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What Crisis Managers Can Learn from Notre Dame

By Nora Jacobs, Sr. VP, Hennes Communications

If you are able to access it, this article from The New York Times provides a riveting account of the firefighting strategy that saved Notre Dame cathedral from collapse in April. If you are not able, the story recounts the heroic measures response teams took to extinguish the fire that erupted in the church’s famed attic – a space constructed from massive old-growth French timber known as “the forest.” It was also a space without sprinklers or firewalls. During the course of four hours, 400 firefighters worked to save the structure, eventually focusing on preventing the building’s two towers from collapsing, measures experts now agree prevented a total loss of the 850 year-old World Heritage site.

What the story also details is the role of a new fire warning system that, according to the Times, “took dozens of experts to put together, and in the end involved thousands of pages of diagrams, maps, spreadsheets and contracts.” It was this complex system of 160 smoke detectors and manual alarms that a security employee relied on when an alarm alerted him to a fire somewhere in the cathedral complex on April 15. Following protocol, he directed a guard to search for the fire, then called his boss, who did not answer the phone. He opted not to call the fire department. Thirty minutes passed before the correct location of the fire was determined and responders were alerted. By then, flames had engulfed the “forest” and were threatening the entire structure. Further complicating the situation: the security employee had only been on the job for three days when the fire broke out. He was in the first hours of a second shift covering for an absent colleague when the alarm went off.

As of this writing, investigators are still working to identify the cause of the fire. But even without an investigation, it’s clear the complexity of the fire response plan and the scope of the fire detection system made this a highly challenging situation. One hopes there will be a full review of the new fire warning system, along with revisions and training to prevent a similar near-catastrophe in the future.

For companies that maintain elaborate emergency response plans, the Notre Dame fire provides an excellent reason to review that plan and determine if good intentions and multiple revisions have created documents that burden managers with too much process at the expense of expediency.

Crisis communicators might want to review their plans as well to determine if they are free from the onerous detail that can bog down an effective response to an emerging threat. In today’s world, 24/7 news outlets and social media outlaws are akin to smoldering tinder. Without a plan to get in front of the situation quickly, a manageable event can rapidly evolve into in a full-scale conflagration. In our experience, a good plan essentially needs to help the crisis management team answer five critical questions before it takes action: who says what, to whom, how and in what order. That guidance, along with some forms and checklists to automate the management process, will enable the crisis response team to spend more time focusing on the event itself and less time figuring out – on the fly – how to communicate about it.

If your crisis communications plan has become too cumbersome to be effective, we’d be happy to take a look and provide some recommendations for streamlining it. Whether your next crisis involves a reputational issue, an act of nature or a man-made catastrophe, the best way to prevent your organization’s brand from getting seared is to have your communications response honed and ready to go.


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