Fire extinguishers in churches and cathedrals are important to protect the often invaluable historic artefacts and mostly wooden internal structures. However, the extinguishers must be chosen with care. A well publicised case, where the extinguishers became the problem rather than preventing one, was the vandalism caused by two teenagers in a church in Spalding in 2006. In this case a powder and a water extinguisher installed in the kitchenette were set off. The powder and the water reacted to form a slightly acidic mixture which formed a hard crust. Valuable church fixtures, including the organ had to be restored at a cost of £240,000.
Powder extinguishers, while being excellent on forecourts, engine rooms and car parks, where they are valued for their rapid knock-down of flames from a variety of sources, are not really suited for indoor locations. The fine powder can obstruct vision and lead to inhalation of the powder. The powder will also attack electronics, soft furnishings and causes damage to wood and metal, especially when moist.
What alternatives are there?
In principle, water based extinguishers (water, water spray, ‘dry’ water mist) and foams are suitable, although foams contain
chemicals that might be harmful to metal and wood. Please note that water extinguishers with additives can also cause damage. CO2 extinguishers, while leaving no deposit, are not really suitable for the type of fire risks in churches and can unfortunately be misused to intimidate people with their roaring discharge and the massive temperature drop the discharge causes.
Where traditional extinguishers requiring annual servicing are required , the E-series ‘dry’ water mist extinguishers from Jewel are perfect, as they create a very fine mist with much smaller water mist particles than those generated by normal water spray extinguishers. These extinguishers are also suitable for all common fire risks found in a church, including electrical risks (even up to 1000V, as long as a safety distance of 1m is adhered to). The mist is so fine that the damage to paintings and structures is limited and no puddles are formed. The extinguisher can also be used on clothing, wall-hangings and carpets.
Where in-house servicing of the extinguishers is required, often to help reduce costs , the Britannia P50 maintenance free foam extinguisher can be installed instead. It is suitable for the majority of the fire risks found in churches, however, its deposits are harder to clean up and potentially corrosive. After the initial install and certification carried out by Safelincs, the extinguisher only requires yearly visual inspection by the Church Warden. No refill after five years is required and the extinguisher does not require a service engineer for ten years!