Fire blankets at Notre Dame and other observations while abroad

I recently returned from two weeks in Paris and Dublin. Now, this was a personal vacation, and since my husband isn’t affiliated with the fire service, he has only so much patience for chasing foreign ladder trucks down narrow streets. So I didn’t make any trips to fire stations or go on any ridealongs with the “sappeur-pompiers.”
But I did find myself thinking about how fire must be fought in these places that are so different than U.S. cities, and I did find myself noticing a few things.

Controlling exposures must be a key part of Parisian firefighting.

The Gresham Hotel provides this card for guests who are disabled. They hang it on their door like a Do Not Disturb sign; the fire brigade then knows to give their room extra attention.

  • Notre Dame is beyond beautiful, and centuries old. But there are a few modern touches as well, and one of them stood out: There are several cabinets containing fire blankets staged throughout the church. Now, jokes about spontaneous combustion aside, I actually think this makes a lot of sense. Many people purchase candles and light them at one of the designated prayer areas. When they do this, they often reach over dozens of already lit candles. How easy it would be for a sleeve to catch on fire—maybe even more so for the priests who wear robes? Anyone can use a fire blanket, and while I’m sure they’re rarely if ever used, it’s a low-tech, low-cost way of adding a layer of protection. Are there places in the U.S. where this could work?
  • In addition to rows and rows of attached buildings that must pose an incredible exposure risk, Paris is chock full of tiny cafes, bars and restaurants. We must have gone in dozens of these, and every single one had a posted evacuation/fire plan. Every one, no matter how small. These signs were everywhere, and they pretty much all said the same thing: In case of a fire, exit through the closest door, don’t panic, and listen to the commands of the staff. That last part got me—if you’re in a café in the U.S., would you really view the staff as authority figures in the event of a fire?
  • Dublin, too, had similar signs (in fact the first thing I saw after checking into my hotel was the prominently posted “Procedures in case of a fire”) but they also seemed to take things a step further: They had additional signs outside some buildings indicating “Fire Meeting Points” where, presumably, evacuees would gather in case of a fire. Interesting.
  • We stayed at the Gresham Hotel in Dublin—the oldest hotel in the city and one that actually gets a mention in James Joyce’s classic story, “The Dead.” Clearly a lot of thought has gone into preserving this landmark in the event of fire. There are fire doors at various points on every floor, clearly marked. And extinguishers and hose reels are peppered throughout the floors. In addition, in our room was a red card that you could hang on the outside of the door (just like a Do Not Disturb sign) if you were disabled or would have trouble evacuating quickly during a fire. Presumably, fire brigade personnel coming through the halls in the event of an emergency could prioritize those doors with red cards, knowing that those people might need extra assistance. I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels here in the U.S.—mostly for fire conferences!—and I’ve never seen this. Why not?
All of this seems to be (and tell me if you think I’m reaching here) part of an attitude that fire safety is everyone’s business. There seems to be less of a reliance on the heroic firefighters who will come to save the day (remember those streets ARE really narrow, and traffic is terrible) and more encouragement for citizens to take the first vital steps (interestingly, I don’t recall seeing a single AED). Fire extinguishers were everywhere, and they weren’t hidden in cabinets or behind glass, they just perched in the corners, at the ready. And they were generally bigger than the ones you see in public places here.

For those of you who’ve visited (or live in) other countries, add to my list—what different things have you seen or heard about it? For everyone, what do you think about these differences? Why don’t we do these things in the United States? Could they work here?

Shannon Pieper is deputy editor for FireRescue magazine.

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