Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on May 1, 2019.

Paris Blaze

Like many historic buildings, Notre-Dame lacked modern fire safety systems


On April 15, the world looked on in horror as the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, went up in flames. About 500 firefighters responded and were able to save the building, but not before iconic elements, including the structure’s spire, were destroyed. Two police officers and a firefighter were injured in the blaze.

While speculation has swirled over the cause of the fire, one thing is clear from the dozens of media reports that surfaced in the days following the incident: the building, which is over 800 years old, lacked modern fire safety systems that could have minimized the damage. According to the New York Times, these systems weren’t present in the church “so as not to alter the landmark’s design or to introduce electrical wiring deemed a greater risk amid the timbers that supported Notre-Dame’s ornate lead roof.”

For fire safety experts, it was an all-too-familiar story. In countries across the globe, historic buildings are regularly damaged by or lost to fire because modern safety elements are lacking, mostly due to an unwillingness to pay for them or out of concern for altering the historic fabric of a property.

But as Robert Solomon, director of NFPA’s Building Fire Protection Division, pointed out in a blog published the day after the Notre-Dame fire, fire protection engineers are more than willing to work with architects to preserve history while also adding a level of modern safety to these properties. “Innovative and novel designs have allowed sprinkler systems to be retrofitted in these older structures,” Solomon wrote. “These and other measures require the delicate balance of providing fire protection and life safety systems that are both effective, yet minimally obtrusive.”

The challenges and solutions to preventing fires in historic structures were detailed in a recent article in NFPA Journal [“Saving History,” November/December 2018], available online at

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images