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“Salvage plans must be in place for historic venues” warns London Fire Brigade

26 October 2021

THOUSANDS OF historic items in London are at risk of being lost forever if venue management teams don’t have the correct salvage plans in place. The stark warning has been issued by the London Fire Brigade (LFB) in a week where it joined forces with English Heritage for a training exercise at Kenwood House in Hampstead, which itself is home to a world class art collection.

The LFB operates a dedicated Heritage team. It’s members regularly work closely with cultural and historic venues and conduct drills aimed at rehearsing the response to an incident such as a fire or a flooding episode.

The exercise at Kenwood House (pictured) witnessed a mock fire take place. English Heritage staff used their expertise and knowledge to inform fire crews about where items were and how they should be handled.

Such rescues are only possible when venues have up-to-date emergency response and salvage plans in place. A salvage plan identifies not only what actions should be implemented by on-site representatives, but also clearly signals priority items that need to be removed from the building (or protected in situ) and allows fire crews to put recovery strategies in place in advance.

Plans help firefighters decide what equipment is needed to safely recover or protect items as swiftly as possible and minimise damage. Salvage plans should include ‘Grab Sheets’ containing vital information about the size of an item, the number of people required to lift it and its location. Having this in place can help firefighters save time in an emergency situation.

Every museum, gallery and historic building should have a nominated person responsible for the salvage plan. That individual must make sure that a plan exists and is kept up-to-date. Importantly, a member of the LFB’s Heritage team can provide advice and guidance in relation to salvage planning for those organisations who need support.

Fire statistics

There are estimated to be over 20,000 listed buildings in London, including many national landmarks, attractions and historic properties which are home to some very important items of historical value.

The LFB has attended 1,285 fires at or near heritage sites in the last four years and 50 fires at cultural venues such as a museum or an art gallery. Nationally, there’s an average of around 100 fires at heritage sites every month.

LFB’s Heritage team leader William Knatchbull observed: “With so many heritage sites in the capital, part of our role is to preserve them for the next generation. We cannot preserve these beautiful and iconic landmarks, however, without the venues themselves working with us to have emergency salvage plans in place. All building managers need to be aware of how important it is to have a plan in place should the worse case scenario ever occur. We welcome these individuals contacting us so that we can ensure plans in place are appropriate both for the location and our crews.”

Abi Marsh, head of historic properties for English Heritage in London, noted: “Keeping our guests, staff, historic collections and buildings safe are our foremost priorities. We not only have incredibly stringent preventative fire protection measures in place, but also understand the importance of our staff being prepared through training. We’re very grateful to all of the team at the London Fire Brigade for their continued work in supporting us when it comes to caring for our historic spaces.”

Following the extensive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris two years ago, the LFB wrote to over 350 venue owners across London, urging them to consider emergency response planning in order to protect their buildings and the precious items they contain. The Brigade also launched dedicated web pages to support heritage sites with specific fire safety advice.

Indeed, the Brigade’s heritage web page offers a wealth of information and resources for building managers seeking help and support on protecting their buildings.

Flooding at the Lyceum Theatre

In May last year, firefighters were called to a flooding incident at the Lyceum Theatre in London’s West End. Fire crews attended in the evening and worked to pump water away. Delicate flooring meant the crews had to adapt the equipment they used to expel the water without damaging the building.

Jaime Brent, the Ambassador Theatre Group’s theatre manager who was general manager at the Lyceum at the time of the incident, said: “The orchestra pit, in the basement of the theatre, was flooded. Crews went to work quickly. My message to building managers is to have a salvage plan. The more you can anticipate, the better the outcome. Never think it will not happen to you. A detailed salvage plan which the Brigade can use ‘out of hours’ is invaluable.”

The LFB’s Station Commander Chris Line attended the scene. He said: “The Lyceum Theatre incident shows that crews had little time to intervene to protect and prevent further damage to valuable items and property. Working with us before an incident occurs can make a big difference to the outcome. With the amount of water that had entered the basement area, we would normally use a high-volume pump to remove it. Prior knowledge of the site meant that we knew we could not put that kind of weight on the old wooden flooring and needed to change our plan.”

Line believes that venues with valuable objects need to consider how they want fire crews to operate should they receive a 999 call. He explained: “Salvage plans mean crews know what they need to rescue or protect first. Building managers need to think about salvage plans such that when our firefighters enter a building – and bearing in mind they may never have visited it before – they need to know exactly what to do, in priority order and in a timely way.”