Notre Dame Fire: What If my Church Burned?

Notre Dame Paris Main Facade from my vacation in 2010

The fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris reminds us that what seems impossible can happen. This beloved and very old icon we have taken for granted for centuries has suddenly been taken from us. Hopefully the restoration will be swift and we will once again be able to enjoy the beauty of this architectural marvel, but it will take time and be expensive.

When I had the privilege of seeing Notre Dame in 2010 the thought never occurred to me that such an event could actually happen. As an architect I often think about exit strategies and how I would exit a building if there was a fire. It’s built into my psyche. But this event should make us all think about the “what-if” scenarios we would rather ignore.

What if that happened to your church? What would you do? There are several thoughts that come to mind that we should consider.

First, Life Safety: How do you get people out of the building in the event of a fire or other emergency? There was a mass being conducted when the Notre Dame fire broke out. Alarms went off, but the people “just stood there” for a time until they were ushered out of the church. Fortunately, a police officer approached the priest and told him the alarm was not a joke and they need to get out immediately, so the people were able to evacuate without any loss of life. Could you conduct an evacuation in an orderly fashion  if there were such an event in your church? You need a plan and you need to rehearse it with your leadership so that if the time comes you are well prepared and there will be no harm to your members or guests.

Second, Practice Good Building Safety. Your building is an asset that needs to be taken care of properly. Fire extinguishers should be serviced regularly. Exit paths (including stair wells) should be well-marked with illuminated exit signs and remain clear of clutter. Most churches have fire doors that are supposed to close to prevent fire from spreading, but way too often I see these propped open. The most common locations for these are in a stair well or corridor. An option is to put the doors on automatic hold-open devices that close the doors when an alarm is triggered. Look for a label on the edge on the hinge side of the door that says “fire rating – XX min”. That’s a door that should stay closed unless it is connected to the fire alarm. A fire sprinkler system is an expensive way to prevent damage, but it might prevent a catastrophic loss like we saw in Paris. 

Third, Be Properly Insured. Property can be replaced. Lives cannot. No amount of insurance is enough to compensate for lost lives, so life safety is the priority, but having the right amount of insurance is the way we can afford replace a lost edifice. Review your policy with a knowledgeable agent, and take into consideration all the costs of replacement, including design fees and furnishings. You may choose to insure all of that cost, or just some of it – assuming in the event of loss there would be a fund-raising effort for replacement.

Fire is by no means the only threat to our facilities. Tornados, hurricanes, termites, burst pipes, lightening, and other events can all be sources of damage and varying degrees of loss. Most local fire departments will conduct a review of a building for no cost if you would like safety inspection.

The Notre Dame fire should be a reminder to us all to be prepared and be wise about the vulnerability of our facilities.