Fire safety engineering – strategy before study!

Published:  11 January, 2010

Fire safety engineering is a bit of a misfit subject, fitting uneasily within the realms of engineering and technology. It cannot be pigeon holed as a pure engineering discipline as it incorporates a range of subjects including mathematics, physics, chemistry and even psychology. It also utilizes principles from civil, mechanical and electrical engineering, writes the author of the British Standard Specification PAS 911, Paul Bryant.

How many outside the profession realize and appreciate this? Even more concerning perhaps is how many from within the industry understand the full realm of the subject of fire safety engineering.

 

With the continuing requirement to explore bolder building designs, and the wish to contain more people and processes within a building, a performance-based approach to fire safety is now increasingly used (as opposed to the traditional prescriptive approach), especially for complex building arrangements. The days of the “inspector” of fire safety in buildings have been replaced by the requirement for the “free thinking” scientific approach.  The final solution will normally require input from suitable qualified or experienced fire engineering specialists and not those who are just happy to follow a set of rules.

 

The subject today attracts professionals from a range of backgrounds, some of whom see the topic as virgin territory to make their mark; a subject as much to do with art as science. Fire safety engineered design solutions can now conceivably become as unique and as wacky as the buildings they are designed to protect, especially where pure performance based solutions are sought. 

 

On the whole, this could be good for the industry and help attract some of the best talent. In this way, it should be possible that effective fire safety can be provided for less cost than would be the case for a prescriptive approach.  On the downside could be the fact that the main purpose of fire safety engineering; to protect life, property, business and the environment, could be lost in the race to provide a sexier, more radical alternative to regulation and standardisation. 

 

The fire strategy

 

In an ideal world, there should be a proper set of checks and measures to ensure that a fire strategy for a new or existing building is appropriate, effective and compliant. A prescriptive solution would follow well known guidance which would be relatively easy to inspect and validate by a third party. Many modern fire strategies, especially those for complex buildings tend to utilise performance based designs; designs that are much harder to prove or, for that matter, disprove. Consequently, checks and measures, as many in the industry are used to, and rely upon, may no longer be appropriate. There is now a need to ensure that those undertaking the assessments and analysis are properly capable to be entrusted to protect us in the event of fire.

 

However, what is in a fire strategy and what is not is also a crucial issue. There are as many formats and styles of fire strategy as there are fire consultants. This is more so the case for performance based solutions. A fire strategy should be a straight forward and consistent appraisal, whoever is employed to undertake the work.  In fact, a fire strategy should be strategic. All the professional analysis in the world is likely to be wasted or misdirected unless a big picture approach is taken first to determine what is required to properly protect the building and its occupants.

 

This was one of the reasons for the writing of British Standard Specification PAS 911 covering fire strategies, which was published in 2007. As strategic and conceptual thinking has been applied to the preparation of business strategies, why can’t the same methodologies work for the preparation of fire strategies? The application of “blue sky thinking”, yet maintaining a fairly rigid framework of application, appears to make sense for any form of strategic planning. Furthermore, the use of diagrams or “evaluation tools”, makes the process of strategy preparation even more strategic in that you can get to picture the key issues.

 

A prime reason to prepare a fire strategy is to meet fully with relevant legislation, and possibly to cater for the requirements of other stakeholders such as Insurers. But there may be other reasons to employ fire safety and protection – something that scientists and engineers alone may not appreciate.  The least obvious objectives may not be the ones that cause the real crisis. For instance, a burning remote, run down and redundant storage building, may not present a life safety, property protection or business continuity problem. However, if that stored in the building happened to be carcinogenic material that ends of deposited over a local community, then the building owner may face extreme financial or legal implications.

 

As an example of promoting strategic thinking for fire safety, PAS 911 introduces what is, in essence, a spider diagram (See Figure 1) with eight factors associated with the final fire strategy on separate nodes. The web is made up of five orbital strands outside of a central point, allowing each of the elements of the fire strategy to be scored from 0 (The central point) to 5. The purpose of the diagram is to determine how critical each of the elements are to the overall end result. For instance, for some buildings, fire compartmentation may be determined to be critical to the strategy thus will score a “5”. For other buildings, despite the wish to score this highly, the building may be so imperforate that it is scored down. Similarly, early fire service intervention may be desired but may not be achievable thus will also be scored down.

Figure 1: Strategy Value Grid (Taken from BS PAS 911) – copyright Kingfell 2007

 

By scoring each of the elements and then joining the dots, a pattern will emerge. This pattern can be quite revealing:

 

Area within the pattern: This gives an idea of the resources and costs associated with the provisions required by the strategy. For instance, if each element is scored as 5, the pattern would form the whole outer core of the diagram with the maximum area taken up. Consequently, the fire safety and protection provisions are likely to be costly to implement and extremely resource hungry. Conversely, a shape with a much smaller footprint will be much more affordable. However, it must still be effective and answer all the issues from the earlier objectives setting.

 

Pattern concentration: How the pattern sits within the diagram can also give an indicator of the type of fire strategy. For a pattern predominantly in the upper quadrant, the strategy will place greater reliance on fire safety management, whilst a pattern towards the lower quadrant will place greater reliance on active fire protection. A shape on the right hand side indicates that the strategy will rely on suppression of a fire whilst a shape to the left places greater reliance on passive fire protection.

 

If the diagram has been prepared following a full prior evaluation, and by a team rather than a single person, then it is likely to be the pre-cursor to the final written strategy. An item scoring highly in the diagram is likely to be an important feature of the final written strategy.

 

What those working on the diagram also realize is that the exercise promotes pure strategic thinking with no mention of search distances, ratings of linings, etc.

 

This diagram is joined by a number of other concepts and ideas, many of which are new to the subject of fire safety. The purpose of this PAS is to focus and regiment the ideas of professional fire safety engineers and scientists in to understanding what really matters before we easily get carried away by the inputs, processes and outputs of the fire safety engineered design solution.

 

As should always be the case, strategy before tactics before detail. Any readers who would like to discuss further, I can be contacted at paulbryant@kingfell.com.

 

 

Author Note:

Paul is the Chairman of Kingfell plc, a fire, risk and crisis control company which he formed in 1995. He is also a recognized international expert in fire strategies. He wrote British Standard Specification PAS 911 in 2007. This is available to purchase from British Standards Institution (http://shop.bsigroup.com)

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