Skip to Content

History ablaze: saving Centre County's historic buildings from fires


The Centre Furnace Mansion in State College, Pa., is on the National Register of Historic Places. The building has been restored to its original condition and decorated in the style of its 19th-century times, and now serves as the headquarters for the Centre County Historical Society. It’s one of the buildings in Centre County that Alpha Fire Director Steve Bair believes may be at risk for a fire. Photo by Chelsea Labar Voices Community editor.


Visiting a historic building is like taking a step back in time. Unfortunately, the historic buildings in Centre County may have a bleak future if they continue to rely solely on the fire department, in the case of an unanticipated blaze, instead of installing sprinkler systems.


Owners, or towns that historic buildings reside in, don’t want to install sprinkler systems because of water damage and cost concerns. The problem is they’ll come to regret that decision when a fire does occur and the building is beyond repair.


“It does take a lot of money to make improvements and people don’t want to tell elected officials to spend more money.”

Erin Hammerstedt PreservationPA


“Fire suppression systems can really reduce the damage done by fires,” Pennsylvania’s Technical Field Services Representative, Erin Hammerstedt said.

According to Alpha Fire Director Steve Bair, water damage concerns from sprinkler systems seem to be unfounded. In a sprinkler head a glass bulb, filled with red liquid alcohol, needs to reach 135 degrees Fahrenheit before it goes off.


“Sprinkler systems have a bad reputation because of the media portrayal of them,” Blair said. “People see all the sprinkler heads going off at once in TV shows and that never happens,” he said.


Blair said the Match Factory in Bellefonte, which is now the headquarters for the American Philatelic Society, is ready to burn down. He went on a tour there in 2009 and as he looked around the aged brick building he noticed the priceless things inside. 


He wondered to himself why it still doesn’t have a sprinkler system. The piping in the building was torn out and reconstructed, but there’s still no sprinkler system in sight. The Centre Furnace Mansion in State College may also be at risk, according to Blair. It is presently the headquarters for the Centre County Historical Society and hosts wedding receptions and private parties. However, it’s normally empty later in the day, so if it would catch fire no one would be alerted to it until it’s too late. he look of a sprinkler system can look out of place in the historic setting of a pre-1890s building. The cost of installing it is a major reason as to why these buildings are going waterless. It’s a lot more expensive to install them in historic structures because they’ll take much more of a beating. There’s a lot of complexity in making these systems work in old buildings. 


Blair said that this installation problem is one of the difficulties in preserving historic buildings. Pennsylvania is a minimum code state and jobs are done without much effort, he said.


“Codes are chipped away by the Borough Council and aren’t applied as much as they should be,” Blair said.


A sprinkler system in a historic building uses 30 gallons of water a minute compared to residential systems that use 15 to 20 gallons, and effective sprinkler systems can be expensive.


“People who have strong opinions about preserving historic buildings aren’t willing to write a check in order to do so,” Blair said. “All these cultural gems are siting in these smaller venues.”


Hammerstedt said these preventive measures will save money in the long run. She believes historic buildings improve people’s quality of life and the cost to protect them is more than worth it. However, she acknowledges that money is a major component of why historic buildings lack sprinkler systems. 


“It does a lot of money to make improvements and people don’t want to tell elected officials to spend more money,” she said. 


The reliance on the fire department to protect historic buildings is completely misplaced, according to Bair.


“The business model of the fire department is terrible,” Blair said. When a blaze occurs the fire department needs to arrive as soon as possible to overwhelm the fire before the flashover. 


The flashover is the ignition temperature of combustible materials in the building and takes approximately two to 11 minutes to occur. Unfortunately, it takes the fire 

department at least five minutes to do anything at all. The fire department is also excessively expensive, labor intense and usually arrives too late. 


Blair also explained that most fire departments are composed of volunteer fire fighters who don’t go through any training, and if they’re aren’t at the station it’ll take even longer to alert them and get to the scene. 


This seems like a heavy price to pay when historic buildings decide to forgo a sprinkling system.


 Talking about fire preventive measures only happens once an incident already occurs and it may be too late. 


“If people don’t believe they’re at risk they won’t do anything,” Blair said. 


Hammerstedt said that people also forget a disaster happens shortly after it occurs. They get riled up about it for a couple of days and then they move on, she said.


“The Fire Task Force, for example, will meet after a fire and decide on a project they want to implement and then they leave,” she said. 


“They should have these projects at least twice a year instead of once every three years.” 



VOICES University Editor

Share this

story | about seo