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Friday, September 30, 2011

Group photo - September 2011

A group photo, taken on 28th September 2011. Includes a few new faces, a few visitors and there are quite a few people missing as well, but you rarely get everyone in the same place at the same time. Visit our Facebook page to see the tagged people.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Fire Group News Overview Jan to Aug 2011

News overview from the BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering at the University of Edinburgh during the first semester of 2011 (extracted from the IAFSS Newsletter n31, August 2011).

Since Jan 2011 two new PhD students have joined us: Shaun Devaney (Ireland) and Ryan Hilditch (UK). During the same time, three students received the PhD degree: Dr Rory Hadden (now at University of Western Ontario, Canada), Dr Pauline Bartoli (now University of Corsica, France) and Dr Jamie Stern-Gottfried (now at Arup, UK). Two Research Associates promoted outside the group: Dr David Lange joined SP, Sweden, and Dr Claire Belcher got an academic position at University of Exeter, UK, in Earth System Science. The current group consists of nine academics, four research associates and 26 PhD students. Other worthy news are summarized as follows.

The Ove Arup Foundation has made a major investment to tackle the obdurate problems surrounding fire safety. Working with Fire Safety Engineers and Architects at the University of Edinburgh, The Institute for the Study of Science, Technology and Innovation (ISSTI) will explore how to ensure the effective adoption of technical advances in the built environment. The Ove Arup Foundation has agreed to invest £200,000 over the next 5 years in a major interdisciplinary research and knowledge transfer initiative aimed at Integrating Technical and Social Aspects of Fire Safety Engineering Expertise (ITSAFE).

The Centre has secured a major grant from The Lloyd's Register Educational Trust (LRET) to hold a series of three annual week-long intensive seminars ("think tanks") in areas related to Fire Safety Engineering. This series of seminars was motivated by the need to have a new generation of leaders in Fire Safety Engineering that can drive the field through the drastic transition it is currently experiencing. An ever evolving construction industry, drastic changes in regulatory environment, multi-disciplinary drivers for innovation, and ever increasing demands for the fire service require a new face of leadership. The seminars are intended to bring together selected leaders of today with the leaders of the future to define a coherent path for different areas of critical importance to the field. This unique initiative was launched this year with The 1st Annual LRET/UoE Global Technical Leadership Seminar in Fire Safety Engineering. The seminar had the theme of "Education for the Future of Fire Safety Engineering," and was held in Scotland between 30 May and 3 June 2011. Participants were selected as key players in defining the future of advanced fire safety engineering as a professional/academic discipline. The seminar was run as a five day retreat, delivered by the BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering at a residential venue close to Edinburgh. Each session began with a presentation to be given by one of the participants. This initiated discussions on the relevant issues. A small group of undergraduate and graduate students, some of whose studies are also financially supported by The LRET, were also competitively selected to join the seminar, bringing the total number of participants to approximately 20. Dissemination activities will include the publication of a "white paper" based on the seminar's discussions and outcomes. All of the participants felt that the event was a great success and will lead to a number of important changes, actions, and significant progress for fire safety engineering education globally. Feedback has been very positive thus far, and several participants have formulated specific personal action items within their own organizations.

Prof José Torero delivered the public lecture: "The Twin Towers: 10 years – 10 Lessons on Sustainable Infrastructure" on 14th March 2011. This was a joint event of The Royal Academy of Engineering and The Royal Society of Edinburgh. The collapse of the World Trade Center towers represents one of the most dramatic failures of modern structural engineering. One of the most exhaustive and expensive failure analyses in history was conducted in the midst of speculation, controversy and conspiracy theories. In parallel, the world has seen an extraordinary evolution of the super-tall building. Seven of the ten tallest buildings in the world have been built after 9/11. These not only include the tallest four, but eight of these buildings are outside the USA. Furthermore, a strong drive towards sustainability has driven tall building design to levels of innovation never seen before. Prof Torero’s presentation extracted, from a decade of questioning and innovation, ten lessons on what is sustainable infrastructure.

