adequate number of functioning, regularly-tested smoke detectors. Beam-detection is recommended for buildings with large open spaces or those unheated in the winter. Smoke detectors have limited effectiveness below 30 degrees.

Reporting a fire to emergency services is critical, and automatic dispatch using an alarm system is recommended. The Fire Marshall will be able to tell you the type of fire alarm, if any, required for your occupancy. Tripped smoke detectors can also light a red beacon outside the building or set off a siren. Consider having the local Fire Chief over to evaluate the building contents and layout, and provide the Chief with a floorplan indicating the locations of priority cultural property to be protected and retrieved in case of emergency.

Suppression begins with adequately distributed, sized, signed, and inspected fire extinguishers. Have your staff practice discharging one in the parking lot (great team building exercise!). Keep paths of travel and doorways clear for evacuating occupants and responding firefighters. The gold standard for suppression is an automatic sprinkler system, and some funding assistance is available through federal and state tax-credits in certain situations.

Egress, i.e. evacuating older structures, can be problematic. In many cases, lack of exit signage, emergency lights, fire escapes, adequate exits, clear corridors of adequate width, or outward swinging exit doors inhibit emergency egress from historic buildings. As the building steward, imagine the structure filling with smoke and evaluate whether there are unobstructed, well-signed paths of egress from every location. In many cases, improvements are simple and relatively low cost. For example, historic entry doors can be retained and rehung to swing outward, and exit signs with emergency lights cost as little as $70.

Finally, fire safety improvements can usually be made with limited alterations to historic properties. A thoughtful approach will include consideration of alternatives and applicability of code variances, and keeping your staff involved. Your local Fire Marshalls are experienced experts, and will work with you to identify priorities to ensure safe occupancy for staff and visitors. Historical architects and preservation professionals can help guide the safety improvement process and minimize negative effects to historic features. Bottom line, including Fire Safety in your building and budget plans will help ensure a safe and sustainable future for your historic building.

Scott Newman is a PTV Field Services Representative, retired Fire Chief, and past Building Search & Rescue Instructor with the North Country International Fire Training Service.



  • For significant, irreplaceable historic structures
  • In higher strike areas, such as around Lake Champlain or exposed hilltops
  • Ensure an experienced engineer evaluates proposals
  • Hire a qualified installer with references


Protection design alternatives for historic buildings
Current VT Fire Safety Regulations
Information on state and federal tax-credit incentives for code-compliance


Back To Top