A First Look at the Notre Dame Fire

Today in Security: A First Look at the Notre Dame Fire

​The world watched with intense sadness yesterday as flames shot out from the iconic Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. While the official cause of the fire has not yet been declared, news outlets are reporting that authorities suspect an accident related to renovation construction and not nefarious intent is the most likely source.

To get the security perspective, Security Management spoke with members of the ASIS International Cultural Properties Council. “As a security professional, my role is twofold,” Doug Beaver, CPP, director of security for the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, and chair of the council, says. “First, I need to ensure the safe evacuation of everyone in the building, and I also need to deploy our process for conserving artifacts and relics. I’ve worked security a long time, and that’s one major thing that makes cultural institutions unique: you have artwork and artifacts and relics that are literally irreplaceable, and your risk planning has to take that into account.”

When emergency first responders arrive, the security director’s role is to lend site-specific expertise to the incident command structure that is being established. Knowledge of who may be in the building, where they might be, and their important routes of egress are of paramount importance, as is any knowledge that could help first responders focus on the most vulnerable or dangerous areas. And as Beaver points out, trying to save what can be saved. Seeing the catastrophic video of Notre Dame burning, it is astonishing that, as of the time this post was published, there were no deaths associated with the tragedy, and several irreplaceable artifacts, such as the Christian relic Crown of Thorns, were saved.

Declan Garrett, security unit head at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, describes what a security director is likely dealing with as the incident is unfolding: “Supporting the various teams internally and externally and getting the right people into the building to address the matter and keeping those who do not need to be there out. This is a full-scale crisis, there will be emergency response teams, crisis management team, teams on-site, teams off-site, disaster recovery teams waiting to get in, the authorities, and the security and operations teams that support [the effort]. Coordination, real-time communication updates to senior management, and support, this is what you are dealing with.”

It is important to learn from tragedy. While it is too early to begin unraveling specific lessons from Notre Dame, people and institutions are already looking at protection of historical assets and structural vulnerabilities with renewed vigor. A Detroit Free Press article interviewed fire chiefs and religious leaders about protection of large structures in the Detroit area, and other local news outlets discuss fire safety of important buildings, such as this report about the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

“When an iconic cultural property is undergoing renovation, fire is always a major concern,” Garrett says. “It’s one of the major risks you think about. You have contractors who may not be familiar with the building and its vulnerabilities. You have a major public tourist attraction, which adds complications.”

Both Beaver and Garrett note that certain undertakings are especially difficult for cultural institutions, just like the current renovations at Notre Dame. Such places serve the cultural needs of a society, and creating a construction zone adds complications. Acknowledging that the conditions that led to the Notre Dame fire are unknown at this point, Garrett offers this advice: “Speaking more generally, it begins with the commitment to control contractors through policy. Having a fire safety strategy, having control of contractor policy and associated procedures, allowing activities only under a permit-to-work, isolation permits and hot work permits, testing electrical equipment, maintaining equipment, ensuring competent persons carry out the work, regular tool-box-talks, and good project planning and supervision are the foundations of prevention.”

Beaver notes that when contractors are on site, security must also be on site—and diligently overseeing the work. “You put policies in place, but it’s important that your security is overseeing those policies. The contractors have a job to do, and their primary purpose is to successfully complete their job. Security’s job is to ensure the safety of people and assets. A mutual understanding is important.”

In time, experts are likely to learn more about what happened at Notre Dame. “The next days will be about first understanding the impact and providing support and assistance to authorities and other stakeholders,” Garrett says. “Thereafter, it will be about the cause: how it happened, and what needs to be done to prevent it from happening again. Investigations will be carried out and processes will be reviewed.”

The lessons for security will come, as Beaver describes it, when “you review the reports from first responders, look at the fire suppression methods you had in place—Did they activate? Did they perform in the way they should have?—and you look at the last risk assessment you conducted. You take that risk assessment and try to place it as a template over the situation that occurred and see what worked and what didn’t and you develop plans to minimize future risk.”​

​Security Management will also be talking with the ASIS International Fire & Life Safety Council about the Notre Dame fire. Check back with us on Thursday, 18 April, for their insights.