On April 15, 2019, the world was captivated as images of smoke and flames engulfed one of its most iconic buildings: The Cathedral at Notre-Dame. Concern and curiosity quickly turned to despair as Notre-Dame’s spire collapsed as fire continued to consume the 850-year-old landmark.
In the end, a silver lining could be found in that some of the cathedral was spared, that some of the relics within were saved by quick-thinking clergy, and that only one person was seriously injured while fighting the fire. But the loss was still devastating and attention immediately turned to not only determining the cause but how can these priceless historic sites be preserved; taking it a step further, how can the damage of these disasters be limited as, or even before, they ever start?
The search for an answer to this question begs three others; 1. what happened; 2. how did it happen; and 3. how can we use what we have learned? Incidents like this bring to light disruptive technologies designed to help mitigate existing and future risk. Technologies like 3D reality capture can enhance emergency preparedness capabilities and overall loss control with the ability to effectively communicate and manage critical incidents in real-time through a real, complete representation of an environment.
Here are five immediate lessons in how risk engineering could’ve impacted mitigating the Notre Dame cathedral fire.
Complete documentation is critical
One of the only emergency response measures that went right during and immediately after the start of the Notre Dame cathedral fire was the fire alarm system. However, for a number of reasons, those systems weren’t enough.
“The security employee monitoring the smoke alarm panel at Notre-Dame cathedral was just three days on the job” - The New York Times in the July 18, 2019 article, “Notre-Dame Came Far Closer to Collapsing then People Knew. This is How it Was Saved.”
With a lack of training, familiarity and immediate access to information on the site’s layout, the ability to organize an effective assessment of the site was limited. Through a complete and comprehensive view of the site and its relevant zones, a more effective response processes could’ve been in place to increase situational awareness and mitigate loss.
Time-sensitivity in communication
"Go check for fire" - initial communication to security personnel at start of Notre-Dame fire
A fire will double in size every 30 seconds. With loss control, it goes without saying that in times of a catastrophe event, every second counts. When time of is of the essence, quick and coordinated communication can make all the difference. Unfortunately, in this case, Notre-Dame experienced a series of communication issues that ultimately led to the catastrophic scene the world watched unfold.
“Go check for fire;” the four words that were used to instruct a security employee to investigate the alarm, according to the New York Times.
Four simple words without any context of who, what, when, where and why; the limited communication meant the guard went to the wrong building and while an unsuccessful attempt was made to contact the security guard’s boss, none was immediately made to the fire department. What resulted allowed for 30 minutes of lost time and, therefore, the fire to double in size roughly 60 times over.
A collaborative, single point of reference, accessible to all necessary personnel would’ve streamlined communication protocols, saving time and likely loss experienced at the cathedral.
Technology in loss control has come a long way
While the effort to identify and fight the fire at Notre-Dame involved human error, according to fire experts, the systems that were in place made so this type of disaster was almost inevitable.
“The only thing that surprised me is that this disaster didn’t happen sooner,” - Albert Simeoni, an expert born and trained in France, but now head of fire protection engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.
According to an archive of documents, the fire warning system at Notre-Dame took dozens of experts and six years to create. That system that was put in place was so arcane that a simple “fire” warning could be almost indecipherable. Today, technology offers streamlined capabilities through the use 3D reality capture and the ability to make more widely available critical information.
While a similar technique was used on the historic structure years ago, it wasn't utilized in this application and today's capabilities far outpace what was available at that time.
Understanding the effects of reaction versus response
The mechanisms put in place for loss control often focus on reacting to a catastrophe event and the restoration that takes place after the fact. Damage in these events is often inevitable and therefore this remains a large part of the process. However, the ability to approach loss control with a response-based approach, which is rooted in critical thought and deliberate, proactive actions, is more possible as a result of improved technology.
Applying historical information and situational awareness to the high-stress situations of a catastrophe event would have enabled those responding to the Notre-Dame fire to be a better position to limit the damage.
Preparedness through pre-loss planning is streamlining, not only the response to a catastrophe event but also the systems in place to combat the extent of the loss itself.
Undesirable events are inevitable
The reality is disasters like what took place at Notre-Dame take place and damage occurs. According to the Weather Channel, there were 39 events in 2018 that did more than $1 billion in damage each.
That figure illustrates the scope and scale of such events while at the same time demonstrating the vast opportunity to both limit the damage is done and streamline the processes for restoration.
As investigations into the Notre-Dame event more forward and more lessons are found, what’s clear already is that through technology and responsive-minded best practices, loss control (for historical sites or otherwise) has changed for the better.