Fire and Life Safety in Historic Buildings

Integrated Fire SystemsOther

How to Protect Historic Buildings Under Renovation?

Notre-Dame de Paris is one of the most iconic landmarks in France. According to EU Touring, “there are around 13 million people who visit the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral every year, which means this is an average of 30,000 people every day”. Last week the historic cathedral went up in flames, and this is now making people question if fire and life safety devices would have been able to save the church.

History of Restorations on Notre-Dame de Paris

Construction on this medieval cathedral began in 1160 and finished completion in 1260. During the 1700s, Notre-Dame was damaged during the French Revolution. But, it regained popularity in the 1800s when Victor Hugo published the novel, Notre-Dame de Paris. Also known as, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.

Because of Notre-Dame’s new found popularity, the cathedral underwent the first of many major renovations between 1844 and 1864. Then in 1963 Notre-Dame had a major cleaning restoration to remove centuries of grime. About 30 years later, the cathedral executed another restoration between 1991 and 2000. This restoration help bring the cathedral into the modern world by replacing most of the exterior, creating a complex system of electrical wires to deter pigeons from landing on the roof, and upgrading the pipe organ to a computerized system. Finally, a renovation of the cathedrals spire started in late 2018 and was brought to a halt due to a devastating fire that occurred on April15, 2019.

2019 Fire

During the latest renovations a fire broke out at the base of the spire around 6:40 p.m. on April 15, 2019. Luckily, the cathedral was not open to the public at this time. Approximately 500 firefighters fought throughout the night to help extinguish the fire. It took 15 hours for the firefighters to fight the fire. Within this time the cathedral experienced extensive damage. According to French authorities, “Notre-Dame Cathedral was within 15 to 30 minutes of complete destruction” when it was finally extinguished.

The crown of thorns, tunic of St. Louis, and rooftop statues survived the flames. The altar and cross is still standing amongst the debris. The Great Organ remains intact, but sustained a great deal of water damaged. The rose windows are also still intact, but it is too soon to assess what damage has been done. Other stain glassed windows around the church were not so lucky and did not make it through the fire.

Other pieces of the cathedral did not survive in the fire. The spire on top of Notre-Dame collapsed with two-thirds of the roof. Authorities presume that the relics inside of the spire are also lost.

While the fire department’s investigation has not been concluded it is likely that the fire was caused by the current renovations.

How to Protect Historic Buildings

Historic buildings are at a high risk of catching on fire, especially when they in the midst of renovations. In March 2019, FEMA posted a bulletin about how buildings that are under construction and renovation are in their most vulnerable state. This is because there is an “accumulation of waste combustibles, limited access, [and] minimal water supply. . .” Buildings under renovation also make making fighting the fire more complicated because of, “increased water weight, weakened metal and support structures, and hidden hot spots. . .” All of this becomes even more complicated when the building that is undergoing restoration is more than 800 years old.

When restoring buildings FEMA recommends that you:

  • Create a risk assessment and action plan.
    • Visit the facilities and perform a risk assessment.
    • Develop a pre-incident action plan in the event of a fire, collapse or hazardous materials release.
    • Communicate the risk assessment and action plan to all emergency response personnel.
    • Schedule training on the risk assessment and action plan.
    • Schedule training on the risk assessment and action plan.
  • Check structural plans and fire protection features.
    • Review the owner’s fire safety program for completeness and compliance.
    • Verify the condition of escape facilities including doors, walkways, stairs, ramps, fire escapes, or other means of egress.
    • Check fire protection features, especially fire extinguishers, hydrants and temporary standpipe systems. If they are not operational, have them repaired or at least note their status in your pre-incident action plan.
    • Review structural plans with the project supervisor. If there are concerns about all or a portion of a project’s structural integrity, report them to the local building code official.
  • Be aware of hazardous materials.
    • Ensure that the storage of Class I and II flammable and combustible liquids exceeding 60 gallons is more than 50 feet from the structure.
    • Post and enforce verify that “No Smoking” signs.
    • Check to see how you can suitably protect hot work and other hazardous operations.

-The IFS Team