Hope and fire

Published:  15 March, 2018

On the day that it received its PAS 7 certificate for organisational fire risk management, Jose Sanchez de Muniain was invited to an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the world-renowned Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London.

Achieving the PAS 7 certification has enabled the NHM’s complex eight-building site to substantially reduce the risk of fire by joining up the many processes and procedures that revolve around fire safety.

Left to right: Dave Weaver, lead auditor, MMRA; Paul Bardsley, head of MMRA; Paul Murray, fire safety manager, NHM; Sir Mike Dixon, director, NHM. (Photo: Lucie Goodayle, NHM)

Since the introduction of the scheme in March last year, the Natural History Museum has become the first organisation of its type to achieve this certification, and only the second in the UK.

PAS 7 provides a fire risk management system that operates at organisational level, particularly where the safety of multiple sites is managed by a single person. It comprises an auditable formal procedure to reduce the risk to life, property and assets from the risk of fire.

During the visit I am being hosted by Paul Murray, fire safety manager at the NHM, who for the last two years has been striving to achieve PAS 7 certification.

We are standing in the massive main hall of the NHM under the 4.5 tonne skeleton of the largest animal that has lived on earth, the blue whale. Last year Hope the blue whale skeleton replaced the massive cast of Dippy the diplodocus, which had been in place since 1979.

I have to admit that it is difficult to talk about fire protection whilst touring a site that is filled with so many treasures of the natural world, but I persevere.

Contrary to belief, explains Murray, the Natural History Museum is a research facility first and a museum second. In fact, most of the 14.8-acre site is taken up by storage and research; the museum, as large as it is, is just ‘taped on’. [At the time of writing, NHM scientists hit world headlines with the news that Mesolithic Britain’s natives had skin pigmentation usually associated with sub-Saharan Africa.]

So what are the challenges here? Fire hazards vary, but the main issues revolve around the thousands of litres of denatured alcohol stored on site, the liquid nitrogen facilities, and the electron microscopes it houses. The site consists of eight interlinked buildings that range in age from 1881 to 2008; around 80 million species are here, of which 79 million are not on display.

Understandably for such a remarkable, world-famous site, fire safety is taken very seriously and the NHM contains around 5,400 point detectors, 62 beam detectors, 50 fire curtains, sprinklers in one basement, and air sampling in the Tank Room.

In 2016 the previous closed-protocol fire alarm system was replaced with an Advanced MX Pro system and XP95 detection heads, all installed by Pacific Fire & Security. The London Fire Brigade are regular visitors, and indeed Murray notes that they are scheduled to come next day for a meeting with the NHM’s salvage team.

As we dodge around groups of children and students, I wonder what it takes to evacuate the 12,000 visitors that could be on site at any point of the day. If a signal is received from a call point or heat detector, explains Murray, the system goes into alarm and the entire site is evacuated. When the signal comes from a beam or smoke detector there is a five-minute investigation period; if the alarm isn’t ascertained in that time, the buildings are evacuated. Each building on site also presents its own challenges: “I think we are going to replace the beam detectors for self-aligning units because the building has an iron frame with cladding, and it moves as the temperature changes. You can hear it at night,” comments Murray.

Fire incidents and false alarms are low, a fact that Murray ascribes to very good contractor control. Nothing can be carried out without a hot-work permit and alarm isolation. In addition, false alarms due to system faults in the previous alarm system have been ironed out by the new system, which took just six weeks to install. He is also highly conscious that each time there is an evacuation, the museum loses revenue. “We had five evacuations last year, and 12 the year before that. Their reduction is a tangible saving.”

Another important factor in the low number of incident is the NHM’s strong safety culture. “This is a lifetime’s work for many people, so they buy into the safety culture and go that extra mile,” says Murray. He joined the NHM in 2014 and his first project involved ensuring a full fire risk assessment for all the buildings was undertaken. The idea of PAS 7 certification, he says, had been in the NHM’s radar for some time and it was the natural way forward.

