Notre-Dame Fire a Catalyst for Renovation Best Practices

The cathedral’s blaze raises fire suppression and risk management questions.
By Zach Ewell Posted on June 24, 2019

While the fire stunned many, the level of damage was anything but surprising, as the famed cathedral had been in poor shape long before its demise. Unsafe work by renovators and electrical short circuits are just a few leading speculations about what caused the fire. However, as authorities continue to investigate, early indications point to faulty fire safety and prevention as a cause for the excessive damage.

The attic of the cathedral was described as a “forest” due to the many old oak beams that held up the roof. According to The New York Times, “The architect who oversaw the design of the fire safety system at Notre-Dame acknowledged that officials had misjudged how quickly a flame would ignite and spread through the cathedral, resulting in a much more devastating blaze than they had anticipated.”

Notre-Dame de Paris did not have any insurance, because ownership of the church was taken by the state in 1905 under France’s secularization law. However, two restoration contractors that were working on the church were insured by global insurer Axa, which is also reported to insure some of the relics and religious artworks displayed in the cathedral.

Preventing Fires

When approaching fire safety from an insurance perspective, churches and old cathedrals need to take into account “hot work.” According to Guy Russ, assistant vice president of risk control at Church Mutual Insurance, hot work is a three-step safety method that insurers need to identify when covering renovations. It involves fire and hot objects, like torches or welding equipment.

“There’s the person who is actually doing the work, handling the torch or handling the welding equipment,” Russ says. “Then you’ve got someone on fire watch. The only thing that person is doing is watching for a fire to start out of the work. And then you’ve got a program manager, someone who is managing the fact that we’re going to do this as standard protocol. The fire watch person is going to be there before the work starts, while the work is going on and then for some period of time after the work. So even when the torch is turned off, they’re still watching for some period of time—could be 30 minutes, could be an hour.”

At Notre-Dame, just 30 minutes after the last worker of a renovation crew left the building’s roof, the first fire alarm went off. Twenty-three minutes later, a second alarm was set off. After 31 minutes of both alarms sounding, the fire department was called.

The fire watch person is going to be there before the work starts, while the work is going on and then for some period of time after the work.
Guy Russ, assistant vice president of risk control at Church Mutual Insurance

Although fire alarm systems vary, most smoke and carbon monoxide detectors usually alert staff via phones rather than routing directly to fire departments, according to Russ. “They can go straight to the fire department, but that does require the fire department being able to accept those alerts. Certainly, all fire departments would very much like to have building layouts of your buildings for multiple purposes—fire being one of them.”

Can We Renovate Safely?

While the public is primarily focused on the beauty of old landmarks such as Notre-Dame, the inner workings of updating such facilities are often painstakingly difficult amid a tangle of wires, cables and pipes.

The Palace of Westminster, built in London shortly before Notre-Dame, is currently undertaking a renovation. A bulk of the work on the English landmark will focus on updating the complex web of mechanical and electrical systems that are essential to operating old buildings in the 21st century.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City is one example of best practices during restoration. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, said on NBC’s “Today” show that his contractors worked closely with the New York City Fire Department to ensure that appropriate safety measures, such as misting systems and fire retardants, were used in the recent renovation of the 141-year-old church on Fifth Avenue, which also has a wooden roof.

Monsignor Robert Ritchie, rector of St. Patrick’s, told the Catholic News Service that there has been a camera in the attic of the cathedral for many years to provide early visual warning of fire in the space, which he says is similar to Notre-Dame’s, an “attic of ancient logs.”

During restoration planning, an alternative to St. Patrick’s existing attic sprinkler system was sought because, while it would have put out a fire, it might have caused the ceiling to collapse, Ritchie told CNS. The new system suppresses fire with a high-pressure water mist. NYFD sends firefighters four times a year to practice getting into the attic so they are familiar with the space and how to maneuver there. They were performing a practice drill April 15, the day Notre-Dame burned.

Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross recently underwent a major restoration as well, during which the contractor discovered wiring from the 1940s “grafted onto 1920s wiring,” Michael Kieloch, communications director at Holy Cross, told CNS. That stone-exterior, wood-frame church has been retrofitted with a top-to-bottom sprinkler network, fire detection and alarm systems, and fire-retardant insulation in empty spaces.

Beyond Renovations

While the fire at Notre-Dame started in the attic, most church fires commonly start in the furnace/equipment room or the kitchen. In the kitchen, the buildup of grease and aging appliances with frayed chords are two large causes of fire.

“It also tends to be places where people store things, and that’s when we see problems occur: [when] people are storing oily rags or paint cans and they’re not keeping them in a fireproof shelving unit or container,” Russ says.

While some may argue that very old buildings are not suitably designed for modern fire suppression systems, there are other highly congested spaces, such as submarines and ship engine rooms, that are routinely protected adequately. Additionally, medieval wooden churches elsewhere in Europe, museums, and many historic buildings have been retrofitted with modern firefighting systems. And these are crucial, because once a fire has begun in a massive structure, particularly these very old, very vulnerable edifices, human firefighting can become a dicey proposition.

“Once a fire has as much headway as the one at Notre-Dame had, there is a danger that the building will collapse,” retired NYFD Capt. Tom Roche told CNS. “A fire chief is almost required by conscience to pull his men out before that happens.”

Zach Ewell Content Specialist Read More

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