Prof José Torero was awarded the 2010 Tom Dalyell Prize for Science Communication at the University of Edinburgh during his Christmas Lecture "Fire: A story of fascination, fear and familiarity". In his lecture, Prof Torero discussed how humans have been fascinated with fire for millions of years. He examined how fire can provide welcome warmth in everyday life but, on a bigger scale, the unpredictability of fire can be terrifying. He contrasted the emotions associated with fire, depending on whether it is under control or not.

Congratulations to Dr Francesco Colella for winning the Lloyd’s Science of Risk Prize in the Technology Category. The prize was for his research paper "A Novel Multiscale Methodology for Simulating Tunnel Ventilation Flows During Fires" (published in Fire Technology). He led this work as a Research Associate at The School of Engineering from 2007 to 2010. This is Lloyd’s research prize for academics and aims at keeping the world’s leading specialist insurance market with the pace of academic knowledge and cutting edge thinking. For the same award competition, the fire group had two more papers short-listed as the top of each category. Dr Wolfram Jahn was short-listed in Technology Risk, for his paper "Forecasting Fire Growth using an Inverse Zone Modelling Approach" (published in Fire Safety Journal). And Dr Claire Belcher was short-listed in Climate Change Risk for her paper "Increased fire activity at the Triassic/Jurassic boundary in Greenland due to climate-driven floral change" (published in Nature Geoscience).

The University is one of 13 partners collaborating on a three year, EU FP7 funded research project on Aircraft Fire Safety. The 'kick-off' meeting was in Poitiers, France, in January 2010.

On Nov 2010 Dr Guillermo Rein was interviewed by Scottish TV about a recent research paper published in Fire Safety Journal on "Forecasting Fire Growth". On the same day he was interviewed for BBC Radio and newspaper The Scotsman.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh has awarded a JM Lessells Scholarship Award to the fire group PhD student Holly Smith. She will spend two months at the Department of Civil Engineering, Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada and work on shear failure of concrete structures during fire.

We continue communicating views, news and achievements in our blog

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

An inexcusable omission...

Dear Editors of Scientific American,

I read with great interest (and disappointment) Mark Lamster’s article “Castles in the Air” in your September 2011 issue. In presenting the changes that have occurred in the design and construction of skyscrapers in the decade since September 11th 2001, Mr Lamster (apparently along with many of the top names in the architectural and structural engineering communities) has completely missed the most important issue.

While highlighting the structural threats to skyscrapers, Mr Lamster notes three issues: aircraft impact, earthquakes, and wind. The claim is made that structural engineers are now able to design against these threats with a very high level of confidence and safety. As a structural engineer I agree completely.

Unfortunately, the Twin Towers did not collapse due to aircraft impact, earthquake, or wind; they collapsed due to fire. Nowhere in the article is the structural threat posed by fire explicitly mentioned. I agree completely with Mr Robertson's statement that the responsibility is “to keep airplanes away from the buildings and not to design the buildings for that circumstance,” but again this misses the point entirely.

On 9/11 we clearly saw, for the first time, that fires can cause entire modern highrise buildings to collapse. Indeed, in addition to the Twin Towers a steel-framed highrise (Building 7) on the WTC site also collapsed on 9/11. Building 7 was not struck by an aircraft; it collapsed due to the structural impacts of an uncontrolled office contents fire, ignited by debris from the Twin Towers.

The most important engineering lesson of the 9/11 collapses is that in order to ensure the safety of occupants (and property) in ever taller and more optimized and sustainable tall buildings, the potential impacts of uncontrolled fires need to be explicitly considered during the structural design process. These impacts need to be considered with the same care as earthquakes and wind. The engineering community has the technical knowledge to begin to do this, yet it is still not required by building codes and happens only very rarely in practice. While changes in escape stair width, firefighter communication systems, and the addition of skybridges (all noted by Mr Lamster) can only improve life safety in tall buildings, they do nothing to prevent structural collapse due to fire.

It is both sad and worrying that the structural engineering community has, with a few notable exceptions, failed to understand the full significance of the events of 9/11 for the design of tall buildings. We have vividly seen what uncontrolled fires can do to tall buildings yet we continue to design them using decades old, outdated knowledge. In addition to the measures noted in Mr Lamster's article, preventing another 9/11 requires that the structural engineering and architecture communities own up to this reality and take the necessary actions.

