Yesterday was another milestone in my Fire Service life. Almost nine months after I retired from The London Fire Brigade, I witnessed the first big fire that had taken place in front of the eyes of the World since retiring and I had the freedom to comment on it based on my experience without the fear of having to toe a corporate line or saying something someone else might not be too happy with.
The awful fire I witnessed was at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, a building familiar to me. From the story of the hunchback of Notre Dame, which became very intimate to me as it was one of those Disney Movies that seems to get a regular viewing when my kids were young in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, to the visits I have made to the Cathedral, twice, once in 2007 and again in 2010.
As I watched the fire burning from the very early stages yesterday on live TV news coverage, I realised from my own experience of so many fires in roofs over the years, especially large roofs in old buildings, the whole roof was going to burn off. I’m sure plenty of others watching who are or were Firefighters also knew the same.
What I also noticed almost within minutes was the frantic negative commentary appearing on Twitter and other social media outlets. In among the occasional empathetic post from people who were genuinely shocked were poisonous cynical comments about Brexit, immigration in France and other general anti-French sentiment.
I’m no Francophile, they are our neighbours and allies, but we have an “it’s complicated” relationship and although I’ve visited many times and like the place, I boil up as much as the next man over some of their actions which affect everything from Fishermen in the Channel to my flight to Alicante. M. Macron himself has seemingly been doing a fantastic job on the way out as De Gaulle did for us on the way in. Frustrating the already frighteningly painful process a bit more at every turn which has had me doing a few swears under my breath.
But worst of all and almost within minutes was the awful damnation of the Pompiers de Paris (The Paris Fire Brigade) by people who know nothing nor care nothing about Fires, Firefighters or Firefighting. But feel the need, like so many these days to comment on events, which is fine, but always in a miserable negative way that just sucks the soul out of you.
The statements were as broad in their criticism as they were inaccurate. “Witnesses state that only one fire engine has arrived” “They are not putting water on the fire” ‘Probably on a four-hour lunch break”. I knew, 30 plus years of Firefighting in a big city with similar risks from 1000 year old buildings to 1000ft tall buildings to 1000’s living in slum buildings, gave me not only an intimate knowledge but hands on experience of seeing these types of fires in roofs large and small on many occasions, all with the same end result.
I was shocked, fall backwards into the chair shaking my head shocked. What has happened to the World lately? Has it always been there but Social Media is now an outlet for it? As much as I can navigate my way from East London to anywhere in the World from the little device in my hand or order anything from a pizza at home to a hire car in Chicago in a few clicks. These things seem to have become an outlet for the angry, miserable, disillusioned and hateful, which is slowly poisoning us all.
I’m afraid the mainstream media weren’t much better, innocent comments about the fire ‘still spreading unchallenged’ to other respectable outlets re-tweeted the ranting of those I mentioned above. In my frustration, I fired off a defensive tweet, which was picked up fairly quickly by a producer on LBC and recognising I was free to comment as a private individual, but armed with knowledge and experience that allowed me to make credible comment, I went live on air to explain exactly what was happening and what frustrations the Firefighters were likely to be facing.
So, what is really likely to have happened? Well like many Heritage buildings, the Notre Dame Cathedral was built many hundreds of years ago. In an era where Fire safety as we know it wasn’t even thought of. Building materials were limited. Basically wood or stone, which is what most of our older and most valuable buildings are made of. In the case of Notre Dame, without going into (largely unknown) detail, it appears to be a sizeable structure built between 1193 and 1250 that is approximately 130m long by 40m wide and 40m high at main roof level. Made of stone walls and topped off with a complex wooden pitched roof covered in tiles to give it it’s protection from the elements. The now infamous spire was added in 1864 after a major refurbishment.
Having seen similar roof structures. Without the benefit of steel beams and lintels used in modern construction, the roofs are a complex web of oak beams pitched to an apex with cross members and other wooden elements making up the final structure. In the case of Notre Dame, these oak beams were 800 years old and as anyone can imagine incredibly dry. If this vast arrangement of knitted dried wood does happen to catch fire, for whatever reason, unless someone is there with extinguishing media at the small point of the outbreak it will be pretty much impossible to stop the frightening malevolent snowballing growth of the fire. As the fire grows in size, its heat release pre-heats an increasingly expanding area all around it, which gets hotter quicker and subsequently ignites quicker, thus the ‘snowball’ analogy.
