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Fire Protection of Historic Piers
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Fire Protection of Historic Piers

By John T. Ivison, P.Eng. | Fire Protection Engineering

Many of Britain’s historic piers are at high risk; in fact, the rate of attrition arising out of catastrophic fires demands urgent action from all those who can assist in their conservation and revival as symbols of Britain’s coastal heritage. This article examines some of the key issues in fire protection of these rapidly-disappearing icons of the Victorian age.

Piers encompass a variety of uses. They can be primarily industrial in nature or may be entirely recreational. Some unusual facilities combine promenade facilities with extensive assembly use including, in some cases, cruise ship facilities or sightseeing and recreational craft. In fire protection terms, such facilities fall in the realm of piers and wharves. This article will focus on historic piers (Figure 1).

The fire hazard associated with such facilities varies depending on the construction type. More modern piers tend to be of reinforced concrete construction due to the high incidence of severe fires in piers that were wholly or partly of combustible construction. However, whatever the construction, certain problems are unique to piers:

  • The difficulty in serving the pier with normal infrastructure, particularly water supplies, integrated signalling in an emergency and power for essential services, such as fire pumps.
  • Difficulty in achieving access for firefighting purposes. In some instances, this is exacerbated by the configuration of the pier and in some cases by rail or other infrastructure that may impede access onto or on the pier by fire vehicles.
  • The potential for uncertain management and deterioration over time.
Figure 1. Weston-super-Mare fire – at an earlier stage.
(Credit: Weston and Somerset Mercury)

In the case of combustible piers, fire has the potential to involve the areas below the pier deck. The degree to which this occurs depends upon the progress of the fire and concentration and extent of combustibles in the structure. In some cases, fuel may be restricted to combustible decking. In other instances, the main structural elements may be heavy timber construction; frequently this consists of creosoted timber. Often, there is a mixture of construction types (Figures 2 and 3).

Figure 2. Site Assessment of a pier prior to major repairs.
(Credit: Gulf of Georgia Cannery Society Archives)

Figure 3. Heavy Timber Sub-Structure under a typical pier.
(Credit: Gulf of Georgia Cannery Society Archives)

The prevalence of windy conditions in seaside locations can contribute to fire spread. Actual fires have demonstrated that fire will spread against the direction of the wind as well as being assisted in the direction of the wind. In one relatively recent fire, in an area involving combustible structure above and below the pier, there was total destruction in the downwind direction in addition to fire spread along combustible decking against the direction of the wind.

In many cases, piers are relatively inaccessible to fire service vehicles. Fires below combustible piers are particularly problematic in that access problems are compounded at low tide by the lack of ‘hard standing’. In other words, at low tide, fire vehicles, even if they can access the beach, can become bogged down due to the weight of fire appliances. This leads to fire service delays that may be critical to fire damage.

At high tide, difficulty with the deployment of hoses on the fire, by fire boats for instance, is compounded by tidal and wave action. Substructure may effectively screen the fire from direct impingement of water. Although access is often attempted from above the pier by cutting through the pier deck, it is usually difficult to determine exactly where the fire is due to smoke and other factors. If access hatches are not provided, then fire services have to cut openings into the deck and deploy nozzles designed to extinguish substructure fires.

It is difficult to extinguish fires in this manner. Water supplies are often limited and the number of openings achievable over a fire area may enable the fire (often aided by lack of water penetration by the nozzles and the prevailing wind) to rapidly spread beyond the area of attack.

Structures above the pier deck may be of combustible construction or contain sufficient combustible materials to become involved in a fire and pose a fire risk to the entire structure. In the case of recreational piers, fires often start in the above-grade structures and spread to the substructure, where they burn out of control. Therefore, reliance has to be placed on automatic suppression to mitigate potential fire damage.

Typical heavy timber wharf with fender piles.

Historically significant piers share many of the typical challenges associated with other heritage buildings. Notwithstanding the fire problems above – the challenge is the deterioration of pier buildings and the management of fire risk over time. Superimposed on the usual problems of achieving an acceptable level of fire and life safety (in the context of refurbishment or adaptive re-use) is the so-called ‘moral hazard’ associated with planning and construction in seaside facilities. While this is a defining characteristic of seaside towns, there is often poor control of fire hazards, compared to more ‘organised’ jurisdictions. The transitory nature of business and regulatory controls often allows uncontrolled construction changes to occur over time. These often increase the fire risk in probabilistic terms compounded by the ineffective fire safety management. This is combined with the increased risk of arson, poor control of recreational fires under piers and other issues.

