Skip to content

Fire and Rescue Statistics User Group

Protection of Cultural Heritage: Problems of Fire Statistics

Paper for Submission to the Fire Safety Advisory Board


From the outset it should be understood that the term 'cultural heritage' is used in this note to describe not only buildings and structures designated by national authorities as being of historic or cultural interest but also any building whose design, construction or use makes it part of the wider cultural heritage of a nation, cultural group or region. This definition also includes buildings whose contents may be of greater importance than the building itself, for example, museums, galleries, libraries or archives.

Fire can cause the total destruction of a building and its contents in only a few hours; areas not directly damaged by flame or heat may be damaged by smoke, dirt and falling debris or by the huge volumes of water which may be used in fighting the fire. One threat, which cannot be over-stressed, is the potential loss of authenticity - which is, after all, the quality from which the importance of the cultural heritage flows.

Absence of Hard Statistical Evidence

One of the most important problems in raising the profile of the heritage fire issue is the almost total absence of any reliable statistical evidence (in any European country) of the exact number and type of buildings (which almost everyone working in the field acknowledges) are being destroyed.

The problem has been expressed in the following terms:

  • There are no uniform European fire statistics (There is little reliable official fire information outside UK and Sweden)
  • Many countries publish no data at all
  • UK statistics are generally accepted as most reliable, but even they do not include anything specific on historic buildings
  • The problem was identified in 1989 and again in 1993 by the FPA but despite efforts by Historic Scotland, English Heritage and the National Trusts little has been done

The most reliable, publicly available statistics are probably those produced by the National Trust for England and Wales. Their fire advisor is generally acknowledged to be one of the most capable professionals in the field. His statistics show that:

  • The National Trust for England & Wales owns/manages 7500 listed buildings
  • Between 1992 and 1993 the Trust recorded 133 fires - an average of 44 per year
  • Even these figures are considered by the Trust's Fire Advisor to reflect some degree of under reporting. (Of course, 99% of these fires resulted in little damage).
  • Over past 20 years fires have caused major damage to five NT Grade I/II* buildings - including the total destruction of Uppark House.

Historic Scotland

The concerns expressed earlier resulted in Historic Scotland funding a database project, in collaboration with the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association (Scotland), to try to determine the extent of the risk to heritage buildings.

This initiative, the Scottish historic buildings national fire database project, commenced in April 2002. English Heritage has recently started a similar project. (Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association Safety and Standards Committee, June 2002).

The project, which was trialled between 1999 and 2001 in one divisional area in Grampian and Strathclyde FBs, integrates the GIS and CD Rom information on Historic Scotland's own data with information useful to the fire brigade in tackling an incident at one of the listed premises.

Historic Scotland also considers that the current statistical reporting form for fire incidents (Form FDR1) does not capture sufficient data to determine the extent of loss due to fire. They currently base their assessment of fires within listed buildings in Scotland on a combination of anecdotal evidence and ad hoc collection of press coverage on such incidents.

This suggests that in Scotland, there is an average of 12.5 serious fires in A and B grade buildings each year. Figures for the last ten years are:





















Other On Going Work

1. The EU's Co-operation in Science and Technology (COST)17 programme includes the following work proposal:

1 Data, Loss Statistics and Evaluating Risks

1.1 Data and Fabric analysis

1.1.1 Establish available information about the total number of cultural heritage buildings to be considered, their value in cultural and financial terms and the actual risks they are subjected to.

1.1.2 Compile available statistical data on the extent of the built heritage at risk

1.1.3 Balance the impact of physical interventions and of potential fire damage with the value and significance of the site

1.1.4 Identify, analyse, and report on minor fire incidents (where the fire is extinguished without fire brigade attendance, false alarms etc.)

1.2.4 Establish a common risk assessment methodology, following a critical review of existing methodologies

1.2.5 Consider remoteness of sites and compile an understanding of the impact of response time.

The UK is participating in this programme which has now been approved. The first meeting is scheduled to take place in Brussels and the UK will be represented by Ingval Maxwell of Historic Scotland and the writer.

2. A senior fire brigade officer, David Dalzell, Deputy Firemaster, Grampian Fire Brigade is presently undertaking a major piece of research work in which he will determine:

  • The level of preparedness of UK fire services in protecting our built heritage.
  • The degree of collaboration between local authority fire services and the amenity organisations responsible for the conservation of such properties including agencies such as English Heritage, National Trust and Historic Scotland.
  • Whether local authority fire brigades plan for the effective salvage of contents with archival value and determine the extent of their preplanning for incidents occurring in historical and listed buildings.

The objectives will also:

  • Compare United Kingdom strategic preparedness and planning with examples of best practice in Europe.
  • Survey the level of awareness within local authority fire services in the United Kingdom in relation to the extent of their assessment on the potential risk of loss of the built heritage.
  • Examine the current national system for collecting data on the damage caused by fire to the built heritage.
  • Develop recommendations to contribute to and further inform the debate regarding the protection of our built heritage.

Data which are Needed

It is suggested that the simplest way forward in the short term would be to include a 'heritage building' box in the revised FDR1. This has been suggested by the FPA on a number of previous occasions and has been rejected on a variety of grounds, most notably, that it would be too difficult for the Oi/c of an attendance to make a judgment on whether a building was listed or not. This argument is clearly specious for even incomplete statistics would be better than none at all and in the writer's experience of this field fire brigade junior officers are most unlikely to fail to recognise most heritage buildings. (True, some 'modern' listed buildings damaged by fire may well go unrecorded, but some would say that s no bad thing!). It has also been argued that retained service personnel would also be unable to make the necessary judgements. This is an even more outlandish suggestion as in the experience of the writer there are few fire fighters more aware of the buildings on their 'patch'.

In the longer term, proper integration of the databases of the national heritage agencies with fire brigades own information systems would seem to offer the best options for all parties. It is probable that a very small amount of direct external funding (for the Historic Scotland project has already produced the software) together with resource hours from brigade personnel could make a significant improvement to the information presently available to a wide range of interest groups.

Stewart Kidd
Heritage Loss Prevention Consultant
2 October 2002