By the time the fire was detected, either by human eye or an existing (or temporary for the period of the renovation) fire detection system, it would have already grown significantly. Pompiers de Paris are a well-resourced Fire Brigade, much better resourced than anywhere in the UK, but that is for later. As with all similar heritage buildings, a large ‘pre-determined’ attendance (PDA) of several fire engines, aerial ladders and officers would have been on their way within a minute or so of that alarm being raised. The PDA for St Paul’s or Westminster Abbey for example from LFB is many times larger than the two or three fire engines sent to a house fire.
They would have been on scene within a matter of minutes. Amazingly (take note Austerity UK) there are four FOUR Fire Stations within half a mile of the Cathedral, two North of the Seine and two to the South. Three of them appear to have a number of fire trucks inside (take note again) and one is a river fire station. In common with typical pre-planning that takes place in all first world fire services around the globe. They’d be familiar with the building, have a pre-determined rendezvous point and be met by a responsible person with plans of the cathedral and a copy of any operational or tactical plan. In one of the photographs I saw online today, I saw that exchange taking place very early on.
With all of these plans, salvage of artefacts and valuables is the priority. The Salvage plan is a key part of any Firefighting operation and the initial incident commander would have been assessing conditions, not only to determine his or her initial firefighting actions, but to see how quickly and for how long the building would remain tenable for that important salvage operation to go ahead. Almost a day later, we now know that the Pompiers de Paris, along with Police and church staff actually effected this very rapidly, saving the vast majority of the valuables including several world famous pieces. That’s the first poke in the eye to the “sack’em all” Brigade of armchair critics.
Next we move onto the Firefighting, bearing in mind every piece of Firefighting equipment to date (give or take the odd fire robot) has to be operated by a human and generally requires humans, even the very robust Firefighting type, who are still flesh and bone, to manhandle it, often right up close to the actual fire to effectively tackle it. So hose, ladders, nozzles, breathing apparatus all has to be small enough to be handled by men and women and fit into lockers on the sides of vehicles that have to negotiate city streets.
That hose has to be unrolled and connected to water mains via hydrants, many of which are outlets on the same water main (think of several drinking straws from the same glass of water). They also probably drafted water from the fire boat… and endless supply from the seine, but it all needs to be deployed by hand and connected. Fire engines need to be moved into optimum positions to pump the water from the source to the fire, there is a science behind this called hydraulics, familiar to Firefighters.
I saw a few early attempts at control of the fire, that is standard, use the nearest fire engine taking water from the nearest hydrant and take a crew up onto the scaffolding. That’s probably ten minutes work for the most efficient of crews, which I’ll grant Pompiers De Paris due to their very high standards of fitness and preparedness. But as all of us in the fire game know, a hand held hose line, pulled over 100ft up a scaffolding will at best deliver around 500 litres of water per minute. That’s about enough to tackle a medium sized room fire. Think of those flames consuming the roof yesterday, shooting tens of feet into the air. I can’t even begin to calculate the heat output of the fire in megawatts, BTU’s or Joules, but it would have likely taken hundreds of thousands of litres per minute to overcome the rate of burning, which is effectively what ‘putting out a fire’ is.
“The Cranes” or ‘Cherry-pickers” cried the baying crowds of assembled twitter-angry armchair fire chiefs and reporters. “Why aren’t they up squirting water at the fire” Yet again, to be of any use, these vehicles have to be of a useable size. Which is why the majority of ‘aerial appliances’ or ‘ladder trucks’ or ‘high reach vehicles’ to give them their proper names were until recently only ever available with a working height of around 100ft/30m. This criticism made me shudder and took me right back to June 2017 in the days after I and many of my colleagues attended the Grenfell Tower fire. There are now 300ft models, but these are on a chassis so big, that they are pretty much for specialist applications such as airports or refineries. They would never be able to turn out of a city Fire Station even if they were able to get in there in the first place. Note again, there are 63 of these trucks to cover the 41 square Miles of Pompier De Paris responsibility, but only 11 to cover London Fire Brigades 607 square miles of responsibility.
