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.

Two historical cathedrals in major cities underwent renovations recently and how they incorporated fire protection and safety measures had a dramatic impact on their outcome.


The 800-year Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was undergoing extensive renovations when a fire broke out on April 15th. The guard found no evidence of a fire after the first alarm sounded. Approximately six minutes after a second alarm went off they discovered a fire in the attic area. Following alarm verification procedures required by the Paris Fire Department, the guards notified the fire department a half-hour after the first alarm sounded. Within an hour of the fire discovery, the roof and spire were fully engulfed and ultimately collapsed. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.


A suspected attempted arson occurred at the historic St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City in April. This cathedral also underwent extensive renovations this year but they put fire protection and procedures in place during the renovations. Msgr. Robert T. Ritchie, Rector of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York,
saw many similarities
and a few differences between the St. Patrick’s and Notre Dame.


Both Notre Dame and St. Patrick’s Cathedrals have similar wood attics that are difficult to access, and both cathedrals had a fire detection system in the attic, but St. Patrick’s added a camera to allow for rapid confirmation of a fire in the space.


And, the attic 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.


It is unfortunate that Notre Dame experienced a fire that damaged so much of the Cathedral. Could the damage to Notre Dame been mitigated through prevention? It’s difficult to know but U.S. fire officials have access to the requirements found in NFPA 914, Code for The Protection of Historic Structures that 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” and 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.

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