On a positive note, moves in the UK to take back ownership of piers either by public or private agencies – for conservation purposes – is a sign that the heritage value of certain seaside piers is being recognized. The availability of grants to introduce recommended fire precaution measures is also encouraging.

A complication is the lack of an appropriate standard for property conservation. In England and Wales, for instance, Approved Document B (ADB)1 to the building regulations, is primarily a life safety document. It offers only nominal property protection measures and often relies on compartmentation and detection to limit fire spread. Compartmentation may often be breached or nonexistent due to the age of construction. Extensive combustible concealed spaces may have been created and modifications made with little regard to fire and life safety. Typical fire hazards, such as those associated with deep fat fryers or storage and handling of flammable liquids, are often poorly controlled.

Under the boardwalk at the port of Blyth.

Fire detection relies on effective response to alarms. The assumption that the size of a fire can be limited by compartmentation and the fire risk offset by rapid and effective response to a fire must be seen in the context of access and firefighting limitations on piers. Also, ADB does not address fires below pier, which are often a contributory factor in very large fires. The relatively recent fire at Weston super-Mare showed that the above pier structure itself was so poorly protected that it could be subject to a total loss. So what is the solution?

The first consideration is water supply infrastructure. The use of recirculating stainless steel mains is one option to prevent freezing of essential supplies and protecting water supplies from deterioration due to corrosion. Routinely, such systems should be run on fresh water to prevent excessive corrosion, but more importantly, to reduce contamination by marine organisms when saltwater pumps are used.

Victorian pier at Eastbourne in East Sussex in England.

In a recent case, a test of saltwater hydrants was conducted. It was found that the saltwater system was completely obstructed by fish, seaweed and other solid matter. This had been pumped into the system under normal ‘wash down’ of decks, ostensibly to prevent re-ignition of discarded smoking materials.

Water supplies should include:

  • Where possible direct or indirect use of potable water from the town mains;
  • Use of land end (dry side) tanks;
  • Duplicate pumps at the dry end of the pier; and
  • Use of saltwater supplies as the last resort with effective starting protocols to prevent accidental starting of saltwater pumps in non-emergencies.

In terms of the pier substructure and pier buildings, there is no requirement for the installation of an automatic sprinkler system. Moreover, there is no national guidance document in the UK for fire protection of piers. In lieu of this, NFPA 307,2 can be used. It is a robust standard that addresses all the typical conditions encountered in piers and wharves.

Substructure sprinkler systems differ in that they typically throw water upwards rather than downwards in order to reach all pockets in the substructure. Careful placement of the sprinklers is necessary to achieve effective wetting of timbers and prevent shielded areas that can permit a path for fire to spread. NFPA 307 relies on the use of bulkheads to control fire spread. This can raise planning issues in listed buildings as the architectural appearance of the pier can be compromised to a degree. In lieu of this, some consideration could be given to extend the capability of the sprinkler systems to deal with fire over larger areas.

Sprinklers in above-pier structures require special consideration due to a variety of factors, including their visual impact on historic interiors. In most areas with suspended ceilings, sprinklers can be concealed.

Typically, the routing of piping has to be designed to r educ e the visual impact of piping and sprinklers. Where piping has to be exposed, it can typically be run along beam lines and painted to match adjacent finishes.

Professional designers use a combination of techniques to integrate the system with the building architecture to provide a fire protection system that is not obtrusive. This is a result of collective experience on sensitive occupancies, such as cathedrals and historic houses with decorative ceilings.

The challenges may be problematic when undertaking the installation on a design-build basis. In some instances, contractors may be less concerned with appearance than achieving system costs in order to win the contract. For this reason, retention of a fire protection engineer familiar with pier protection systems and international standards should be considered before embarking on a program for protection, restoration, refurbishment or adaptive reuse of an historic pier or wharf. Most historic buildings benefit from an independent design followed by a close partnership with the selected sprinkler contractor.

John Ivison is with John Ivison and Associates Ltd.


  1. The Building Regulations 2000 Approved Document B Fire Safety 2000 Edition. Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions, London, 2006.
  2. NFPA 307, Standard for the Construction and Fire Protection of Marine Terminals, Piers, and Wharves, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2011.

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