Publications:

Fire Suppression for Records and Archives

August 2013

At any time, fire can destroy an organization’s vital records. Once a record is burned, it is unrecoverable and irretrievable. Such a loss can devastate an organization: operations are disrupted, revenue is lost, legal rights are endangered, and historical information disappears forever.

To prevent such a loss, an organization must plan well. This includes a records disaster plan that covers the threat of fire and assesses ways to prevent the loss of records through fire damage. The plan should include

  • an assessment of fire threats and ways to eliminate or mitigate them
  • a complete detailed inventory of all records, their value, and location
  • backup procedures for electronic records
  • duplication and dispersal of vital paper records

The number one rule to remember in case of a fire is personal safety. People are more important than records. In case of a fire, never attempt to save records before evacuating the building and never enter a burning building to save records no matter how valuable they may be. Do not enter a building after a fire to assess damage unless the local fire department or law enforcement agency deems the building safe to enter.

There are two ways to protect records from fire damage: passive fire protection and active fire protection. Passive fire protection employs the use of fire-resistant materials in the construction of records storage areas or in the construction of an entire building. It also includes the use of fire-resistant self-contained vaults, safes, or file cabinets. Active fire protection employs the use of systems that respond to fires and employ a certain amount of motion such as water sprinkler systems and chemical fire-suppression systems. A good fire protection plan should include elements of both passive and active fire protection.

You’ll need to research fire codes as well. There are federal, state, and even local codes that you must follow. For example, in some jurisdictions require you to have a wet sprinkler system even if you already have a chemical one.

The two main federal laws are the Federal Fire Protection and Control Act of 1974 (http://www.house.gov/legcoun/Comps/FIREPREV.PDF) and the Federal Fire Safety Act of 1992. (http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d102:H.R.3360:) New York State fire codes are covered by the New York State Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code (the “Uniform Code”) which prescribes minimum standards for both fire prevention and building construction. It is applicable in every municipality of the state (except the City of New York, which was permitted to retain its own code). The Uniform Code contains a provision called the “more restrictive local standard” or MRLS. The MRLS allows localities in New York State to set a higher standard with the approval of the State Fire Prevention and Building Code Council. Contact the appropriate local government about these standards while planning a records storage facility.

You may also want to research accepted standards for protecting records from fires. The National Fire Protection Association has two standards relating to records: NFPA 232, Standard for the Protection of Records, and NFPA 232A, Guide for Fire Protection for Archives and Records Centers. The latter is designed for records centers that hold 50,000 cubic feet or more of records. These standards can be purchased from the NFPA website at www.nfpa.org.

Passive Fire Protection

Fire-Resistant Dry Wall or Sheetrock

All sheetrock (AKA dry wall) is naturally fire-resistant since it contains gypsum, a substance that retains moisture, which slows the spread of fire. Standard sheetrock will resist burning for about 30 minutes. There are two types of fire-resistant sheetrock: Type X and Type C. Type X sheetrock is thicker than the standard ½-inch sheetrock at 5/8 of an inch and contains fiberglass, a fire-resistant substance. Type X sheetrock will resist fire for 60 minutes. Type C sheetrock provides the best protection and comes in ½- or 5/8- inch thicknesses. Type C sheetrock will resist fire for up to 4 hours. The fire rating on any wall can easily be increased by adding extra layers of sheetrock during construction.

Any fire-resistant storage area should also be equipped with a fire-proof hollow steel door. These doors are available with fire resistances ranging from 30 minutes to three hours.

Fire-Resistant Vaults, Safes, and File Cabinets

The more valuable the record, the higher level of protection required. In most cases, the best option for protecting records from fire may be to duplicate a record, using digital imaging or microfilming, and store a copy off site. Certain records will have intrinsic value as artifacts, so protecting the record in its original format is vital in such cases. Fire-resistant storage, such as a safe or file cabinet, can protect the record during a fire. Safes and vaults come in 1-, 2-, 3-, or 4-hour ratings. The hour rating is based on laboratory tests that heat the storage unit to 1700 degrees Fahrenheit (twice the temperature of the average fire) and measure the temperature unit reaches inside. For your most important records, a 4-hour rated safe or vault is recommended. However, if your facility or storage area has a fire-detection system that alerts the local fire department, you can consider a lower rating.

Today many vital and important records are stored on electronic media such as digital linear tapes or DVDs. You should store such backup media to an offsite fire-resistant storage area. The heat generated by a fire will damage digital media before paper, since digital media is constructed of plastic, which melts before paper burns. Electronic media will become damaged at temperatures over 125 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas paper can normally withstand temperatures up to 350 degrees. If you are looking to store electronic media or photos, photo negatives, or microfilm, you must purchase a “media safe” rather than a safe or cabinet designed to protect paper records from fire. Media safes (sometimes called data safes) will keep the temperature inside themselves from exceeding 125 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep in mind that any safe referred to as a “records safe” is designed only for paper. You can also purchase a “mixed media safe” that is designed to safely store and protect multiple media types. If you’d like to store some electronic media or other non-paper records in a records safe or fireproof cabinet, you can purchase a small media storage safe that is designed to be placed in records safe or fireproof cabinet. They’re often referred to by the registered brand name “media cooler.”

