The Notre-Dame fire: Battling “something bigger than life”

Key takeaways from the in-depth New York Times article detailing the risky firefighting efforts at the beloved monument


The fire service is steeped in traditions of service and memories of historic fire calamities. Many of us are able to relate to those extraordinary events as we train, research and develop improvements in safety, prevention and operational prowess. A few such events that come to mind include Coconut Grove (1943), Our Lady of the Angels (1958), MGM Grand (1980) and Grenfell Tower (2017).

And now we can add to that list the Notre-Dame fire in Paris (2019).

Construction began on “Notre-Dame de Paris” in 1160, with completion 100 years later. The medieval Catholic cathedral is considered by many to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture in the world. The wooden frame of the structure, consisting of rib vault and flying buttress construction, surrounded by stone walls, along with the use of tall glass, intricate sculptural decorations and immense church bells, making Notre-Dame one of the most revered cultural sites in the world. The site of this awe-inspiring compound burning on April 15 brought many to tears, no matter their faith.

A fire fighter uses a hose as Notre Dame cathedral is burning in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
A fire fighter uses a hose as Notre Dame cathedral is burning in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

While the investigation is ongoing, an extensive analysis was recently captured by The New York Times in the article “Notre-Dame came far closer to collapsing than people know. This is how it was saved.” The article shares riveting first-hand accounts from firefighters, in-depth analysis from significant document reviews, and impressive graphics that show the exact movements of the firefighters trying to save the beloved monument.

In this article, we’ll present some of the more noteworthy quotes from The New York Times article to help understand what the Paris Fire Brigade firefighters faced that day and what we can learn from this historic incident.

Social media sounds the alarm

“If it took more than half an hour to call the fire department, it took just minutes once smoke appeared for the images to begin circulating around the world on social media.”

Some have said that social media had the fire before the fire department did. I don’t know if that’s true; however, the exercise witnessed herein provides some valuable teachable moments for system designers and fire department executives.

Warning systems vs. architecture

“The fire warning system at Notre-Dame took dozens of experts six years to put together, and in the end involved thousands of pages of diagrams, maps, spreadsheets and contracts, according to archival documents found in a suburban Paris library by The Times.”

It would be reasonable to me to expect that a system designed over a six-year period for one of the most iconic structures in the world would have an automatic notification system built-in. It is clear through the interviews that early crafters of the fire safety features were swayed more by the historic architectural features than by the necessary fire safety measures. In the attic, aptly called “the forest,” there were no sprinklers and no fire walls or stops – not because an engineer along the way didn’t suggest the features were necessary, but because of the fear that such features would ruin the architecture. The Notre-Dame incident is a stark example that “it can happen here” – a sentiment that should be heeded by public officials everywhere.

Command and control on the fire scene

“Disadvantaged by their late start, firefighters would rush up the 300 steps to the burning attic and then be forced to retreat. Finally, a small group of firefighters was sent directly into the flames, as a last, desperate effort to save the cathedral.”

It is evident from the review of the incident that the fire burned unchecked for 30 minutes before the fire department was notified. An elaborate, albeit arcane, alarming system activated appropriately at the first detection of smoke. Unfortunately, that was local notification only.

The small group of firefighters mentioned were not the first to have been given the assignment. The Times article describes how the first crew directed to take hoselines up into the south tower, in an effort to save the north tower, refused the order. Ultimately, a separate crew accepted the challenge and is credited with saving the North Tower and the remainder of the complex from collapse.

This is an interesting analysis of command and control and the things we ask our firefighters to do. How would you have handled the crew refusal to go? What rapid-intervention safeguards would you put in place to protect the crew that ultimately accepted the challenge?

This was a challenge that one crew ultimately approached with the mindset, as was espoused by Ariel Weil – mayor of the city’s Fourth Arrondissement – that they were involved with “something bigger than life.”

Sizing up a monster fire

“‘We were so small that it was hard to get a proper idea [of the size-up] from the bottom of the cathedral, but it might have been better like that.’ Better not to know the danger she was walking into.” But, fortunately, “She knew the structure well, having drilled at Notre-Dame last fall.”

The first-arriving fire officer, Master Corporal Myriam Chudzinski, describes the feeling of being “so small” with respect to any possible scene size-up. Considering the scale of the incident, yet contrary to our general teachings, it was probably better that they had that limited view from the beginning.

While we clearly preach the power of 360s and detailed size-up reports, the sheer scope, size and scale of what needed to be sized up at Notre Dame could not be reasonably and accurately captured in an emergent on-scene size-up by that first-arriving engine. This is an example where common sense had lots of practical application. Eventually, a detailed size-up has to be completed, no matter the complexity of the venue.

One of the more salient points from the whole discussion was the first-in officer’s familiarity with the structure. From knowing the proper stairwells to use, to the location and operation of the dry-pipe systems, to the realization of the scale that this facility presented, pre-fire planning and exercising was critical to the successful outcome. It is easy to imagine the confusion that would have ensued with a crew who had not previously trained and/or pre-planned the facility.

