Notre Dame Cathedral fire reflects challenges of protecting historic buildings from fire

Blog Post created by rsolomon Employee on Apr 16, 2019


I just returned from Paris this past Saturday after a week of meetings with the ISO committee that deals with Sustainable Cities and Communities.  Part of the goal of this committee is to look at a range of critical issues such as resilience, community risk reduction, smart city concepts and transportation options, and the ways in which we measure how good, or how not so good we all are doing in these areas. Recognition of the importance of preservation of heritage sites and historically significant buildings is among the topics that we often discuss either in the meetings or during the more informal settings.


Like many others, I heard about the awful fire at Notre Dame Cathedral yesterday afternoon. While I had the privilege to tour the building when I was there in 2007, I simply did a “walk by” during some free time I had on my most recent trip. While it is way too early to determine or speculate why this fire occurred, that will come later, there is no argument or question that the loss of significant portions of this magnificent structure and some of its contents will have a lasting impact not only on the citizens of Paris and France, but clearly on the world community as a whole. I do not overlook the fact that no one was killed or seriously injured. Likewise, I also acknowledge that sometimes losing a piece of history can also be a devastating experience.


Fires in historic buildings are often times difficult to judge, extinguish or control.  Failure of wood structural members alter the behavior of remaining structural elements. Exterior walls that were once tied together by overhead elements become freestanding façades that could collapse on first responders for any number of reasons. Beyond the physical loss, such fires leave a gaping hole in a community or a larger society. Application of best practices in the form of codes, standards — norms as they are sometimes referred to in Europe — can all work to help minimize the impact of fire even in buildings that are more than 800 years old.  Innovative and novel designs have allowed sprinkler systems to be retrofitted in these older structures. Use of specialized systems such as beam detection and air aspirating devices can be used to apply and blend in effective smoke detection into the architectural features of these buildings.


These and other measures require the delicate balance of providing fire protection and life safety systems that are both effective, yet minimally obtrusive. Maintaining the historic fabric of the structure is a critically important goal of the designer. Determining what operating plans can be put in place to supplement the systems must also be considered. In other words, what roles can the staff members who are at the building day in and day out play in keeping the occupants as well as the building safe from the effects of fire. All of these measures are among the criteria provided into specialized NFPA codes that deal with these environments. NFPA 909, Code for the Protection of Cultural Resource Properties — Museums, Libraries, and Places of Worship and NFPA 914, Code for Fire Protection of Historic Structures can work hand-in-hand to offer meaningful solutions to protect these important buildings from fire as well as other potential hazards.


NFPA 914 in particular is developed by a committee of experts who know about the delicate balance mentioned above.  The requirements in this code have been carefully evaluated to bring to bear all of the unique options and solutions that might be applied to these structures.  From management operational systems, fire prevention, security and special precautions that should be taken during renovation projects, NFPA 914 provides a wide range of criteria that can mitigate the effects of the fire.


While the fire at Notre Dame will bring attention to the importance of having the right measures in place to prevent or minimize the impact of a fire, it is important to not lose sight of the fact that fires in places of worship are not totally unheard of. At about the same time the fire in Paris was burning, another fire was burning at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Early reports are that this fire was contained rather quickly in this 1300 year old structure and that perhaps minimal damage occurred to the Mosque. Most of us probably never heard of St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre or the Greater Union Baptist Church or the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, both located in Opelousas. These three churches in Louisiana were targeted by an arsonist in the last three weeks. Historic by US standards, the churches stood for over 100 years and were a focus of the local community. As the caretakers for these structures, used for religious purposes or not, historic or not, applying the right mix of building design, operating features and vigilance requires a group effort to protect and maintain the heritage that these buildings represent.


Those that are interested in historic preservation or protection of specialized cultural resource facilities might be interested in these NFPA Journal articles: