Installing Fire Safety Systems in Historic Buildings: A Look at Notre Dame

Installing Fire Safety Systems in Historic Buildings: A Look at Notre Dame

Installing fire safety systems in historic buildings isn’t as common as you might think. The recent events of the fire at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral make us painfully aware of this.

Notre Dame is one of the world’s most culturally-significant landmarks. The scenes of a catastrophic fire engulfing it were apocalyptic. In just over an hour, a small spark within a system of renovation scaffolding had transformed into a raging inferno. It completely incinerated the cathedral’s 800-year old timber roof and leveled its iconic spire. It was only after a critical half-hour struggle that firefighters managed to save the church’s famous stone facade and almost all of its interior.

Notre Dame still stands, but the devastation at the heart of Paris shocked the world. The now-infamous fire has reignited a valuable discussion about the relevance of life safety systems within historic and world heritage sites.

Medieval buildings, abundant across Europe, are primarily made of wood. This is material that, after hundreds of years, is incredibly dry and powerfully flammable. Buildings like Notre Dame have so much wood that their attics earn nicknames like “the forest.” You can be sure they have the potential to produce fast-moving and well-fueled fires.

Why Don’t Historical Sites Invest in Fire Safety?

The problem is that, despite the potential risks like those we saw in Paris, so many historic structures’ caretaker organizations have failed to adopt what could be incredibly valuable fire sprinkler systems.

Disturbingly, it seems like installing one during Notre Dame’s pre-fire renovation was an option… one that was turned down. Why does this continue to happen? It’s obvious that modern fire safety mechanisms didn’t exist when these historic buildings first went up. There’s still been a noticeable lack of modern installations though.

Countries like France have national regulations on fire safety. However, historical sites seem to be an exception. One reason that there’s still a reluctance to use sprinklers is a fear about potential water damage to priceless interiors. Unfortunately, these concerns have mostly been created by faulty Hollywood depictions of how a fire sprinkler system operates.

More often than not, historical site overseers believe the false idea that, when a fire starts, a building’s entire sprinkler network will go off at once, no matter how big the fire is. If you assumed at the first sign of smoke that every device would suddenly rain gallons onto valuable collections of artwork and antiques, you probably wouldn’t embrace the technology either, no matter how successful a track record it had of extinguishing fires!

But this isn’t how it works. Despite how the media’s portrayed them, fire sprinkler systems operate on a sprinkler head-by-sprinkler head basis by design. In other words, when a fire starts, only the sprinklers closest to it turn on. In the worst of worst cases, only items in the immediate vicinity of a fire might suffer water-related damage. But remember, without a sprinkler system, things would be much worse. Items would almost certainly be damaged by smoke or destroyed entirely by fire.

Fortunately, research shows that in approximately 90% of fires suppressed by sprinklers in the last 20 years, it took only 6 or fewer heads to fully contain the flames. A building is far more likely to be totaled by fire without sprinklers than it is by water with them.

Keeping Aesthetic Alterations in Mind

In Paris, the aesthetic alterations required to install sprinkler heads into the 13th-century Gothic cathedral might have also contributed to the church caretakers’ decision not to do so. Frankly, however, in an effort to protect properties, historic or otherwise, compromises have to be made in the name of safety.

Fire safety systems can be tailor-fit to accommodate any kind of property and could be designed to be as least intrusive as possible (not to mention painted to match the color and design of ceilings). They should not be dismissed as an impossible pill to swallow. Renovations take place in historic structures all the time, and some original materials are always replaced. The installation of a fire safety system ought to be a part of this process.

At Notre Dame, the most senior concern over sprinkler installation dealt with electricity. Pierre Housieaux, the president of the Paris Historical Association, has asserted that there was a “systematic refusal” to install anything electrical during the cathedral’s renovation effort.

Why? Ironically, this was because officials feared the electrical currents supplying the sprinkler system could have sparked a fire. While the cause of the Notre Dame fire is inconclusive, it’s been determined to have almost certainly been related to the ongoing renovation.

Yes, refusing to introduce electrical wiring into the cathedral’s attic to support a sprinkler system meant a fire couldn’t ever be started by it (even though this is a complete rarity in itself). But the lack of a sprinkler system spelled disaster when it wasn’t there to put out a fire started by another source!

Keep in mind that even if, in the rare circumstance, an electrical fire began, a properly functioning sprinkler system could have been the key to suppressing it.

Valuable Time Lost

When it comes to suppressing a fire, particularly among conditions like those in medieval buildings, time is the most valuable resource. The reason the initial spark inside Notre Dame’s attic consumed the entire roof so quickly is because it had a “forest” of bone-dry wooden fuel to keep it fed.

With each passing minute, the fire had greater and greater opportunities to grow and consume. Don’t forget, Paris prosector Remy Heitz said it took renovation workers 20 long minutes to even find the fire within the vast church attic after an off-site alarm triggered.

It took even longer for firefighters to arrive on the scene. Without fire sprinklers that could have responded almost immediately, precious minutes were wasted that allowed the flames to swell to a size beyond quick suppression. And when the firefighters rained down thousands of gallons onto Notre Dame from their hoses, they expelled much, much more water than fire sprinklers would have produced. Talk about water damage!

Installing Fire Safety Systems in Historic Buildings Can Save History

The facts are clear. Fire safety systems can efficiently and successfully extinguish damaging fires with the most minimal effects possible on the buildings they’re installed to protect. Fire sprinklers save properties, and they save lives. You can rest assured that they can save historic landmarks and cultural heritage sites too. They ought to be used more.

This haunting lesson from the Notre Dame fire was put succinctly by the French historical expert Jean-Michel Leniaud when he said the following: “The lack of fire security allowed the fire to spread quickly. If there were sprinklers everywhere it might have been different, but there weren’t.”

Hopefully, as the French people begin the emotional process of restoring their landmark cathedral, there will be plans to include a fire safety system.

If you would like more advice on installing fire safety systems in historic buildings, please contact us. We would be honored to help you protect your piece of history.