State-of-the-Art Bucket Brigade

Last year Mount Vernon completed the installation of a state-of-the-art water-mist fire-suppression system. The estate’s buildings, like any wooden construction, are susceptible to fire, and as the inferno that destroyed the roof of France’s Notre Dame cathedral reminded the world, fire doesn’t respect a historic landmark filled with priceless objects. Institutions such as the MVLA must take great care to protect their irreplaceable historic resources from any and all threats, especially fire. Fortunately, like George Washington himself, the Association has been exceptionally vigilant regarding the prevention of fire, ensuring that the latest firefighting technologies are at the ready.

The new fire-suppression system went online in January 2020, just under a year after the start of installation. New fire-detection and notification systems were also installed, ensuring rapid detection and extinguishing of any fire in the Mansion and the north outbuildings. The buildings of the south lane will be added to the fire suppression system when the needed funds are raised. 

During Washington’s time, and up until the 1860s, cisterns or barrels held water in case of fire, and people carried the water in buckets to douse flames. Washington purchased a set of leather fire buckets in 1797 that are now in Mount Vernon’s collection. Beginning in the 1870s, the MVLA began to implement the newest and most effective fire-prevention systems available, including early chemical fire extinguishers confidently named “Martin Protective Fire Annihilators” in 1878. Pump-driven fire-protection systems began to augment the chemical extinguishers in the early 20th century; this new technology inspired the construction of a 250,000-gallon reservoir north of the Mansion in 1924. The previous year, automaker Henry Ford donated the first fire engine to the estate, and Mount Vernon has since been protected by a Ford fire engine and a fully trained fire crew on staff. Another innovation came with the installation of a halon gas suppression system in 1981. This waterless system—which precluded the need to introduce water into the delicate museum environment—was state-of-the-art at the time of installation, but by 30 years later it had become outmoded.

Today, the most advanced and effective option available for house museums is a water-mist suppression system, which utilizes tiny water droplets to extinguish a fire more effectively than a traditional water sprinkler. A water sprinkler wets all combustible material as soon as a fire is detected, so that the fire will not spread. But it can saturate and damage historic architecture and artifacts. In many cases when a sprinkler system is triggered, water damage is often more widespread and severe than any fire damage itself—not the ideal solution for a historic house museum. 

A water-mist system uses far less water than a sprinkler system. The mist quickly fills the air, cooling flames and hot gases by evaporation and causing water vapor to be drawn in by the fire, thereby extinguishing it. Both fire and water damage are minimized. Another advantage is that the water to fight a fire is not stored in the system’s pipes themselves (water that might leak on historic building fabric or museum objects); when a fire is detected, a powerful pump quickly fills the pipes, and mist is generated only in the needed location in a building.

Staff from the departments of Historic Preservation and Collections and Operations and Maintenance has worked closely with Fireline Corporation of Baltimore to installa Marioff HI-FOG water-mist system into the Mansion and the outbuildings of the north lane. The work involved evaluating the route of every pipe and the placement of every mist head and fastener. Careful planning has minimized impact on the historic fabric of the buildings. The work required limited plaster removal in areas identified as non-original. The west wall of the little parlor was one such area. Over the course of the project, visitors have been able to watch the removal of mid-20th-century plaster and see exposed 18th-century lath and 1734 framing elements, as well as the installation of the piping for the new fire system and the process of re-plastering with period-correct lime plaster.

Hopefully the new HI-FOG water-mist fire-suppression system will never need to prove its worth. Nevertheless, it’s nice to know it’s there, protecting the priceless and irreplaceable, thanks to the generous donors who made the installation possible.

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