There are in the last few years, some models available that are 150 or 200ft which can now fit on a useable chassis. London Fire Brigade have recently ordered several of these, but still they need to be negotiated down tight city streets, no doubt full of cars whose owners are now lost in the crowd or evacuated. They take time to deploy and need a dedicated high flow water supply as the monitor in the cage is capable of delivering a much more respectable 2500 litres per minute. This is why it was no surprise to me to see that the number of these that were put to use began to appear on our TV screens over an hour or more after the firefighting operations started.
The final criticism, again, with memories of Grenfell Tower in my mind was the lack of fire planes or helicopters. Supported yesterday by no less than the most powerful man in the World, the President of the United States of America, who proudly tweeted that they needed to use these aircraft to quickly extinguish the fire. Let’s deal with the obvious first, I think we can pretty much all agree that you couldn’t navigate an aircraft low enough along the twisty narrow River Seine to fill the tanks with water and no doubt these flying fire engines are likely based in the South of France so their flying time and refill time to resupply with their mix of water and fire retardant chemicals would be well over an hour or more.
But even if a few just happened to be ‘flying past’ fully loaded, we’d be looking at between 3000 to 10,000 litres of water…. A litre of water weighs a kilogram so we are dropping 3-10 tonnes of water at great speed onto an 800 year old building and the surrounding area, the building would be flattened and the assembled Firefighters and crowds washed away with it. “What about the helicopters”? That’s valid I guess, but these, although used rurally are not natural bedfellows of the City Firefighter, but if they did happen to be passing by, a helicopter is much more like a car or a small truck. They, with the exception of a Chinook or similar, can’t carry vast payloads, including the bucket swinging underneath it over central Paris. Therefore, with only several hundred litres of water available, you aren’t going to be much better off than the Firefighters with their hoses.
In Summary, Pompier de Paris did an outstanding job. The early collapse of the roof and spire as tragic as that was, took the remaining unburnt parts of the roof with it and from what I have seen that may have saved the bell towers. As I spoke on LBC last night, I commented that what was left was likely a ‘bonfire surrounded by walls’. However, the Gods were kind, from footage released today, it appears the stone ceiling beneath the roof held in the Choir and the Nave, only collapsing over the Transept, probably as the steeple fell, so a lot of the Cathedral, although smoke and water damaged was not destroyed by the fire.
My real fear is, the Fire Services in the UK, who rightly count themselves among the most dedicated and professional in the World have never been as well-resourced as those in similar countries. Austerity has made an already thinly spread Fire Service now dangerously under resourced. The British Fire Service probably has the lowest latent capacity compared like for like. Expanding on what I have said above, the Pompiers De Paris have 8500 personnel running from 81 fire stations over a 40 square mile area. The London Fire Brigade, following the last round of cuts in 2014 has just under 6000 personnel running from 103 Fire Stations covering 607 square miles.
I also noted there were four fire stations within a very small area around the Notre. Dame. If we make a comparison with St Paul’s Cathedral in London, the nearest Fire Station, with just one Fire Engine, is around half a mile away. The next nearest are over a mile away at Shoreditch (just one) with three more over two miles away (Lambeth, Soho and Whitechapel). If all of those fire stations were available for calls with their fire engines not engaged on anything else. A call to a fire at St Paul’s would leave an area of London encompassing Soho, Westminster, Lambeth, Southwark, Islington, The City of London, Shoreditch, Whitechapel and Bermondsey completely without cover until it was backfilled.
Three of the Fire Stations that were nearer to St Paul’s have now closed. Barbican in the late 1990’s and Clerkenwell and Southwark in 2014. I didn’t mean for this blog post to become political, but inevitably as I typed the reality of it dawned on me. Sadly, if a fire of that magnitude were to occur at St Paul’s, I don’t think the outcome would be the same as it was in Paris. That is not the fault of the London Fire Brigade or my brave and dedicated former colleagues, although I think we know who’d get the blame?