Notre Dame fire: Paris Fire Brigade deployed unmanned robots and drones

Key tactics impacted command decisions related to saving iconic bell towers


On April 15, the world watched from their homes, businesses, college dorms and schools the catastrophic fire that enveloped the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

I was driving to our Fire Headquarters when I thought I heard the radio announcer say that there was a fire in Paris involving Notre Dame, but I wasn’t sure exactly what had been said. I switched to an all-news radio station and within seconds had that confirmed.

Like most everyone, I sought a television and switched to a cable news station to see the incredible sight of fire leaping through the roof of the cathedral structure near the ornate rear spire. The news anchor indicated that the fire had been reported approximately one hour before, and he kept saying that it appeared that the Paris Fire Brigade, or pompiers as they are called in France, had yet to arrive. Having visited Paris fire stations on several visits to the city, that statement seemed incredulous to me.

Drones and the unmanned robot played a role in the decision that the bell towers could be approached and subsequently saved. (Photo/Romeo Durscher Twitter)
Drones and the unmanned robot played a role in the decision that the bell towers could be approached and subsequently saved. (Photo/Romeo Durscher Twitter)

My wife, Diana, and I had also gone to Notre Dame on each visit to Paris, and I knew that it sits on an island in the middle of the Seine River along with several government buildings. Access to the island is always very restricted, with the bridges predominately designed for foot traffic. The island separates the famous Left and Right Banks of the Seine, with markets, restaurants and mercantile shops on the nearby Left Bank and a more typical Paris neighborhood on the Right. Access to the island by any motor vehicle is limited at best with bullards acting as barricades to keep safe the throngs of people, predominately tourists, who flock to see Notre Dame at all hours of the day or night.

Notre Dame family perspective and connections

Taking all of this in, I texted my son, Todd, who was on duty as a fire captain at the Fishers, Indiana, Fire Department, asking if he was watching these events. Soon we were discussing strategies for attacking a fire in a nine-century-old building with a fire in a spire that sits at least 300 feet off the ground. From a firefighter’s perspective, those strategic elements included rescue of anyone inside and any of the artifacts not yet involved in the direct path of the fire that obviously had an incredible head start.

By this time, the news anchors acting as “armchair fire chiefs” had decided that the fire needed to be attacked by everything from an airborne water tanker to fire boats on the Seine. What we know now is the firefighters had done exactly what they needed to do – evacuate the remaining staff and construction workers from the cathedral, save as many of the artifacts and relics as possible, call for additional fire units, and attempt to cut off the fast-moving fire. As we know now, several relics, including the famed “Crown of Thorns,” were saved by the pompiers under the direction of their fire chaplain, Father Jena-Marc Fournier, who had secured the keys to the vaults where they were stored in a lower level of the cathedral.

About this time, my oldest son, Dale, also a certified firefighter but currently on a business trip for the U.S. government in Asia, entered our text exchange. He, too, was watching the same live video, but was in a time zone 12 hours ahead of both Todd and mine.

As the news anchors were lamenting where the firefighters were, we collectively spotted firefighters on balconies with hoselines, stretching additional lines to feed aerial appliances, and eventually entering the iconic twin bell towers in the front of the cathedral to protect them from the impending fire.

At one time, Dale texted that it would be a miracle if none of the firefighters suffered injury or worse from the risks they were taking. Within that hour, the media received the first report of a firefighter injury and that the firefighter was being taken to a nearby hospital. One unconfirmed report indicated the firefighter’s condition was critical, but no further update has yet to be released.

Unique tactics employed by Paris fire brigade

In the aftermath of the fire, we’ve become aware of two tactics conducted by the Paris Fire Brigade during this extensive firefight: First, the use of an unmanned robot to enter the collapse area of the sanctuary and vestibule in an attempt to darken down the roof and some of the contents; and second, the use of drones feeding the command and control vehicle with overhead video to get a better perspective of what was involved, what was in imminent danger, and how the pompiers could attempt to cut off the fire’s extension. Obviously, these drones and the unmanned robot played a role in the decision that the bell towers could be approached and subsequently saved.

Firefighters save a national treasure

The fire was both a national tragedy for France and an international tragedy for those of us who marveled at the grace and quiet dignity of an edifice that had withstood nearly 900 years of history. Already nearly $1 billion has been raised for its restoration. I, for one, hope there will be an area set aside reminding the citizens of Paris and the citizens of the world who visit it in the future about the strength, courage and determination of the Paris Fire Brigade whose members saved enough of the structure to see it eventually rise from these ashes to again take its place as an international treasure.

Stay safe!

Note: Chief Rielage will be presenting “The US Fire Service and Its Role in Disaster Preparedness, Response and Mitigation,” a look at the pertinent role of the fire service in disaster preparedness both in the United States and internationally at Fire-Rescue International on Aug. 10. Look for a preview of that presentation in a future article on FireRescue1.com and FireChief.com.

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