On April 15 last year, nearly all eyes were on Notre-Dame, Paris’ 850-year-old gothic masterpiece that nearly burned to the ground. Slightly less noticed though, a month before, the St. Louis Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, home to rare documents like original documentation of the Louisiana Purchase and the first draft of the U.S. Bill of Rights, went up in flames, nearly taking that history with it. And in Philadelphia, a piece of the city’s own gothic revival past was lost to demolition after a roofer’s torch sparked a fire that consumed the 115-year-old Greater Bible Way Temple.
Just like the Parisian firefighters who raced to save religious relics and artwork from Notre-Dame, St. Louis firefighters moved quickly to pull original manuscripts and antiques from the Karpeles. However, without the aid of fire sprinklers, the 100-year-old church that served as the museum’s home could not be saved from millions of dollars of damage, leaving an uncertain future for a cultural institution much valued by the community.
Despite the irreplaceability of the objects they contain, under investment in safety is not uncommon for museums around the world. In 2019, Rio de Janeiro learned the cause of the 2018 Brazil National Museum Fire that ravished the world’s largest collection of Latin and South American natural and cultural history artifacts. The cause, an air conditioner installation that did not meet manufacturer specifications for grounding and circuitry, could grow to a disaster due to paltry spending on fire protection.
But, while there are those institutions that have under-invested in fire protection, others embrace it. For instance, Los Angeles’ Getty Center, which houses hundreds of priceless works of art, has invested heavily in the layered fire protection which guards the facility so well that during the nearby Getty wildfire in 2019, the museum campus served as a rest area for fire crews.
Investment in safety, one of the eight components in the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem, should be everyone’s priority. From the safety of the public, worker training, and emergency planning to the preservation of our cultural icons, we all must work together to allocate resources to reduce losses from fire and related hazards. If we don’t, uninformed decisions to try to save money can and will lead to disastrous and expensive consequences.
Learn more about this and similar stories in our 2019 Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem: Year in Review report, now available to download for free on NFPA's Ecosystem webpage. There's additional information about the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem and free resources available for download, too, including:
- The new 2019 Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem: Year in Review report
- A link to the “Ecosystem Watch” page in NFPA Journal
- An animated video, “About the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem”
- A Fire & Life Safety PowerPoint deck for presentations
- A Fire & Life Safety fact sheet
You can find all of these resources and more by visiting the Ecosystem webpage at www.nfpa.org/ecosystem.