Perhaps Scientific American should consider publishing an article highlighting the significant and considerable technical progress in structural fire engineering being made by engineers around the world.

Kind regards,

Dr Luke Bisby
Senior Research Fellow in Structures in Fire
The University of Edinburgh

NOTE: Mark Lamster's original Scientific American article is available here

Role of Codes and Standards in FSE Education

Kathleen Almand, executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation, recently wrote an interesting article on the role of codes and standards in education.

Kathleen was one of the participants in the LRET/UoE Global Technical Leadership Seminar in Fire Safety Engineering.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Letter to the Editor of Scientific American

(Email sent on Thur 15 Sep 2011 to

Dear Editor of Scientific American,

Your September issue included the piece "Castles in the Air" by Mark Lamster where the failed prophecy that the attacks of 9/11 were to end the age of the skyscraper is discussed. 

The article highlights that 2011 will be the single greatest year for the construction of tall buildings in history. That China is leading the skyscraper boom, yet their engineering design is dominated by American firms.

The article discusses design issues on evacuation. But the World Trade Center was designed to evacuate rapidly, and so both towers WTC1 and 2 did below the impact floors on 9/11. WTC7 was also evacuated in time.

The article also discusses design issues on aircraft impact. But the World Trade Center was designed to withstand the impact of a large aircraft, and so both towers WTC1 and 2 did on 9/11. They collapsed because of fire. WTC7 was not hit by an aircraft, but collapsed due to fire as well. 

The article goes to imply that the design of tall buildings for protection against terrorist attacks is mostly about aircraft impact and evacuation. It does not discuses fire. But WTC 1, 2 and 7 collapsed because of fire. So they only issue that is not addressed in the article is the one that brought World Trade Center down, and the one where design advances over the past decade have been most marginal. 

This is a thin favour to fire engineering and to the safety of tall buildings.


 *Dr Guillermo Rein*
Senior Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering
University of Edinburgh

"so easy it seemed, Once found, which yet unfounded most would have
thought, Impossible!" J Milton  

UPDATE Sept 2011: This letter was followed by two more from Dr Bisby and Hilditch

UPDATE Dec 2011: The letter of Dr Bisby has been published in the December 2011 issue of Scientific American.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Introduction to Optimization course delivered by Visting Scholar

Dr Jimenez starting the second day of the course
Dr Jesus Jimenez, Lecturer in Computational Mechanics at ICAI School of Engineering, Madrid, delivered in August a short course on optimization to the School of Engineering at the University of Edinburgh. The course content covered both classical and metaheuristics methods, providing an overview of most important methods and going in detail to explain simplex and genetic algorithms.

It was attended by 19 people from all engineering disciplines, mostly PhD students but also postdocs and three academics.

Dr Jimenez was a Visiting Scholar hosted by the BRE Center for Fire Safety Engineering. The course and his one-month visit were funded by the European Union.

Friday, September 09, 2011

One good book deserves another

Dr Frank Rushbrook CBE visited our labs today. That's the 'Rushbrook' Fire Laboratory, which he helped establish. While he was with us, I asked him to sign a copy of his book "Fire Aboard" (3rd Edition), which he gladly did.

And then Prof Dougal Drysdale appeared and gave Dr Rushbrook a copy of the 3rd Edition of his book "An Introduction to Fire Dynamics" which he autographed for him.

[Thanks to Patricio Becerra for the photos]

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Was it worth it?

April had come to an end, classes were done and what was left to do was to mark exams. Final year students had handed their thesis and finally I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. This was a particularly hard term for me, my last one as Head of Institute, with both the Structural and Fire Engineering and International Masters courses running at full steam, our biggest group of Structural Fire Safety Engineering undergraduates and a very intense week of thinking about education with the LRET Seminar. My summer was saturated and very poorly planned, in less than 3 months I had to fly more than 80,000 miles (I will spare you the details) with critical commitments throughout the summer. Thus, the end of the term was the last time I had to take a deep breath before I had to sink under the water again and hold my breath until September.

