Omaha’s historic churches aren’t required to have sprinkler systems, leaving them vulnerable in the event of a fire.
Most of the churches in the Archdiocese of Omaha, including St. Cecilia Cathedral, don’t have sprinklers, and “only a handful of our newer churches have interior sprinklers,” said Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor of the archdiocese.
Structures must meet the building code that was in place at the time of the building’s construction, meaning many older churches aren’t required to have modern fire defense upgrades installed.
That means St. Cecilia, the landmark Catholic church near 40th and Cuming Streets that can be seen for miles, must only meet code from 1959.
Fire safety in churches is on the minds of many people after this week’s fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris that caused extensive damage to the main structure.
St. Cecilia’s bell towers stand just one foot shorter than Notre Dame’s, and Omaha’s cathedral has a footprint about half the size of the Paris landmark’s.
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A building doesn’t have to be up to current code unless it has undergone a renovation or new construction, according to Battalion Chief Scott Fitzpatrick of the Omaha Fire Department.
So unless a church needs a major renovation, it’s up to church leaders to determine what safety features to install.
In many cases, Fitzpatrick said, building owners don’t add sprinklers because they want to preserve the prestige and value of a structure.
“The concern of preserving the historical value usually takes precedence over defacing any of the character of a historical building,” Fitzpatrick said.
The Fire Department tries to inspect and familiarize itself with buildings around Omaha, including large churches, to formulate a plan of attack in the event of a fire, Fitzpatrick said.
While protecting property is a goal of the Fire Department, Fitzpatrick said the primary goal of firefighters and sprinkler systems is to protect lives, not to save a building, even a historic church.
First Presbyterian Church at 216 S. 34th St., which was dedicated in 1917, doesn’t have a sprinkler system in the historic portion of its building, either. The Rev. Dr. Jonathan Sloan, senior pastor, said his congregation hasn’t discussed a fire plan, but the church has reviewed its disaster response procedures within the past year.
In March 2018, a 200-pound beam cover fell 60 feet onto the sanctuary’s grand piano after 100-year-old nails came loose. No one was injured, and the church made repairs and strengthened existing beams.
Last year, amid their own disaster and concerns about church shootings around the country, Sloan said the church invested in first aid kits, trauma kits, CPR training and more. He said church members also discussed exit plans for a shooting, a fire or some other disaster.
Sloan said he wasn’t concerned about any relics or precious objects in the church, as became a concern at Notre Dame.
“We’re stone and brick, and our baptismal is a huge piece of marble,” he said. “I think all that could be recovered after the fact. There would certainly be sadness, but there’s not a lot that’s worth risking the value of somebody’s life.”
World-Herald staff writer Kevin Cole contributed to this report.