Museum Alarm Systems


Most museums require at least two types of alarm systems:  burglar alarms and fire alarms. Burglar alarms generally protect the museum from night time break in but also protect high security areas and locations like emergency exit doors during the day. Fire systems are divided into two types of systems: fire detection systems that detect fires and fire alarm systems that alert building occupants that there is a problem. Evacuations are generally ordered through the fire alarm system.  This section does not deal with object protection systems.

Burglar alarm systems are generally divided into two types. Smaller museums and house museums often use panel based systems. With a panel based system, a control panel is installed in a closet or basement or elsewhere out of sight. A keypad is the means of interfacing with the panel and annunciating the alarms.  Most alarm panels can handle a relatively large number of door contacts, motion detectors and other detection devices. Generally these panels divide the detectors into zones or partitions. Some institutions require more zones than a typical panel can provide so they use multiple alarm panels. While this means that the museum technically has two alarm systems, they can function as one system transparent to the user. And while we call them alarm panels, they are really computer chip based systems that are really quite complex.

These systems annunciate in a number of ways. You can set them up to operate a printer, display a message on a keypad, sound a bell or siren, or send a signal to a central station. When set up to send a signal to a central station, this is done generally over phone lines. But because phone lines can be compromised, we generally back up the phone line using some form of cellular or radio system. Which is used depends upon the service available in the area but most use cellular.

These systems can handle any type of detection device. The most common detector is the infrared motion detector and many use detectors that work with multiple technologies such as infrared and microwaves in one detector. This reduces false alarms.  These detectors detect motion within the space and trigger the alarm.  Door contacts, almost always magnetic type, detect the opening of a door, and glass break sensors detect the breaking of glass. Glass break detectors come in two types. Impact detectors detect the impact against the glass and acoustic detectors are tuned to the sound of breaking glass and signal when they “hear” that frequency. Alarm systems can also monitor any type of detector including temperature and humidity sensors, panic buttons, beams, etc.

The goal of alarm systems is to secure both the perimeter and the interior of the space.  A building is like a box. It has a top, bottom and sides. Every opening must be secured including access from the basement, access to the roof via doors and skylights, and access from the sides including windows, doors and other openings like vents.

Since a break-in is not the only threat we face and someone could easily enter legally as a visitor and stay behind at night, we provide interior motion detection strategically throughout the building. Generally, we provide motion detection inside all glass windows, all doors, at elevator and stair doors and in high security areas. Of course, we use more detectors in galleries and collection bearing areas like storage and labs.

Inside the museum there are areas of greater risk than other areas. These include collection storage and other collection bearing areas and here we also establish an interior perimeter as well as interior motion zones. It has been said that our protection is not unlike in a Medieval castle with an outer perimeter and inner perimeters forming layers of security.

A well-designed panel based alarm system will adequately protect the building. Its limitations are that when the building gets larger, these systems become less useful and less capable of meeting your needs. They are quite limited in some ways. For example, in a larger museum you may need to turn each detector on or off individually and not in groups. You can’t do this properly with a panel based system as a general rule.  As your needs grow you will need to use the other type of alarm system, a PC-based system.

PC-based alarm systems are often called “access control systems”. Even the smallest system can handle the needs of a large museum. In addition to being able to meet the needs of the largest facility, access control systems allow you to turn any individual point or any group of points in the system on or off independent of all other points.

Access control systems also work with card readers.  Card readers are electronic card keys not unlike those you’ve undoubtedly used in hotels many times.  PC-based systems allow you to interface with the system through a PC and a familiar Windows interface.  some better panel based systems can use card readers but not with the degree of sophistication that a PC-based system can.

When an alarm occurs on a PC-based system it simply annunciates on the PC. To make it annunciate at an off-site central station you must first send the signal to a simple alarm control panel which has what is called a dialer built in. Once the signal is received by the alarm panel, it is sent on to the central station just as it would be if there was no PC.

If you are new at museum security and inherited an alarm system, learn everything you can about it and the detectors connected to it. Ask the service provider for cut sheets describing all of the components. Do not assume it is adequate or can’t be defeated. Consider having it evaluated by an expert. Be sure that the alarm detectors all work properly. Do an actual walk test to see if you can slip past a detector without it catching you. If you can, get it fixed right away. Learn how the signal is sent to the central station. Ascertain if there is a back up to the phone line and if there is not, add one. Evaluate your zoning. Does your system allow you to turn off the gallery alarms during the day but keep the fire exit doors secured all day?  If not, seek expert advice. You may need to modify your alarm system to be properly protected.

Fire Systems

In most small museums and nearly all large museums the fire detection system was legally adequate the day it was installed because fire codes are generally strictly enforced and systems must meet very well-defined standards. This doesn’t mean that in every case the system is truly adequate. More often than not, the problems that exist in museums with regard to fire systems involve a lack of care and maintenance and unsafe conditions created by the museum employees like covering or blocking of detectors or placing materials in front of alarm pull stations, etc. And because museums are changing environments, too often museums sub-divide rooms without adding detection or stack items on shelves so high that detectors are blocked.

Fire detection systems generally use one of several types of detector to detect smoke. These detectors need regular testing and maintenance, specifically cleaning, or they may not work properly when needed. Pull stations are placed at code prescribed locations in the building so that people who see a fire can sound the alarm while they are evacuating.

Fire Suppression Systems

Fire suppression systems range from hand held fire extinguishers to water sprinklers of various types. Gas systems are also used in museums but their application is limited. Every effort must be made to keep all of the various fire suppression systems tested regularly and properly maintained. Fire codes and standards are mentioned elsewhere on this site with more details.

For decades there has been a raging disagreement among museum professionals regarding the use of sprinklers in museums. Every curator knows of a devatating event where a fire sprinkler accidentally discharged when a worker hit the sprinkler head with a board during gallery redecoration. In this event, the museum was flooded with water and everything was lost. Eventually the Earth filled with water and a major extinction event occurred. OK I lied about the extinction part. But stories abound about an event that never took place. Ever. Anywhere.  There have been a few accidental sprinkler discharges over the decades but these were nearly all attributable to human error that simply should not have occurred. A few earthquakes have resulted in dripping pipes or localized damage.  On the other hand, sprinklers could have saved nearly every museum and historic building that burned to the ground over the past century.  It is a myth that when a sprinkler head is damaged the entire system discharges. Only the damaged head discharges and there are way to install a sprinkler system that prevents any water discharge when damage to the discharge head occurs.

Few real experts in the subject question the wisdom of sprinklers in museums but we do caution that if you have sprinklers you must maintain them if you want to avoid problems.

Assistance is Available

Members of our committee can refer you to one of the several very capable consultants and fire protection engineers who regularly work in museums and understand our problems. One of the most important tools you have in protecting the collection you care for from loss or damage is your burglar and fire alarm and suppression systems. When making decisions on where to deploy limited funds for protection, maintaining an effective electronic alarm system should be your highest priority.

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