Fireproof filing cabinets are an effective but costly way to protect records from fire. You should explore other options for protecting your records from fire before purchasing fireproof cabinets. A standard four-drawer file cabinet retails from $180 to $250. A four-drawer fire proof cabinet retails from $2,800 to $4,800, so the cost of this storage is extremely high.

Weight is also a factor. A standard four-drawer file cabinet is 98 pounds empty and 400 pounds when full. The average four-drawer fireproof is 1,000 pounds empty. Once purchased and delivered, the cabinet will be difficult to move. Also, you should confirm the floor load capacity of the floor where the fireproof will be used, especially if you plan on purchasing multiple fireproof cabinets.

Active Fire Protection

Active fire protection employs the use of fire-suppression systems that use various elements to extinguish a fire once it starts. The systems will detect either smoke or heat, which trigger the release of the extinguisher element and put out the fire. Suppression systems can be divided into five basic types:

  • Water Sprinkler
  • Mist System
  • Chemical
  • Gas
  • Aerosol

Before making a decision concerning what type of system is best for you, consider

  • the type and value of records that need protection
  • the cost
  • its effectiveness
  • its effect on the environment
  • the dangers it poses to humans
  • the clean-up costs after the system discharges

Sprinkler Systems

Water has been the most common fire suppression element for thousands of years, and water sprinkler systems are also the most common and cost-effective active fire-suppression systems. A common assumption is that sprinkler systems should never be used to suppress a fire in a paper records storage area since water itself damages paper records. However, there are methods to recover wet records, but there are no methods to recover burnt records, only to stabilize them.

Sprinkler systems are the best method for basic business records. They’re cost-effective, a proven method for suppressing fire, and pose no danger to humans or the environment. However, clean-up costs and restoration of wet records (if needed) can be high.

Sprinkler systems do pose a danger to historical records with intrinsic value. However, even these records can be recovered from water damage and made usable. Records of high historical value are sometimes segregated from basic business records and stored in a fire-resistant vault with a gas or aerosol suppression system to avoid water damage from sprinklers. Sprinkler systems should not be used for suppressing fires that affect electronic equipment.

Mist Systems

Mist systems evolved from sprinkler systems and also employ water to suppress fires. Sprinkler systems are designed to “flood” a room and extinguish a fire by soaking it with water. Mist systems employ ultra-fine droplets of water which both cool the room and, when the droplets become vapor from the heat of the fire, displace oxygen, and rob the fire of its fuel, thus extinguishing it. Although originally developed to protect mechanical equipment from fire damage, mist systems are often employed to protect paper records.

Mist systems have many advantages: as with sprinkler systems, they are relatively inexpensive (compared to chemical or gas systems) and pose no threat to humans or the environment. They are safer for paper records since the amount of water used is much less and turns to vapor quickly. There are clean-up costs and records may become damp and need some drying or minor restoration, but these disadvantages will be much slighter than with a sprinkler system. Although less of a hazard than sprinklers, mist systems should still be avoided where electronic equipment is located.

Chemical Systems

Chemical fire suppression systems use either a dry or wet chemical to extinguish a fire. Chemical systems are often used in areas where the water supply is low or nonexistent. Dry chemical systems are often used in industrial settings and wet chemicals in commercial kitchens. Although very effective, they require very high clean-up costs after a chemical discharge. Chemical systems are not recommended for protecting paper or electronic records, from fire damage.

Gas Systems

Gas systems kill a fire by depleting the oxygen in the air and robbing the fire of its fuel. The first gas agent used in fire suppression was Halon 1301. When the Halon was released, the oxygen in the room was instantly killed. This posed a danger to humans, but it was not until the 1980s when scientist discovered that Halon was a danger to the Earth’s ozone layer that new Halon installations were banned. Many still exist today since those systems already installed were not banned retroactively.

Since then, other environmentally safe gases that displace oxygen have been employed to suppress fires. These include HFC 227 ea, FM 200, FE 227, Inergen, and Carbon Dioxide. Often called clean agents, these gas systems are environmentally safe and cause no clean-up costs. These systems also displace the oxygen at a slow enough pace that people should have time to safely evacuate the affected area.

Some of these systems, like Inergen, can take up much space once installed. Such systems are recommended for protection of valuable historical records and computer equipment such as servers, but they would prove prohibitively expensive for protecting a large records center.

Aerosol Systems

The most recent development in active fire protection is the introduction of aerosol fire-suppression systems. The system is set off by smoke detector rather than a heat detector used by sprinkler systems. This allows the system to extinguish a fire before it grows to the point where it does major damage. The system releases a very fine potassium-based aerosol that quickly extinguishes the fire. The fine mist will also hover in the air for an hour preventing any reignition of the flames.

This system is safe for humans and the environment. Clean-up costs are minimal, consisting only of airing the room out and some light dusting. This system was designed to protect electronics from the water damage of a sprinkler system, but it can be used to protect paper records as well.

Summary

Records custodians have many options for protecting there records and archives. A combination of passive and active fire-suppression will provide the highest level of protection. Making the right decision means assessing your unique situation, researching your options, and consulting with State Archives staff, your local government’s code enforcement department, and the New York Department of State’s Division of Code Enforcement and Administration (http://www.dos.ny.gov/dcea/).