It is then, the end of April, when two of my final year undergraduate students (Alex Duffy and Phil Close) approached me with what they called “a crazy but very exciting idea.” I have to say that I agreed to see them hoping that all they wanted was to have a nice chat. I had enjoyed more than one of those chats with both of them, these were all interesting and very enjoyable nevertheless way too lengthy (mostly my fault...I get carried away when students are willing to listen to me).

They showed up with drawings for “The Temple.” Alex and Phil had just got involved in supporting the fire aspects of the design of “The Temple” for “Burning Man.” They were seeking for technical support from me.

For those of you who know me and “Burning Man” you will immediately conclude that there is nothing more distant from my “life philosophy” than “Burning Man.” For those of you who know me but do not know of “Burning Man” I will suggest you Google it so that you can come to the conclusion that “Jose Torero” and “Burning Man” do not belong in the same sentence. For those of you who do not know me, just believe me, I do not engage with nature, I support repressing your feelings, I actively engage in suppressing any form of counter-culture and I am convinced that the generation of 1968 and the Hippies are the source of selfishness and greed that is the basis of the inevitable demise of the Western cultural model.

As Alex put it “this will be the biggest and most impressive Temple ever built,” it represents the “transient nature of life” and thus the way it burns has to “reflect the evolutionary nature of life.” The final statement: “It'll be intense, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience!” On top of the magnitude and complexity of the task, the architectural design was already completed, the structural design was well advanced and the burn date was set to Sunday, September 4th. As you can imagine, given my commitments, my state of mind, the imminent deadline and the nature of the project this was the last thing I wanted to do.

Furthermore, undergraduates are the source of the greatest ideas but not necessarily have the experience or skills to develop them, thus the prospect of yet another unmanageable commitment was quite obvious from the onset.

I have to say that the only reason why I agreed to be involved was because I do not know how to say NO, especially to students. They are the one and only reason why I am in a University and they bring to me the energy that many times is the one thing that keeps me going. I feel I owe them, so I cannot say no. I took a deep breath and said fine...“but you have to do all the work! I can answer your questions, give you ideas but I am in no position to drive anything...” they obviously agreed, so we were ON, but... deep in my mind all I wanted to do was to run as far away as possible from this project.

As it happens, when you panic you enlist someone to help you, so I asked Luke (structural support) to come to the next meeting. I could have enlisted other people but I was truly ashamed of asking, I did not feel that I had the right to waste anyone else’s time in such insanity. Just to further overwhelm me, Luke took less than 10 seconds to fully empathise with Alex and Phil and before I could utter a word he was suggesting that the burning rates should be controlled in a manner such that the growth and decay of an individual’s life was reproduced by the rate of burning and the ultimate rate of collapse of the different components of the structure representing each stage of life. I am trying to paraphrase him, but his thoughts were so fluid and were expressed in such a natural way that I would never be able to repeat what he said! At that point I finally understood what I had got myself into...

The building design was consistent with the magnitude of the “metaphysical vision” – needless to say, seeing the first drawings was not comforting experience. First of all, it is massive (about 10 storeys high) and it is quite intricate. As can be seen from the sketch there is a main structure surrounded by 5 smaller structures all linked by cloisters and bridges. Each smaller structure represents a stage of life finally uniting in the central structure that somehow represents the union that is life itself...If you want to know more about this check Alex & Phil’s website ( you can imagine all this entered through one ear and left through the other so fast that it has left no trace, thus don’t believe anything I am writing, check their website, I am sure they have it right. The one thing that remained was the magnificent magnitude of the engineering challenge.

Alex and Phil were serious, it only took a couple of names from me and they did all the rest. They got money to buy cameras, they convinced the Principal of the University of Edinburgh to pay for Phil’s plane ticket (Thank you Prof. O’Shea! – At the end Phil unfortunately could not come – he was truly missed) and got started with true engineering work.