Unimaginable hazards

“Almost an hour into the fight, a deafening blast engulfed Chudzinski. It was, she said, like ‘a giant bulldozer dropping dozens of stones on a dumpster.’ The 750-ton spire of the cathedral, wrought of heavy oak and lead, had collapsed.”

It is simply a miracle to me that there weren’t any significant injuries at this fire. Whether it was the 750-ton 295-foot-tall spire falling, or any one of the eight bells in the towers, the distribution of weight and the fall hazards were a phenomenal risk. Place that weight under fire and the risk increases exponentially. Whether projectile pieces from any one of the 5,000-plus gargoyles or the sheer mass of the large bell at 38,000 pounds (the smaller bells range 4,000 to 6,000 pounds), it is easy to imagine a catastrophic collapsing crescendo at any moment.

Psychological and physical impact

“Corporal Chudzinski and other firefighters happened to be behind a wall when a fireball hurtled through the attic. It probably saved them. ‘I felt useless, ridiculously small,’ she said. ‘I was just powerless.’”

Beyond the psychologic effect of Notre Dame burning “on your watch,” the physical endurance was significant. The quest of 300 steps is equivalent to a 17-story climb, routine to some, yet not easy by any standard.  

It is easy to imagine the fire problem, yet difficult to imagine the strength crews had to muster under intense fire conditions and unique structural challenges. The description of fireballs surrounding the crews, while other crews flowed water underneath their position sends chills down the spine. Whether it was Notre Dame, or initial crews that found 9/11 shelter in the Twin Towers enclosed stairwells, having a place of refuge was critical to these crews’ survival.

A critical observation ultimately saves the towers

Before the blast, Corporal Chudzinski and her colleagues had made a critical observation: The flames were endangering the northern tower. The realization would change the course of the fight.”

Observing the advancing fire in the North Tower, firefighters believed if the North Tower collapsed, the South Tower would also collapse, bringing the cathedral with it. Recognizing that one of the dry-pipe systems was leaking, which reduced water pressure, the course-change involved the use of flying standpipe lines from the South Tower to establish a line-in-the-sand defense for the entire complex.

Reading the account of firefighters who were actively working to cool the underneath of the floors above, where their fellow firefighters were working, is a chilling reminder of how life-threatening this mission was. Ultimately, this strategy was effective, bringing the fire under control by 9:45 p.m., about three hours after the fire’s discovery.

The strategy to draw those lines, preventing the North Tower from falling, was pivotal to the successful mitigation of this incident.

Managing fire operations and politics

“Clad in firefighting gear, dripping with water, General Jean-Claude Gallet [head of the Paris fire brigade] … entered the conference room and gave them [a group of 20 officials, including President Emmanuel Macron] the bad news. The attic could no longer be saved; he had decided to let it go. He would have his brigades throw all their energy into saving the towers, focusing on the northern one, already on fire.”

Major Weil noted that Gallet told the group, “In 20 minutes I’ll know whether we’ve lost it [Notre Dame],” adding that, “It was clear that some firefighters were going to go into the cathedral without knowing if they would come back out.”

The need to massage the message for your political constituencies is an art that can sink a chief quickly if handled poorly. In this case, and rightfully so, Gallet didn’t pull any punches and made it abundantly clear that the men and women under his command were risking their lives to save Notre Dame.

From the off-duty callback for over 50 firefighters to the immense firefight and the physical act of drafting water from the Seine River, the coordination of activities and crews was no routine task. Like a simulator in promotional exams, this scenario tested not only the crews but also the incident commanders and politicians like few fires before.

The general provided the command and control necessary to not only ensure that the firefight was appropriate, but also that politicians, including the president of France, had all of the most accurate and up-to-date information possible. Gallet provided the inspiration for the crews battling the fire, and navigated the political patchwork with the skill of a battle-tested warrior.

Lessons learned from the Notre-Dame fire

While the incident is still relatively fresh, and we have not been privy to any formal after-action-review, it is reasonable to draw several conclusions from the material presented.

Avoid unnecessary delays: First and foremost, had the fire department been called right away, we likely would not be having this discussion. The fire burning unchecked for 30 minutes or more in a wooden attic space was a failing proposition on all accounts.

Preplanning and training are critical: While we don’t all have Notre-Dame-level structures in our area, we all have critical infrastructure and building of local and cultural significance. Conducting preplans and periodically training with hands-on tasks is a game-changer when it comes to operating in the real world. You can learn a lot on the computer, but you’ll never know how hard it is to put that flying-standpipe into service if you never train on it.

“Feed the beast”: Whether it’s the media, social media, politicians or others, feed the beast, meaning make sure you have the fire department structure in place and prepared to share accurate and timely information. In the absence of informed accuracy, uniformed chaos tends to take hold. Don’t let your department operate in the shadows of mediocrity. Get out into your community, learn your buildings, work with your fire systems managers, make improvements, drill, train, and be ready.

“Something bigger than life” isn’t our battle call, but it is something we should be ready to face 24/7/365. Your version of the Notre-Dame disaster CAN happen in your community. Prepare now.

Note: The New York Times article provides a far more in-depth view of the fire, and I encourage you to read it and study it, considering how you would handle such a monumental firefight.

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