After Notre-Dame – a chronicle by Michael Strömgren - Brandskydd, Ventilationsbrandskydd, nödbelysning - Briab

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After Notre-Dame – a chronicle by Michael Strömgren

6 May, 2019

The fire at the Notre-Dame cathedral is a wake-up call. There are important lessons to learn, also for us in Sweden. Fire safety in cultural heritage buildings is contradictory. My colleague Johan Hanberger, expert in fire protection of heritage buildings put it simply: “The buildings we value most have the worst fire protection. Also, we often fill them with irreplaceable art and artefacts. Fire protection must simply be prioritized higher.”

Michael Strömgren, public affairs manager of Briab in Paris.

Notre-Dame’s fire protection was deplorable. According to the New York Times, architect Benjamin Mouton, who was in charge of the design of the fire protection, assumed that old oak burned slowly. Of course, this is not true at all. Images of the cathedral’s attic, before the fire, show what looks like firewood stacked up for a campfire. Anyone who has roasted hotdogs over an open fire knows what happens once the fire gets going.

Unknown cause

At the moment the cause of the fire is not known, but there are several theories. We know that far too often, fires start in conjunction with renovations. Electrical malfunction is a possible cause.Arson cannot be ruled out, but the police have labeled the fire as an accident. Regardless of the cause, the consequences of the fire are unacceptable. Complex and unique buildings require multiple layers of fire protection. Notre-Dame, a hugely important and unique building, possibly the best example of Gothic architecture, had only a single layer of fire protection, and this layer had shortcomings – for instance a fire alarm that required human confirmation. When the alarm was activated the guard had to run up all the stairs to the attic to check if there actually was a fire. In the best imaginable scenario, it would take 20 minutes for the fire brigade to reach the site. That is far too long, as the fire would have time to grow to an uncontrollable size. In this case, the guard did not discover the fire after the first alarm went, which meant critical minutes were lost. Not until the second alarm was activated was the fire discovered, and the alarm was forwarded to the firefighters.

Notre-Dame after the fire occurred

A textbook example, unfortunately

Notre-Dame’s attic, almost 2,000 square meters in area, lacked firewalls. This means that once a fire is underway, it is impossible for firefighters to limit it. Neither was there any other fire protection, or any active system such as sprinklers. They had not counted on the scenario of a collapsing spire. There was simply no conceptualization of fire protection as a system. To summarize, we can conclude that the Notre-Dame fire will be seen as a textbook example of neglected fire protection.

We need a national overview of the situation

So, what is the situation in Sweden? We know that many churches regularly evaluate and upgrade their fire protection. Briab has developed tools for this, for Kyrkans Försäkring, the insurance company for the Church of Sweden, with special focus on the cathedrals, which deserve particular protection. In Visby we conducted an exercise in 2017, where the emergency services had to prioritize and save important artefacts. Of course, there are numerous examples of museums and heritage buildings with great fire protection plans. Still, the Swedish National Audit Office concluded in 2019 that in the event of a fire, many museums have no plan for saving important art and artefacts. Their survey only scratches the surface, and we have no overall picture of fire protection in heritage buildings at the national level. Those of us who work with these issues on a daily basis see far too many examples of how things should not be.

The week after the fire at Notre-Dame, an 18th-century manor house in Sweden, Norsborg, burnt to the ground. The fire advanced rapidly, and soon the building could not be saved. As a neighbor said, “It’s unbelievable that a fire can devour something that took so many years to build.”

The worst protection for our most precious buildings

Fire protection must be a priority, and we often neglect that. However, the reality is that we tend to have the worst fire protection in the buildings that we value the most. After a fire there are often fundraising campaigns to rebuild what was lost, but we know that with a fraction of these funds, the risk could have been removed from the start. Decision-makers, property owners and conservationists need to prioritize safety more. And we, who know fire protection more than anyone, need to be clearer in our communication: what are the risks of neglecting fire protection?

We know more about fire protection than ever. Technical innovations and digitalization offer new opportunities to make fire protection more efficient, and to raise the bar. But ultimately, it comes down to owners and decision-makers: what risks can we afford to take? So, let the story of Notre-Dame be food for thought. What sort of fire protection do we currently have, and can we afford not to improve it?

 

 

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