The Western world watched in horror as the Cathedral of Notre Dame burned to the ground on April 15, 2019. It was the most significant fire in an iconic monument in recent memory, but only one of hundreds of thousands of fires in public and commercial building that are reported every year.
These fires cause major damage, not only monetarily but also emotionally. In the case of Notre Dame, it devastated not only the religious, but those who love history. In the case of the warehouse in a local community, families that own businesses there are devastated as well.
The most common cause of fires in commercial and public buildings are due to human error (or purposeful actions).
The most common cause of fires caused by human error is related to cooking (29.3% in one study). An oven that has absentmindedly left on or ignited grease can quickly cause a conflagration. Although you would think that cooking equipment is intuitively easy to handle, many in these days of fast food are inexperienced and can lose control very quickly. Businesses should assure that all employees are competent at handling any equipment that emits heat or flames and know how to use fire extinguishers.
Arson is the deliberate setting of a fire to destroy a building or business. It is unknown at this point whether arson is the cause of the Notre Dame fire. The disgruntled and ill-intentioned are common causes (10% or more) of such conflagrations, however, and the timing of the blaze may be suspicious.
You may have heard that setting a business on fire is a great way to collect insurance money. Arson is reprehensible, however, for many reasons: economic loss to neighboring businesses, loss of jobs, and most of all, injuries and death to the innocent as well as to firefighters. Vandalism is not a victimless crime. Sprinkler systems and smoke alarms may be useful to decrease the damage caused.
Most public or commercial buildings don’t have functioning fireplaces, but employ boilers and furnaces. Most function safely and efficiently. When they are improperly installed or poorly maintained, however, fires can occur. Sometimes, these units are located in areas where residents may carelessly place flammable materials like old newspapers. A close inspection of your building’s basement or wherever the heating unit is located is an important part of any safety plan.
How to Prevent a Building Fire
-A fire extinguisher placed near the kitchen area of a public building may help prevent a small cooking fire from spreading. Although extinguishers are simple to use, a hands-on demonstration will prevent delays or hesitation in use them when needed. Extinguishers should also be inspected by professionals once a year.
-Fire and smoke alarms are ignored until they don’t work. When that happens, it is usually due to a dead battery or loss of electric power. Proper maintenance will allow these alarms to serve their purpose to save lives and property.
-Sprinkler systems may nip a fire in the bud. A simple system containing just a few heads and heat sensors would stop the majority of the flames and save lives.
I have on my desk a picture book of the art and relics of Notre Dame Cathedral. It saddens me to think that the priceless items, some 1000 years old, in this church no longer exist. I hope that arson was not the cause of this fire, and that some of the artifacts housed there it will survive. From the look of it, I have my doubts.
Joe Alton MD