We had a couple of meetings and exchanged several e-mails concluding that the only way of controlling fire growth was to open the cavities inside the walls in a strategic manner so that the fire propagation will be managed in a manner that could be insensitive to wind (another factor – the place where the event is held (Black Rock City – Nevada) is well known for sudden and violent sand storms that can happen without warning). We will play with the connections and controlled reduction of the cross section of some of the structural elements to control the rate of collapse – I know that anyone reading this that has worked with fire in timber structures is probably already including me within the pack of lunatics self-labelled “the burners” (this is burning man lingo for those attending “the burn”) – but, for your comfort, I was as sceptical of our capability to master uncertainty as you probably are – more so when Alex told me that the person in charge of fire safety was a self-trained man who called himself Dave-X!

Well, Phil and Alex took the idea and with the help of Michal (thanks Michal!) developed a series of tests where they demonstrated how you could control the spread rate by varying the size and location of the openings. Needless to say, this was just done with a single panel under our lab hood, very far from the reality of a 10 storey temple but truly instructive.

E-mails continue to come and go. We discussed the structural details, connections, ignition sources, etc. You can see from the pictures below that there was a lot of effort and detail nevertheless the nature of the building was truly a challenge.

It was at this point (mid June) that I decided that I should attend the burning of the temple. I thought that although it will be very difficult to arrange all the logistics and “Me” being a part of the “Burning Man” was by every possible measure wrong, I was so impressed and motivated by Alex and Phil’s commitment that I decided I will give it a try. I wanted to be there with them to see the outcome of their effort.

So, to make a long story short, I had to cancel a meeting in Australia, had to change my plane ticket to come back from Australia through the USA, rearrange my arrival in Lausanne (where I was heading afterwards) and numerous other things that I will not bore you with. At each stage I was wrestling with subconscious forces that insisted that I should not go. The truth is that it did not make any sense.

In my struggle and “self-inflicted” ignorance I confused the burning of “The Man” with the burning of “The Temple” thinking that both will happen on the Saturday (“The Man” burns on Saturday, “The Temple” on the Sunday). So when I got an e-mail from Alex that opened with the following line: “Firstly...the Temple burn is the Sunday night! I truly hope that doesn't conflict with the travel plans you've arranged!” I flipped. What an understatement! I not only had to rebook all tickets with the associated hassle and cost but once again rearrange my already messed up schedule.

My subconscious did not stop playing tricks on me. Next thing I forgot was to buy the ticket....panic e-mails came from Phil and Alex indicating that “Burning Man” was sold out for the first time in history. Replies from me followed saying that I will pay “almost” whatever it takes for a ticket. This resulted in Alex finally finding a ticket for me. I am £270 poorer but the photo below did bring happiness to me when it arrived. That ticket was my ticket and now I was going to “Burning Man” – for God sake what was I thinking!

So, I left Sydney on September 2nd and after almost 20 hours of flight, two connections, a day change and 7 hours time difference I arrived in Reno. Not good, Reno and its airport are a sad example of “Casino Culture” that I find deeply unappealing, especially when I do not know what time or day it is. Got my bag and got the keys for my car rental. Things got a bit better when I saw the upgrade Avis gave...the American version of the convertible roadster...a decapitated Chrysler! Nevertheless, given the blue skies and the thirty something degrees, the gesture brought back life to my body...thank you Avis!

I decided to split the trip in two, I was afraid of falling asleep while driving and I did not want to get lost in the desert at night. So, I drove for an hour and crashed in a nondescript hotel next to Route 80. It was 7:45 pm when I arrived, I fell asleep at about 8:15 pm and was bright awake by 11:45 pm... the wonders of jet lag. A combination of reviewing a paper draft, some work on Fire Safety Journal and answering the 300 e-mails that had arrived while I was travelling brought me to 7:30 am when I went to the supermarket to buy supplies and a coffee. Supplies? Seriously... what do you bring to the desert? So I got olives, tortilla chips, baby bells and about 100 litres of water. The rules I used were, does not need to be kept cold and I do not need cutlery to eat it. In any case, it will not be the first time I survived 36 hours without eating. So with my supplies and a giant “Americano” I jumped on the headless Chrysler on my way to the “Burning Man.”

