The most stirring and uplifting photograph from the aftermath of the fire at Notre Dame is of the glowing golden cross shining through the smoke and burning embers; a sign, during Holy week and just before Passover of resurrection and revival. The cathedral survived the blaze and will be rebuilt.
One sad element that connects both the terrible fires at Notre Dame this week and at Brazil’s National Museum last year was an apparent lack of state-of-the-art or even modern fire fighting and detection systems. Notre Dame reportedly had no fire suppression system and a poor alarm system.
In a way, that’s understandable. After all, Notre Dame has survived for more than 850 years, through two world wars and a few revolutions, and probably endured many thousands of lightning strikes.
Yet St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan suffered a six-alarm fire in 2001 that caused extensive structural and interior damage. Today, the 127 year old cathedral has been rebuilt, and on the Today Show, Timothy Cardinal Dolan reported that it now has high pressure mist and other fire retardant systems.
These two tragedies–and many smaller but no less destructive fires at museums and historic buildings around the world should be a serious lesson for all owners of historic structures. Interestingly, during reconstruction, St. Patrick’s maintained a ‘fire watch’ with a crew ready at all times with a fire hose during the construction. While that’s a New York city law, it is also just common sense and should be best practice everywhere during construction. There certainly should have been a ‘fire watch crew at Notre Name during the renovations out of plain caution.
Brazil’s National Museum was a tremendous building with over twenty million incredible treasures, and certainly should have had effective fire doors between sections of the building. These could have confined the blaze to just part of the museum, and in fact the aerial views following the fire showed the masonry walls between rooms survived the fire. Absent any effective fire suppression system and even if there had been fire doors, the fire may have still destroyed the building by traveling through the unprotected attic that connected together each room.
According to the Washington Post, “the museum lacked most recommended fire protection devices, such as hoses, sufficient water sprinklers and fire doors,” and “the museum had spent only $4,000 on safety equipment from 2015 to 2017.”
Modern high pressure mist systems might have contained and limited damage at both the museum and cathedral. These operate not by sprinkling water like a garden sprinkler, but by filling a room with an intense mist of tiny water droplets that chill and extinguish flames rapidly.
Brazil’s National museum was reportedly encouraged by an Israeli company to install a mist system over a year before the fire and the company even offered to share the costs.
Inert and chemical gas suppression systems will starve a fire of oxygen and can be used in unoccupied spaces like attics and enclosed roof areas and some of them can be used in occupied spaces. Those might have greatly limited or perhaps even halted the initial spread of the fire at Notre Dame and limited the spread of fire through the attic and roof of the Brazil museum.
Modern air sampling detectors might have bought precious time by exactly pinpointing the locations of the fire as it first started and then spread, and would have offered near-instantaneous alarms, allowing fire crews to arrive sooner.
The Daily Caller reported that, “the first alarm sounded at Notre Dame during Monday mass at 6:20 p.m. An inspection of the church did not reveal any fire and the assembled churchgoers were slow to react until a policeman told the priest that everyone must be evacuated, according to CNN. At 6:43 p.m., a second alarm sounded. The onlookers could easily make out the fire by that point and firemen were rushing to the scene, though rush hour traffic slowed their response. Paris Mayor Anne Hildago posted a tweet soon after saying “a terrible fire is underway at Notre-Dame Cathedral.”
This is not a criticism, for hindsight is always 20/20, but it’s time for all who own historical buildings and museums to review and improve their fire control systems.
Further, as part of disaster planning, but also to share historic artifacts with everyone in the world, museums and historic buildings should embark on or accelerate plans to 3-D laser scan and photograph everything. Every artifact. Every book and manuscript. Building exteriors and interiors. Everything! Such records would aid in reconstruction should the worst happen and preserve at least the images and forms of lost artifacts. Such efforts Google aided the Brazil National Museum to start to digitize their collection, which helped preserve the images of many lost artifacts, and Wikipedia is encouraging anyone with photos of artifacts within to upload them to their site.
There are many painful lessons from the fires at Notre Dame and Brazil’s National Museum, and it’s easy to point blame and cry “what if,” however this tragedy should best serve as a wake-up call to thousands of other historic and cultural buildings to take the steps necessary to protect their priceless collections.
Art Harman is the President of the Coalition to Save Manned Space Exploration. He was the Legislative Director and foreign policy advisor for Rep. Stockman (R-Texas) in the 113th Congress, and is a veteran policy analyst and grass-roots political expert. His expertise includes foreign relations, border security/amnesty, national security, transportation, foreign broadcasting and NASA/space policy.
Mr. Harman developed the strategy to kill the 2013 Senate “gang of eight” amnesty bill as violating the Origination Clause, and provided policy advice to the Trump campaign, transition and the White House. He wrote what became the ‘bible’ for post-Brexit trade relations which was introduced in 2016 by Sen. Mike Lee as S. 3123, the United Kingdom Trade Continuity Act. Harman is a frequent guest on radio shows on key policy issues, and is an expert and creative photographer.