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​​​​Photo by ​​Daniele D'Andreti​

Lessons Learned from the Notre Dame Fire

​The Notre Dame Cathedral fire’s destruction impacts the cultural arts community, as well as the world at large. While this iconic structure and Paris’ symbolic center took centuries to build, a fire on 15 April horribly damaged the medieval Catholic cathedral in a matter of hours. 

While firefighters focused on containing the fire’s spread, frantic rescue efforts were launched by the culture ministry and others to safeguard the cathedral’s masterpieces and relics. These irreplaceable artifacts include the cathedral’s renowned 18th century organ (with more than 8,000 pipes), and the crown of thorns said to have been worn by Jesus during his crucifixion—one of the world’s most priceless relics, which was brought to Notre Dame in August 1239. The ministry is transferring other works across Paris to the Louvre where they will be dehumidified, protected, and eventually restored.

Although currently considered an accident related to renovations, an ongoing investigation aims to determine the cause of the fire. In the meantime, however, security practitioners should ask if best practices were in place to prevent and respond to the incident.

Frédéric Létoffé, the co-president of a group of French companies that specialize in work on older buildings and monuments, spoke to The New York Times and said Notre Dame had fire detectors that functioned continuously and was equipped with dry risers—empty pipes that firefighters can externally connect to a pressurized water source. 

Létoffé added that the cathedral did not have automatic sprinklers in the wooden framework of its roof, where the fire started, and that its attic space was not compartmentalized with fire-breaking walls, which could have prevented a blaze from spreading.

Notre Dame’s rector, Monseigneur Patrick Chauvet, said on 16 April that fire monitors routinely inspected the cathedral. “Three times a day they go up, under the wooden roof, to make an assessment,” he told radio station France Inter.

The Notre Dame fire is not a unique incident. Several cultural heritage sites around the world were either completely or partially destroyed by fires, including The National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro in 2018, La Fenice opera house in Venice in 1996, the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona in 1994, and Windsor Castle in Windsor in 1992. 

Not only cultural institutions but all facilities should have a risk management plan in place. Risk can be defined as “the chance of something happening that will have a negative impact on our objectives.” Security professionals must consider both the chances of happening and expected impact. The impact of risks can be expressed in terms of the expected loss of value to the heritage asset.

Although terminology is often interchanged, there are five basic steps in the risk management process: 

  1. Identify the risks (potential causes)
  2. Analyze the risks (probability of occurrence)
  3. Evaluate the risks (magnitude, priority)
  4. Solutions (select best options)
  5. Monitor (risk management is an ongoing process)

Security managers of cultural properties should consider the following questions as they conduct their risk analysis and develop their risk management plan: 

  1. What are the possible imminent risks to a cultural property?
  2. What are the risks of highest probability?
  3. Which of those are expected to cause greater and wide-ranging damages?
  4. Do damages differ from one cultural property to another?
  5. Do these damages suddenly occur or are they accumulative over time?
  6. How can these damages be well understood and assessed for sound decision making relevant to mitigation and prevention?
  7. What are the priorities, given available human capital and budgets?

To mitigate the risk of fire at their respective institutions, security professionals need plans in place for minimizing legacy loss and finding ways to protect valuable cultural heritage. Particularly in the cultural environment, they need to strive to find innovative ways to prevent fires and avoid, where possible, fire-fighting techniques that might cause inadvertent destruction of the artifacts they are seeking to protect.

As evidenced by the scores of Parisians and tourists who watched, cried, sang, and prayed for Notre Dame during the fire, cultural heritage is not just about monuments or traditions, but about the people who identify with the underlying culture. When security professionals understand this concept, they can help reduce invaluable losses and effectively manage the economic consequences.


Doug Beaver, CPP, is the chair of the ASIS International Cultural Properties Council and director of security at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.