On April 15th this year, the world was shaken when news of a devastating fire at the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral broke. Less than 48 hours later, over $1 billion had been pledged to help restore one of France's most iconic buildings.
Image courtesy of iStock.
Money can only go so far, though—France is still reeling from the unexpected fire that decimated this centuries-old building, a French landmark that is one of the finest examples of classic French Gothic architecture.
Now that the cause of the fire is virtually clear—investigators believe it was an electrical short circuit, but this is yet to be confirmed.
Predicting Electrical Mishaps
'What if?' is not necessarily a question that an electrical or design engineer wants to ask his or herself, especially when they have finished designing a truly great system. Nor, either, do they want to hear the question 'Did you think of that?' posed to them following an incident or failure.
But it is a question that is of great importance and design engineers need to spend time thinking in the long-term if further tragedies like that one seen at Notre Dame are to be avoided.
It does not just apply to new designs, either. Older buildings will often have TLC carried out on their dated systems. When it comes to older electrical wiring, quick fixes may not be safe fixes.
While there are no statistics available—these occurrences are few and far between, some are notable, some not so much, some are accidental, some are intentional—prevention is better than the cure. Design engineers tasked with creating systems should think in the long-term and ask themselves key questions such as, 'What if X happened?' or 'Have I thought about Y happening?' to prevent similar tragedies not just in old and priceless buildings, but new ones too.
So, how can architectural design engineers predict and prevent electrical problems that may not otherwise manifest until far into the future?
Use the Latest Technology and Systems
Outdated equipment should never be used, period. While equipment that hasn’t been used does cost money (and is a loss if it goes unused), outdated equipment can cause major problems for an electrical system, particularly in harsher environments or during more inclement months.
Dated wiring, outlets, and systems or processes will wear out more quickly than the latest ones will. Not only that, dated wiring used with newer outlets or in up-to-date systems or processes (e.g. in an older building) could potentially raise compatibility problems and cause an electrical fire.
Independent Safety Inspections
If independently audited and assessed against modern standards, it is likely that Notre Dame would not have passed a fire safety test—not because of the electrical installations but because of the unsuitable fire monitoring systems and response procedure.
Still, though, there is a point to be made here.
All new deployments, installations, and any appliances using them should be inspected by an independent, qualified party. An electrical inspection aids in identifying and removing potential electrical safety problems.
Installing Enough Outlets
Unless you are lucky enough to live in a new build, chances are that there is a severe lack of outlets in your home. That is because it was built during a time where there was nowhere near as many electrical devices as there are today.
Image courtesy of Vredevoogd Heating and Cooling.
Newer constructions—both commercial and residential—should have an ample number of outlets installed, and older buildings having their electrical systems looked at should have extra ones added. This reduces the chance of overloading sockets and causing power surges or short circuits, the very problem that caused Notre Dame’s fire.
Designing Without Foresight
While very little can be done to avoid short circuits, systems, particularly modern ones or systems in buildings and monuments of significance, should be designed in a way that can help avert disaster. In our modern, digitally-connected world, there is no excuse for them not to be.
Unfortunately, as reported by the New York Times, Notre Dame's fire alarm and smoke detection system was not designed to immediately alert the French fire service.
While there are smoke detectors, they did not notify the fire service. When the alarm sounded for the first time, church employees were notified. They then spent six minutes clambering up the cathedral's steep staircase to check the attic before returning and giving the 'all clear'.
It wasn't until the second time the alarm sounded, 23 minutes later, that two employees went back up, taking a further six minutes, to be met by flames that were blazing uncontrollably.
In a blind panic, the church employees accidentally locked the door on their way down—blocking access to the fire—and had to go back up (again!) to re-open it.
A massive 31 minutes following the initial alarm, the fire service was notified.
Why in a building of such priceless significance was this the case? Well, in France, fire alarms never automatically notify the fire service to avoid false alarms. This is the so-called 'foresight gap' and Notre Dame's situation should be a wake-up call for the world over.
Europe, and Indeed the World, Should Take Note
Notre Dame's fire is a clear example that electrical systems engineering does not end when it is designed and deployed. The onus is on both the systems designer and systems vendor (and, arguably, perhaps even the installer and receiver of a system) to ensure that there exists no foresight gap.
Europe is a place where this is the biggest issue.
Italy, the UK, France, Spain, Croatia… Europe is teeming with countries of historical significance whose roots go back thousands of years. Palaces, villages, cathedrals, and stadiums are just a few examples of historical sites that make Europe a continent-wide museum of human history.
If a building such as the Notre Dame could not be protected from something as simple as an electrical surge, what does this say for other notable structures?
“We are so used to our outstanding cultural heritage in Europe that we tend to forget that it needs constant care and attention,” said Tibor Navracsics, the EU's top culture official, to The Associated Press.
Devastating fires have taken their toll on our world and, with it, art, knowledge, history, and priceless treasures. We don't need to think back too far for the most recent example, either—Brazil's Museu Nacional that burned to the ground in September.
Those in charge of designing and deploying electrical systems must learn from these disasters.