We meet up with Dave Weaver, lead auditor from MMRA, the first certification body to be accredited by UKAS to assess and award Certification to PAS 7:2013. He reviewed the NHM’s PAS 7 management system in a process that is not dissimilar to ISO 9001. He has not only visited this site, but also an additional storage NHM facility in Wandsworth, southwest London. The smaller NHM museum in Tring, Hertfordshire will be visited at the next surveillance visit.

Dave Weaver explains that as part of the auditing process he examined how the fire risk management system was sampled, which included reviewing the processes for both the fire risk assessments and the hot work permits and how these were managed across the sites. “I wasn’t here to check fire-fighting equipment, that is the fire-risk assessor’s role. My job is to make sure that the process works. My main attention during the certification assessment is in the processes which manage the PAS 7 management system.”

PAS 7, he explains, brings together in one place all the multiple fire-safety related activities that in large organisations typically take place in silos. “It brings it together so that the fire manager or whoever is in charge can review it all and take corrective or preventive action.”

I ask whether it means more paperwork: “No it doesn’t, it just means the paperwork is collated in one place,” clarifies Murray. Weaver expands: “One of the things I noticed are improving are hot works permits. Before, it was a paper trail, multiple carbon copies of different coloured paper, with the fire officer receiving the fifth one down that was barely legible. Now there is an electronic system that automatically issues the permit, with a copy to the fire officer.” With four or five hot permits issued per day, under the previous system it was not unusual for attempts to be made to bypass the process. The ease of the new system, however, has taken such temptations away.

“We are such a diverse establishment that I cannot have oversight of everything. A benefit of the system has been to draw together everything under a single strategy,” says Murray.

Achieving the PAS 7 certification, explains Murray, took two years, including the initial fire risk assessment and a subsequent gap analysis, but this was mainly because he was ‘plugging the holes’ more or less single-handedly. The ‘holes’ he refers to mainly related to adjusting information flows and formalising the new processes to fit the requirements of the standard, which was the main hurdle.

At this stage we arrive in the NHM’s Tank Room, which houses an 8.6m-long giant squid called Archie that was donated in 2004 and is preserved in the longest pickles jar I have ever seen. The preserving liquid is methylated spirits, so I have to turn the camera off to avoid a possible ignition. As there are around 480,000l of the 70% ethanol, the Tank Room is fitted with an air management system that changes the air three times an hour; ethanol detectors in the ducting can also activate a purge if ethanol vapours are detected. In total, the museum contains around 27km of shelving full of glass jars including, in front of me, specimens collected by Charles Darwin on the voyage of the Beagle in the 1830s, which helped formulate the theory of evolution.

In November MMRA will be revisiting to see what has been improved, what has been addressed, what has been actioned. Certified organisations, explains Weaver, are obliged to carry out their own internal audits and reviews of PAS 7-related aspects. “I can chase up aspects of those and see what has been done.”

Weaver explains that interest in PAS 7 is rising; MMRA is in discussions with eight other organisations of varied natures, ranging from mobile phone companies and banks to universities and even the administration offices of a nuclear power station.

As we move between buildings, Murray points out some historical fire-fighting equipment that, rather in keeping with the place, has been left alone rather than evicted; an old hose reel cabinet, old risers and connectors. In the archive rooms, he says, there are ‘lovely’ patent leather fire-fighting buckets, as well as the fire helmet of the fire warden of the NHM during the Second World War.

We reach Murray’s office and he shows me the over-arching risk management strategy document that was audited under PAS 7. The document covers strategy until 2020 for each building, outlining what the NHM aims to achieve and how each department contributes. It shows where all related documents are, outlines planning and objectives (such as unwanted alarm reduction), resources, communications between departments and the role of different departments, and how each building is used.

The document is not the same as the guidance document for the local fire brigade. “We have standard procedures for them and every area is mapped, indicating access and escape routes, storage capacities and stairwells. Information includes compartmentation and minimum resistance of fire doors.

“They are two separate documents; one tells you how the buildings work, the other how the organisation works. They go hand in hand,” concludes Murray.

Walking out under the gigantic mouth of Hope the whale and through the crowds of happy children and adults, it becomes poignantly clear that keeping an institution like this free of fire is not just crucial for the people inside the building, but for the rest of mankind too.

  • Operation Florian

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