The road is quite remarkable. Is about 2 hours of amazing scenery and towns with strange names “Nixon,” “Empire,” etc. The highlight was Pyramid Lake. I could not avoid taking a picture from the convertible. Not very good, but makes the point of the scenery and the emptiness. Finally, I arrived and went straight to “will call,” where Alex said my ticket will be. The ticket was not there! All I had was a picture of Alex with my ticket! Despite the fact that everyone seemed to know Alex, he could not be found among the 60,000 people at the camp. So, believe it or not I resorted to Dave X, they paged him and he replied, “yes, let the Professor from Ireland in!” Isn’t it ironic?

What comes after is an experience that unfortunately I am not talented enough to describe with words. So please forgive me if I do not manage to convey the true magnitude of the place. Hopefully the photographs will do a better job. I will just point to a few landmark events.

Courtesy of Alex, I happen to be staying at “Camp Armageddon.” A collection of interesting characters that included a Stanford high power graduate reconverted into an organic blueberry farmer in Chico (California), an ex Marine now running a non profit that helps people build houses out of bales of hay and Alex’s father. My years teaching at Universities have generated a natural dislike for student parents and true disdain for “reconversion,” the term “organic” and especially sentences that mix the words “renewable” with “non-profit.” Thus I was set for a true psychological challenge.

When I thought that things could not get worse, a camp across the street started blasting heavy metal music – it was indicated to me that they had been assigned the time slot from 13:00 – 14:00. Exactly at 2:00 pm the music stopped and was replaced by Alex singing Elvis tunes with a ukulele – despite my apprehensions for “The King” and the “ukulele” it was a welcome relief.

I was taken by the hosts to the dress-up room provided with a feather head piece that would have made my Inca ancestry envious and delivered to this post apocalyptic real life recreation of the world of Mad Max.

Alex brought us to “The Temple” which looked much more impressive than in any of the diagrams I had seen. It was not only massive but it was ornamented by deeply personal messages that people had written for them to burn in some form of a cathartic gesture. In the centre some sort of “Voodoo meets Buddha” rituals were being performed supported by the rhythm of African drums. I have to say, I am generally completely indifferent to these practises, nevertheless, my self-control was tested when 3 naked men tightly hugged as they screamed a consistent message. This act was a means to break free from the emasculation that society brings on the modern man. My attitude changed from total disdain to absolute bewilderment.

The work done on “The Temple” was remarkable. Alex had managed to bring most of the ideas he and Phil had discussed with me into practise. “The Temple” had just become the first real scale test of the impact of cavity compartmentation on the growth of a fire in a timber building. This is a subject of great controversy on which rests the fire safety of timber buildings.

The night changed the flavour of the camp, nudity was substituted by flamboyant feather boas and faux-fur outfits that could be the envy of any fashion victim. The sanctity of the nudity and the prayer was substituted by loud music, screaming and fireworks leading to the burning of “The Man.” The party had begun.

A man approached me, claimed being an anthropologist and asked me what I thought about life after death. As you might suspect, my answer was not what he expected. If I would have been given some warning I would have probably given him an answer that hid the simplicity of my mind, but I had no time to reflect on my story. My candid answer rewarded me with a coin, black on the one side symbolizing death and white on the other side with a Hebrew inscription symbolizing the eternity of life. The coin was intended to be a reminder of how far I still need to travel to achieve enlightenment. Point well taken!

A further reward came as a statement: “Embrace Burning Man because you are witnessing the creation of a new social order.” By the end of that night I had concluded that “Burning Man” was a reproduction of the existing social order in a context where everyone could simply be a more radical version of themselves. The power of anonymity!

