Canadian Consulting Engineer

Minding Our Museums

May 1, 2004
By William Kuffner, P.Eng

The protection of buildings from security threats has been receiving more and more attention over the last few years for obvious reasons. People's attitudes have changed from seeing security measures as somewhat of an imposition on their personal...

The protection of buildings from security threats has been receiving more and more attention over the last few years for obvious reasons. People’s attitudes have changed from seeing security measures as somewhat of an imposition on their personal freedoms, to realizing that these measures are necessary for their safety. As a result, the increased security of public buildings has gone relatively unchallenged.

When you think of security, your thoughts are probably limited to the restrictions place on you to enter a building, not on the restrictions imposed when you try to exit a building. It is when exiting a building that the requirements for security and fire safety often conflict.

On entering, visitors may need to sign in or pay an admission fee; they may also submit to obvious electronic surveillance such as metal detectors, may have their bags searched, or even be interviewed by security staff. During this time they also may be subject to covert surveillance measures like CCTV, facial recognition technology and visual observation by hidden security personnel.

The same controlled process may not occur when visitors leave a building. Indeed, if the control over exiting is inadequate, it is much more difficult to guarantee the security of the building. The difficulty increases with the number of uncontrolled exits that are allowed.

Now, imagine for a moment you have been assigned the duty of providing security for the priceless national treasures in a museum. You are faced with a hefty responsibility. There are large open spaces; displays are interconnected in an architecturally pleasing and well planned layout designed to develop a specific traffic pattern for patrons. Building codes have no regard for this planning. The codes may well require exits in locations that aren’t suitable for the exhibit and spoil the overall experience that the designers are hoping to produce. The code-required exits also go against the building’s security needs. If people were free to leave the building using them, there would be no way you could ensure the security of those priceless artifacts you are charged with protecting. So what do you do?

The first thought, normally, is to lock all the doors that do not form part of the designed traffic pattern. The problem is that you could be contravening building and fire code regulations. Often, either because of ignorance of the building code requirements or the difficulty in interpreting them, partial measures are applied, improperly. Electromagnetic locks, for example, are installed in places where they are not allowed, or their installation does not follow the code requirements — all done without the benefit of a professional review.

Our building and fire codes are written to ensure that the fire protection and life safety of people are considered in the design of buildings. The exit system is planned to allow safe egress of occupants in case of emergencies, and access to exits and the exit doors themselves are a focal point.

Museums often have large areas that are considered assembly occupancies with occupant loads in excess of 100 people. The Ontario Building Code requires that exit doors not be locked and that they must be operable with a single force of not more than 90 N applied in the direction of exit — otherwise referred to as a panic bar. The National Building Code of Canada requires that the same panic bar be installed, but it allows the door to have an electromagnetic lock (or maglock) installed that would delay egress by 15 seconds.

The Ontario Building Code allows for a similar 15 minute delayed egress specifically in gaming premises. The time delay does not allow for a response by authorized personnel, but it at least makes it likely that witnesses are alerted when someone leaves through the exit. Though the delayed egress provision only applies to casinos, designers may try to have it approved as an alternative approach for museums.

Upgrading a historic building

At the Victoria Memorial Museum Building of the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa a large renovation project is under way which includes the retrofit of security and fire alarm systems. Since the museum — a 1912 building on McLeod Street — is a federally owned property, the National Building Code could be applied. There are several exits that don’t form part of the designed traffic pattern. Delayed egress panic bars could be installed at these locations, but without additional measures the solution doesn’t meet the building’s security needs. The museum is now examining how best to balance the needs for safe egress, while ensuring that measures are in place to safeguard the exhibits and specimens.

If the building’s occupant loads are reduced, electromagnetic locks would be allowed by the Ontario Building Code. In this case, however, there are still some 11 conditions laid out in clauses under sentence that would need to be applied. The building requires a fire alarm system, for example. And manual pull stations that must release the door lock immediately are required at the exit doors leading from an occupied space. Also there must be a sign on the door indicating that it will be unlocked by the fire alarm. It doesn’t take much for the criminal to realize that if they activate the fire alarm system pull station adjacent to the door with the sign, they will gain access to the exit. So, regardless of the occupant load, without further security measures, exits in this building would be virtually uncontrolled from a security point of view.

Solving the dilemma

What can designers of museums and similar public assembly buildings do to meet the conflicting requirements of fire safety and security? The truth is, very little. Your options for complying with the building code may be severely limited. You have to provide ready access to exits; therefore, only lightning-fast reactions by security personnel would provide any real level of security. The following are some suggestions. These approaches allow security personnel to respond to incidents and provide fire safety. However, in order to implement them, you will need to have them accepted by building and fire code officials.

Remove fire alarm manual pull stations. There is precedent for the removal of manual pull stations in some cases: their removal is permitted in residential buildings that are prone to malicious activation. In such buildings, the corridor served by the exit door must have smoke detectors installed. Where security is a concern and the public uses the building, this approach may be a viable option. It is not recommended, however, in areas with high occupant loads.

Make fire alarm manual pull stations key-activated only. Manual pull stations are designed to be activated with a single action by anyone. In some situations, however, such as in an impeded egress zone (for example, a correctional facility), the manual pull stations are only activated by a key switch, thereby ensuring only authorized personnel activate the device. A variation that might be used in a museum is to provide two-stage manual pull stations and only unlock doors on the second stage activation of a fire alarm system. The public would be allowed to initiate an alarm, but then only authorized personnel would be able to initiate the second stage key switch and unlock the doors.

Post guards. The normal duty of guard staff in an exhibit hall is to provide security for the exhibit. Suppose the guard was there to detect fire as well. The term often used for this function is “fire watch,” and these are used temporarily when fire alarm systems are not fully working. Through operational procedures and some modifications to the fire alarm system, it is feasible to provide increased security and at least equal fire protection by these staffing methods.

The measures proposed above would require additional fire safety planning in order to become viable. There may need to be extra training for maintenance and security personnel. The museum might also need to have additional personnel to respond to events, and they might have to supply equi
pment such as two-way radios for the staff so that those responding to an incident can communicate with a central control facility.

Given enough consideration, therefore, it should be possible to ensure the security of valuable property while still providing safety of occupants from fire.

William Kuffner, P.Eng., PMP, is an associate with Leber Rubes, a building and fire code consulting firm in Ottawa.


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