After the fire in Notre-Dame: How safe are Cologne and Bonn Cathedrals?

After the fire in Notre-Dame : How safe are Cologne and Bonn Cathedrals?

The devastating fire in Paris destroyed large parts of Notre-Dame. What precautions are in place against a similar inferno for Cologne and Bonn Cathedrals? Technology, accessibility and constant exercises all belong to fire protection.

After the devastating fire at the world-famous Parisian church of Notre-Dame, those responsible for Cologne Cathedral want to take another close look at their fire-protection concept.

Of course, we will also now examine whether lessons can be drawn from Notre-Dame, said the Cologne cathedral master builder Peter Füssenich on Tuesday. A fire could also break out in Cologne Cathedral; this would apply to any building that contains combustible materials. “In Cologne we have regular inspections together with the fire-brigade, to also prepare ourselves for such scenarios.”

The most important questions and answers at a glance:

What precautions has the Cologne fire service taken?

The spokesman for the Cologne Fire Brigade, Marc David, lists a number of measures:

Installation of fire-extinguishing water pipes: “On the outside of the cathedral, extinguishing water pipes extend up to the roof. This means we can get water quickly to top of the roof.”

Partitions between the roofs: “The cathedral is divided into fire compartments. There are partitions between the roofs.”

Fixed free points for turntable ladders: There are four points around the cathedral, which are always kept free for turntable ladders. “Even when the Christmas market is on, these sites are kept free so that we can get there with the turntable ladders”.

Building knowledge: “The responsible inner-city and surrounding fire stations ensure that each firefighter becomes familiar with the cathedral at least once a year”, explains spokesman David. There are many small doors, and in the event of a fire, orientation is even more difficult. In addition, the turntable ladders are set up for practices several times a year.

Highest alarm level: “if Cologne Cathedral catches fire, this is the highest alarm level that there is in Cologne”. Then several fire stations would be alerted at once.

Is the Notre-Dame roof structure a special feature?

The destruction of the Notre-Dame roof truss is a particularly great loss, because it predominantly dates from the 13th century, says Füssenich. Cologne Cathedral had an iron roof truss from the 19th century. “Compared to a wooden one, this doesn’t burn directly. But if it is affected by a great fire, there are also consequences. Such an iron roof truss can then become distorted”.

Can the stone construction also be damaged?

The next few days are crucial now, the expert emphasised in relation to Notre Dame. The stone ceiling vaults below the burnt roof truss were soaked with fire-fighting water. “This has led to a weight increase many times over for the vaulted ceilings. We will have to wait until after the next few days to see whether the vaults can withstand this weight.”

Cologne Cathedral is always covered in scaffolding somewhere. Is this a risk?

There is no alternative, Füssenich answers. “Buildings of such size and importance are always undergoing renovation. We have a lot scaffolding at Cologne Cathedral, but most of it is erected externally.” Of course you always have to be careful, for example with welding torches.

Precautions taken in Bonn

What is the situation in Bonn?

Anyone walking across Münsterplatz in Bonn will notice a similarity to Paris: because the Bonn Münster Sankt Martin is also currently covered in scaffold for construction work. In addition, its roof truss is also made of wood. This also gives Wolfgang Picken, the dean of the city and minister of the cathedral, food for thought: “I couldn’t see the pictures of Paris without thinking that a similar tragedy could happen to our basilica with its wooden roof structure,” says Picken. “Bonn without the cathedral: that would be unthinkable.”

Fire protection is now a particular focus of the current refurbishment. Ägidius Strack, the project manager in charge of the refurbishment of the cathedral, says: “the renovation includes a complete replacement of the electrical cable routing and further fire-protection measures at the highest level in order to prevent fires.” The construction site is also regularly inspected and checked by a specialist company so that no fire protection measures are overlooked during the renovation.

What precautions have the Bonn fire brigade taken?

Marcus Hinz, head of the Bonn Fire Protection Service, says that a comprehensive fire protection concept was developed for the church and the adjacent buildings in close cooperation with the building authorities. This includes all measures that could prevent the possibility of a fire outbreak or keep any effects of a fire to cultural property to a minimum. If Bonn cathedral were to catch fire, however, effective fire-extinguishing possibilities would be very limited, because fire-protection precautions had not been sufficiently taken into account in the construction of the building previously. “In this case, we can’t do much more except to apply water. However, this would only have a very limited effect”, said Hinz.

How much water would be needed for such an application?

“There is no general answer to this question, because it always depends on the situation”, said Hinz. “The type of roofing also plays a role: sometimes it is not accessible, so that the fire-fighting water – irrespective of how much – runs off over the roof and is ineffective.”

Is there any special training for an exceptional situation as in Paris?

According to Hinz, this is not the case. “It is part of the training to be prepared for such situations, which includes the teaching of general fire-fighting activities” he says. “It is not possible to do much more than was done in Paris. In such a situation, the fire service’s hands are tied. “It would be the same or similar anywhere, to what it looked like in Paris.”

(Original text: Jill Mylonas; translation: John Chandler)

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