Unfortunately I was deeply unprepared. The boot of the car was full of suits and ties (highly inappropriate) and the only shirt I had was an old Berkeley T-shirt. It was pointed to me by many of the “brothers” that those were symbols of society imposed cast systems that were not welcomed at “Burning Man.” Fortunately, I did not get the message until it was too late, because otherwise I might have felt compelled to adopt the more appropriate attire that consisted of nothing. That would have probably been offensive to the rest of the “burners.” My unpreparedness was so extraordinary that I did not realize that given the 1000 m altitude the temperature drastically drops at night, so while the days are terribly hot, the nights are cold. The dress-up room provided me with some colourful fabrics that enabled me to circulate at night without being cold. Sleeping was a different story, after more than 48 hours without sleeping I finally retired to the car at 2:00 am. By 5:00 am, and after turning the car on for heating 10 times, I was up and out facing what was still a roaring party.

Alex and I left at 7:30 am, after the morning yoga session, back to “The Temple.” It is important to highlight one of the most interesting yet artificial premises of this group. There are certain “good rules” that are continuously overemphasized. Respect is one of them, I did not ask to do yoga, and thus no pressure or offer was extended to me. My space was respected. Affection is another one, brothers and sisters will greet with extreme affection in a choreographed manner that made a simple hand shake feel like a crime. Garbage control was an omnipresent one, while smoking is respected, people collected the ashes and cigarette butts as if they were precious gems. It leaves you wondering where the ashes of the first “non-Burning Man” cigarette will end ... on the floor?

At “The Temple” the worshipers were politely being driven out of the safety perimeter so that the work could commence. We went through a final analysis to attempt circumventing some of the constraints imposed by different external variables. I met some of the crew including the resident pyrotechnics expert. This individual seemed to derive way too much enjoyment from his work. I have to say that I left a bit restless. The indiscriminate used of “mild explosives” and “accelerants” could overrule any natural burning features. I came back twice again that day and my concerns continue to increase. The amount of fuel that was being added (in the form of anything that will sustain a flame) was quite overwhelming. I guess a big fire had to be guaranteed and once again, technical knowledge and a “natural” fire were secondary. It reminded me so much of the Dalmarnock tests, where we were trusted only until the critical moment. When the primordial objective is to be attained, the gut feeling of the “shaman” is more trustworthy than the knowledge of the “wise man.”

Sunday night “The Temple” looked glorious, the dust lifted by a mild breeze gave it a truly extraordinary look. People gathered around the temple with a sombre attitude. This posed a striking contrast with the party atmosphere of the previous night. Having been almost entirely deprived of sleep for almost 100 hours, the quiet and sombre nature of that evening suit me well.

The fire was simultaneously started in all five satellite buildings. From the onset you could clearly identify a sequence of growth, with the spread rates decaying in an anti-clock wise manner. Very rapidly the central tower started to burn with the flames spreading upwards at a colossal speed. In a matter of seconds the entire central tower was engulfed in flames (my feeling was that the in-house pyromaniac had given it way too much juice). The fire was so intense that at 100 m (safety perimeter) the radiative heat was close to the threshold of pain. At some point I almost stood up and started walking backwards but given that I was in the front row, it would have probably not been a wise idea to encourage others to start moving away. With great difficulty I controlled myself and managed to wait until the fire started to decay. Massive firebrands were being lofted, but in the almost absence of wind, they were falling straight back to areas were the fire was smaller. The smaller temples burned in the correct sequence (although I thought it should have been clock wise) with the collapses happening in a sequential manner as originally planned.

Unfortunately I had to leave immediately after. Believe it or not I had not had enough! It took more than three hours to get out of the camp and another three hours to drive back to the same hotel where I stayed on Friday. The time of arrival was 4:30 am, the time of departure of the first of my three flights was 9:00 am. Wake up time was 6:00 am. It is Monday now and I am sitting in planes on my 20 hour trip back to Europe hoping that at some point I will compensate for the 130 hours of sleep deprivation.

How can I summarize all this... did “Burning Man” change my life? Most definitely not! Was “Burning man” a good technical experience? Most definitely yes! Both from the physical and sociological sides. I have seen what would probably be the biggest fire I will ever see, I have explored the role of cavities, I have seen the potential consequences of a timber building fire, I have revisited the roles of the technical expert and that of the artisan, confirming once again that one of the strongest determining factors in our field is that relationship – the “shaman” vs. “the fire safety expert,” “the fire fighter” vs. “the engineer.” The technical expert always looses! Until we understand that dynamic we will have a hard time making progress!

