What Notre Dame Fire Tell Us About Old Electrical Safety Systems
Notre Dame Cathedral is a beautiful building with immense historical significance. Such is its importance that contractors have rarely carried out any work on it since its construction hundreds of years ago in the 12th or 13 Century. Sadly, the recent fire that almost razed it to the ground which investigators say was due to an electrical short circuit, highlights the failures of the out-dated electrical systems in this type of historical building. For various reasons, including the significant costs of upgrading such critical systems, this stunning landmark has fallen victim to the dangers that any building with legacy systems face. These risks can occur in any building in which antiquated systems are in place, such as residential and commercial properties. Let’s take a look at what we can learn from this tragedy about the importance of upgrading the electrical systems in our homes and offices.
We are rightly sentimental about places and things that enable us to maintain our links to our past, which buildings like Notre Dame Cathedral can provide. There are many other fantastic monuments with historical significance, including our own Palace of Westminster and Windsor Castle, for example, that have the same issues when it comes to their safety systems. These buildings have lasted for many years, not just because of their beauty, but also because of the craftsmanship that went into their construction. The reality is when creating these magnificent buildings, the best construction technologies were implemented – some of which are likely to have been revolutionary and forward thinking of their time. We should remember that iconic buildings like Notre Dame were constructed hundreds of years before the introduction of electricity, and it is likely that they retrofitted their electrical systems many years ago. Furthermore, Notre Dame cathedral had a smoke detection system but no other basic fire safety measures.
Antiquated systems may be adequate for a museum or monument that is no longer in use. However, they present a considerable risk when people use the building who deserve to be protected from inadequate and often dangerous infrastructures. It is fair to say that in older religious buildings electrical systems are all too often out-dated, and in some cases dangerous, presenting a complex challenge for electrical contractors.
Incidents like the Notre Dame fire still apply to property owners because many are still using outdated and potentially unsafe systems in their properties, such as circuit boxes and wiring. The truth is that living with old electrical systems is in-effect risking your home, business and many people who come into contact with the property.
Most of us can appreciate the concept of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, however, there comes a time when old legacy systems are not fit for purpose and need an upgrade. Costs and convenience are the common barriers to updating electrical technologies; hence, we find home and businesses patching up failing circuit boxes and wiring when an upgrade of the systems would be more advisable.
An accurate way to justify upgrading is the fact that modern electrical systems are more than just about function. The latest installations and equipment have built-in capabilities to protect us from the dangers that electric-systems-gone-wrong bring, from electric shocks to fires. Let us examine the safety elements that were missing with the out-dated electrical setup in Notre Dame Cathedral to appreciate the importance of updating an electrical installation.
Safety Features of Modern Electrical Systems
These are some of the ways modern electrical safety systems could have reduced the risks and damage in the fire:
- Fault detection systems – it has been suggested that the fire could have started in the temporary lift system set up for the renovation work in the cathedral. However, the temporary computer system pinpointed the wrong location of the fire, which caused delays in the fire service identifying the correct location of the fire.
- Fire Alarms – “the fire alarms did not instantly notify dispatchers or the emergency services. Instead, a guard at the cathedral had to climb a steep set of stairs to the attic”. The fire was not immediately identified and was thought to be a false alarm. It was finally located after the second alarm sounded, over fifteen minutes later. By the time the emergency services were alerted, thirty-five minutes had passed, allowing the fire to grow unchecked. Had there been automatic alerts to the fire service they would have responded immediately.
- Automatic fire sprinklers – There were no fire sprinklers installed in Notre Dame Cathedral. The primary objective is to contain and manage the fire until a fire control team arrives from the local fire control department. Fire sprinklers work because high heat triggers the sprinkler When a blaze ignites, the air directly above it heats rapidly. When the liquid expands, it shatters its glass confines and the sprinkler head is activated.
- Built-in protection systems – To minimise the damage and disruption caused by electrical faults and short-circuits, you must provide protection mechanisms that will isolate the faulty parts of the network by suitably rated fuses, circuit breakers and residual circuit breakers.
- Fire resistant cables – Cables are used to enable life safety systems to ensure the safe evacuation of people and effective firefighting interventions during an emergency. Fire resistant cables work even when directly exposed to fire to keep essential equipment working, for example, fire alarms, emergency lighting, and emergency warning and communication systems (EWIS).
- Smoke extraction fans – mechanical fans draw smoke away to remove harmful airborne pollutants from the air in the event of a fire. Extraction fans can also bring fresh air into the room that can make it a bit cooler by a few degrees if the air temperature is lower outside than inside. The cooler air could slow down the spread of fire.
Benefits of Upgrading Electrical Systems
It has been established that the fire broke out at the centre of the roof close to the spire of Notre Dame cathedral. There is speculation over the cause – computer glitches and also human error being suggested. One thing is for sure, Notre Dame was not equipped to cope with a fire of this magnitude.
It is not my place to argue whether the people responsible for the safety Notre Dame Cathedral took shortcuts with the electrical systems or not, the point is that no one should take fire protection lightly! It’s a necessity, considering the fire breakouts that have been happening at an alarming rate. The latest highly sophisticated fire systems save countless lives and millions of pounds worth of property every day.
If cost and inconvenience are the primary reasons for sticking with out-dated and potentially unsafe electrical systems, consider the fact that Notre Dame Cathedral will be closed for years, with the complete restoration taking decades and costing billions of pounds. Any electrical upgrades would have cost a fraction of the price and far less inconvenience.
Recent technological advances that are incorporated and adapted within current electrical systems have been successful. Technology has advanced in leaps and bounds, with the latest technologies saving lives, minimising fire damage and protecting workers from any injuries. It is essential to select and install the correct, up-to-date electrical systems, alongside maintaining this technology to provide optimum security during an emergency.
Bringing it All Together
The value of investing in current electrical safety systems is no longer optional. We mustn’t wait for our property to burn down due to an outdated electrical system before we decide to update it. Equally importantly, commercial or business landlords have a legal duty of care to ensure their buildings have the current recommended electrical systems. The moral of this story is that making do with unsafe or outdated electrical installations is a false economy, as the custodians of Notre Dame cathedral may have come to realise.