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Church changes: European churches get fire safety upgrades post-Notre Dame blaze

Fueled by the tragedy in Paris, other places of worship are updating key elements of the structures and adding life safety features

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Replacing the roof trusses at Notre Dame.

Photos/Robert Rielage

My wife, Diana, and I just returned from a trip to Europe, visiting sites in France, Germany, Luxembourg and Switzerland.

While in Paris, we walked to the famed Notre Dame cathedral, which had suffered severe damage from a devastating fire on April 15, 2019. The cathedral remains under a monumental reconstruction effort.

We also saw firsthand how the incident has fueled a heightened focus on fire and life safety at other places of worship around Europe.

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Notre Dame: From early construction to restoration

Notre Dame was first constructed in the year 1163, had three distinct building phases, and was finished in the year 1345, leading to the Paris landmark we know so well. Notre Dame ultimately became not only the symbol of Christianity in France, but also one of the most notable tourist destinations in Paris, famous for its art, relics and picturesque location along the Seine River.

Today, the classic appearance of Notre Dame is only recognizable from the front of the cathedral where the valiant efforts of the Paris pompiers saved the massive 300-foot twin towers from collapse. On the other three sides, the immense restoration efforts are in full view. Scaffolding is everywhere, and massive cranes tower over the structure. Nestled alongside the scaffolding are dozens of stacked modular containers, visible from the Seine, that serve as offices for various contractors, plus dormitories for some of the construction workers.

The Paris Fire Brigade maintains a small presence on the plaza near the construction site. Normally, this is either a small rescue-type van, or at times a pumper with pompiers ready for a fire, rescue or medical call on site, as well as community interaction by answering questions or helping to direct tourists to their next destination.

The massive buttress walls remain, and the task has begun to install the roof trusses on both sides of the sanctuary that will lead to the full restoration of the roof and the construction of the spire that collapsed at the height of the fire. Following those phases, the interior restoration will take the forefront.

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Notre Dame under restoration from the plaza side.

Photo/Robert Rielage

Other churches’ new fire and life safety features

On our trip, Diana and I climbed the bell towers of several churches and cathedrals. This usually gives us a spectacular 360-degree view of the city we are visiting, as well as an appreciation of the art and craftmanship that it took to build such a structure, in most cases literally by hand. For this year’s tower climbs, we tackled the 540 steps to the top of the cathedral in Cologne, Germany, and the somewhat easier 210 steps in the city of Basel, Switzerland, with other church towers in Speyer, Germany, and Zurich, Switzerland.

What we found in most of these structures was a newly acquired appreciation for fire and life safety, likely fueled by the tragedy at Notre Dame.

  • Metal steps: In previous years, the stairwells and landings would predominately be constructed of wood, adding to the potential fire load of the towers. At the Cathedral of Saint Maria and Saint Stephen in Speyer, Germany, we first noticed that those steps not constructed of stone or marble had been replaced with metal stair steps.
  • Smoke alarms: All of these church towers had been retrofitted with smoke alarms, and some with push-button fire alarms.
  • Fire control: Several had also installed fire control/interior command areas with an annunciator panel, standpipe connections from the ground level to the landing just below the top of the tower, and covered hose racks with 100 feet of what appeared to be approximately 2-inch fire hose on most landings.
  • Straight ladders: The German cathedral the Feuerwehr had also mounted straight ladders in brackets at several landings within the towers to avoid the potential time lost when trying to bring these ladders up spiral staircases during an actual fire or rescue.
  • AEDs: Finally, nearly all of the cathedrals and churches had AEDs at both the entry to the stairwells and at the highest landing in the tower.

Further, the towers themselves usually house one or more massive bells, each weighing several tons, and in many cases, the towers are pivotal to the stability of both the roof and the load bearing walls of the structure. Removing combustible components, such as the wooden steps from the towers, coupled with using alarm systems and standpipes, gives firefighters a better chance of also protecting the vulnerable bells suspended within the towers. If one of the bells lost stability in a fire, it could come crashing down, taking with it a part of the tower. In turn, that might affect the structural integrity of the roof trusses and wall buttresses that could end in a catastrophic structural collapse.

Looking forward

It is unfortunate that it may have taken the tragedy of the Notre Dame fire to convince other congregations to upgrade their church stairwells and add fire and life safety equipment. But undoubtedly, the situation is far more dire for those that haven’t yet taken these important steps.

We in the United States should also heed the lessons of Notre Dame and look at the houses of worship in our own communities to see if we can match or exceed the efforts of our European counterparts.

Stay safe!

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.