Fire Protection In Historic Building Renovations: Remembering The Notre-Dame Fire

Today marks the three-year anniversary of the Notre-Dame Cathedral fire. We look back at the impact and the lessons learned

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On April 15, 2019, the 850-year Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris was undergoing extensive renovations when a fire broke out beneath the roof. Within an hour of discovery, the roof and spire were fully engulfed and ultimately collapsed. Most of the roof was destroyed, and its upper walls were severely damaged. Works of art and religious relics suffered smoke damage, and some of the exterior art was damaged or destroyed. Moreover, the melting of the roof and spire resulted in lead contamination of the site and surrounding areas, putting the local population at risk. Since then, authorities ruled the fire as accidental with the cause still unknown, though it’s been suggested an electrical short may have started it.

Contributing Factors

Several factors contributed to the fire getting out of control. The most critical mistake was failing to quickly identify the location of the fire. When the fire alarm went off, the guard sent to check on the warning went to the wrong building, which delayed the response effort. It took 30 minutes before anyone realized what was happening. By the time the guard could get to the attic, the fire was unstoppable.

To complicate matters, the fire warning system was not operating correctly. When called upon to issue a warning about the fire and its location, it produced a nearly indecipherable message. The cathedral was also ill-equipped to deal with the blaze. The attic lacked safety measures, such as firewalls or a sprinkler system, which may have been omitted in part for aesthetic reasons.

Could the fire have been mitigated?

It is unfortunate that Notre-Dame experienced a fire that damaged so much of the cathedral. But could better protection measures have helped to reduce the fire’s impact? It’s difficult to know. To answer this question, we can look at how St. Patrick’s Cathedral effectively implemented fire protection measures in its own renovation project.

A few days after the Notre-Dame fire, an arson attempt occurred at the historic St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, which was also undergoing extensive renovations at the time. The incident drew attention to the similarities between the two cathedrals as well as the significant differences in fire protection measures and procedures put in place during the renovations.

Both Notre-Dame and St. Patrick’s had similar wood attics that were difficult to access as well as fire detection systems in the attic. St. Patrick’s, however, added a camera to allow for rapid confirmation of a fire in the space and was outfitted with a high-pressure water mist fire protection system powered by nitrogen gas. Additionally, during the renovations, St. Patrick’s hired a person to perform a fire watch every day during the construction.

Using fire codes to guide historical restoration processes

U.S. fire officials have access to the requirements found in NFPA 914, Code for The Protection of Historic Structures, which predicated the success story of St. Patrick’s fire protection story. Although not used in France, the Code dedicates a chapter to “Fire Precautions During Construction, Repair, and Alterations.” It’s likely that if restoration processes follow this Code it will help to ensure the protection and preservation of all historic structures. The shortcomings of older structures also highlight why rigorous building codes for new construction and their adoption is critical and why special precautions must be taken during renovations.

As members of national and global regulatory organizations, our team participates in the development of fire safety codes, such as the NFPA 914, and stays up-to-date on codes and standards interpretation. Click here to learn more about our fire and life safety services and how we can assist with your renovation.

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