3 Emergency Management Awareness Points during Monumental Fires

Photo by the Associated Press

The world watched in sorrow as the historic and beautiful Notre Dame-de-Paris cathedral went up in flames on Monday. I had the opportunity to visit 20 years ago while on an exchange with a number of high school classmates. A highlight of that trip will always be my classmates singing “Happy Birthday” to me in the plaza in front of the cathedral on my 16th birthday. In the 900 years since construction started, my memory is one of an untold number that have been made inside and within the presence of this building.

While the investigation will continue for many months after the fire is out – a process which may take a week or more by itself – there are some considerations here for Emergency Management that we can look at immediately. These are considerations and concerns that all Emergency Management practitioners should consider during Monumental Fires like this one.

Before we get started though, I want to make one thing clear: I’m not going to Monday Morning Quarterback this incident. Nothing in this post assumes that the officials in Paris didn’t consider all of these things while managing this incident. My heart goes out to the people around the world who love this building, especially those on the fireline and those in Paris itself.

Monumental Fires Consume Monumental Resources

I had France24’s live broadcast on through most of the workday yesterday, watching along with the world as the fire quickly spread and consumed everything it could in the cathedral. At one point they said that over 500 firefighters were working to bring this fire under control. While this number is well within the capabilities of the 8,500 men and women of the Brigade des sapeurs-pompiers de Paris (BSPP), it is still a phenomenal draw on resources.

In addition to these 500 firefighters, there would have been hundreds more Gendarmes (police officers), plus a huge number of support services that responded to the area. I’m sure that BSPP and the Prefecture de Police de Paris called in off-duty members to supplement their immediate response, but that takes some time. Additionally, you can’t just call in every available person, because you need to have fresh bodies to take over the incident response and to staff the upcoming shifts.

Finally, just because a Monumental Fire is happening in your jurisdiction doesn’t mean that other emergencies stop happening. In fact, it may increase the frequency of other events because of additional vehicle and pedestrian traffic, large masses of people gathered in areas where they don’t normally gather, and other unusual occurrences.

This means two important things for Emergency Managers:

  1. We must ensure that the agencies in our jurisdiction have up to date and responsible call-back models. It doesn’t do any good to call back someone who is trying to sleep in between shifts. We have to encourage them to use responsible models that rely on shift patters to be selective in who they call out.
  2. We must help the organizations who respond first to incidents to make sure they maintain appropriate coverage for incidents and events outside of the Monumental Fire. People don’t stop having heart attacks, car crashes, and other fires…and while some degradation of services should be expected when a Monumental Fire occurs, the people we represent still expect rapid and professional service to their own emergencies away from the Monumental Fire.

Monumental Fires spur Monumental Spontaneous Gatherings

While almost all fires gather a certain amount of rubberneckers, Monumental Fires pose a much higher risk of something bad happening because of the number of people gathering to watch the events unfold. Thousands of people gathered in the streets of Paris to watch the Notre Dame fire, and while nothing bad happened, the opportunity was certainly there for an attack on a largely unprotected crowd who were definitely a soft target.

When gatherings of this size are planned in advance, there are huge considerations that go into security, safety, logistics, public health, and many other aspects. With spontaneous gatherings, there is no time to create an incident-specific plan and jurisdictions without an all-purpose plan are left to improvise. There was no opportunity on Monday to harden any of the spaces where people gathered, nor was there the opportunity to screen the people who were gathering in that crowd for weapons.

Spontaneous gatherings also pose serious risks to health and safety because the infrastructure isn’t there to support that number of people. With no incident-specific medical plan, jurisdictions are forced to rely on the ingenuity of their responders as well as assistance and support from those who have gathered in order to reach people who may be having a medical emergency. As someone who has responded to medical emergencies at both planned and spontaneous gatherings, I can tell you that they are a challenge at the best of time. When people’s attention is fixated on something like a Monumental Fire and not on the people around them, there is the added complexity of people simply not being aware of an emergency in the crowd.

The places where people gathered to watch the fire on Monday are accustomed to significant amounts of traffic, but rarely do they see a spontaneous gathering of people who remain largely in the same place for hours on end. Because of the nature of these gatherings, there wasn’t an opportunity to bring in supplemental hygiene facilities like bathrooms and hand washing stations. Monumental gatherings have the possibility of overwhelming local infrastructure, especially when there are limited facilities in the first place.

Monumental Fires bring Monumental Grief

People have a special connection to buildings, especially ones that have stood for 800+ years like Notre Dame. As I described above, I have a small one to Notre Dame myself, and despite the fact that it was twenty years ago, I still felt a sense of grief and loss at the destruction of a beautiful building. I can’t imagine the emotions involved for those who called Notre Dame their spiritual home, or who had celebrations within its walls over the past 800 years. And the fire comes at the beginning of Holy Week, when Christians around the world are celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thousands of people were likely preparing to make a special trip to celebrate Easter at Notre Dame.

While I will be the first to admit that grief over a building is somewhat irrational and that we should be celebrating the fact there were no serious injuries or fatalities, grief is like that sometimes…irrational. One of the considerations that we need to make is around ensuring that there are enough mental health supports available to help people cope with the loss of a beloved and historic building. For people who celebrated milestones there (marriages, baptisms, funerals), the loss of a building can feel like they have lost a family member.

We also need to consider the mental health of the firefighters and first responders who dealt directly with the fire. They fought an incredibly tough battle with a fire that was pretty much inaccessible in any reasonable amount of time. In my eyes there is no fault to be found with their performance at all, but they may not see it that way. For the firefighters who responded, especially those stationed near to Notre Dame, they may feel as if they have let their community down. They may see the substantial loss to the building and not see that the building is still largely standing. As a result, they may experience mental health crises including depression and anxiety. We need to support them and to care for each of them as they come to terms with this incident.

Truthfully, there are many more aspects to this incident that will start to become public knowledge in the days and weeks ahead. We’ve already heard about the courage of the staff, firefighters, and police officers who risked their lives to save the art and sacred relics. We will soon hear about the efforts to restore this building back to its original beauty, or to bring something new out of the ashes of the old building.

As Emergency Managers, we need to make sure that we never lose our focus on our entire area of responsibility. A Monumental Fire will draw our attention, but if we get blinded to what is happening in the rest of our jurisdiction then we can’t adequately manage those incidents. These three things are not a complete or final list, but hopefully they will help you to begin to see the bigger picture outside of a Monumental Fire.

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