From a personal side, I have confirmed that I have deeply engrained prejudices. Rightfully so sometimes but completely unjustified other times. Every minute of my 36 hours in “Burning Man” showed me that it requires deep thinking to purposely confront social structures, boldness and posturing are only thin masks of shallow social subversion that weakly cover conformism. Thus my prejudices in that sector are just reinvigorated. In contrast I have to say that I truly enjoyed the company of Ben, Alex’s father, he emerged as a deeply intellectual individual that had mastered the art of engaging, observing, learning and teaching in a manner such that it all simply appears natural. He made me reflect on that stage of parenting that evolves from guiding a child to delivering an adult. Like him, many of the people I met were probably more than what I expected them to be. My prejudices were truly unfounded and I am very sorry for that.

One final, but most important lesson I learnt. When asked to be involved and I did not say no, I did not realize what I was doing. I was allowing myself to enjoy my work. I was engaging with work in a manner that was consistent with the reasons why I chose this profession, thus I was deriving pleasure out of work. The big lesson... this is what I am supposed to do!

It is the students with their energy, their free spirit and their imagination that allow us to engage in remarkable activities. It has made me reflect back on the highlights of my career, that it was not me but Maria who encouraged me to save a derelict museum, it was actually Adam who first suggested that I should convince the BBC to film a documentary while we burned a skyscraper, it was Sam and Johan who instigated exploding an oxygen enriched building at 5000 metres above sea level and it was Alex and Phil who told me I should be involved in “Burning Man,” I am most grateful to all of these former students, but in this occasion especially to both of you, Thank you!

Alex promised me in his last message (before I arrived): “I'm confident you'll love it out here :)” and I did. Would I ever come back to “Burning Man” maybe ... but for different reasons, with a different objective and definitely more aware of what I am doing.

Was it worth it? ... Totally worth it!

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Before the BP Blowout

Just 5 months before the Deepwater Horizon oil platform caught fire and sank in April 2010, there was a frighteningly similar (although largely undocumented) incident off the coast of Western Australia. The Montara oil rig seen here (photos) suffered what is known in the oil industry as a ‘blowout’, where oil and gas flowed uncontrolled from the reservoir below, creating the worst oil spill in Australian history.

The rig operators spent 10 weeks trying to plug the leak before the escaping hydrocarbons caught fire on 2nd November 2009. No one was killed; a report published following an investigation of the incident explains why:

“No-one was injured or killed as a result of this incident.  It has to be said that this is more good luck than good management and that, if the blowout had ignited immediately, the result could have been similar to the Deepwater Horizon incident which resulted in 11 fatalities and many injuries.”
Hayes, 2011.

Not exactly reassuring. The report went on to highlight a string of procedural failures that led to the eventual fire. One such failure concerned the Pressure Containing Corrosion Caps (PCCCs), which are used during the drilling process to plug the hole and prevent the oil flowing back up the drilling pipe. Even thought the design of the well included two such caps, only one was actually installed (despite the manufacturer's warnings that this would be insufficient).
Furthermore, during drilling the rig workers pump a slurry known as ‘mud’ into the well to lubricate the drill and balance the hydrostatic pressure of the rock formation (the pressure from the mud being pumped down must be greater than the pressure of the formation or there will be flow back up the pipe, causing a blowout). But perplexingly, the pressure difference was not monitored by the rig workers. The report states that:“In the case of Montara, it seems to have been assumed by everyone involved that the well was overbalanced but this was not the case.”

It would appear that various stages of mismanagement, cut-corners and poor practice eventually led to the blowout and subsequent fire on the Montara oil rig. A true example of ‘design-by-disaster’, this investigation will be used to upgrade rules and procedures and instigate necessary changes in legislation - a move that may well increase safety in the Australian oil industry.
But I fear this will not solve the problem. After all, oil companies in Australia and elsewhere are already subject to strict safety regulations and must conform to local procedures before, during and after drilling. So it would appear that lack of legislation and regulation is not the problem.
Perhaps it is the fault of the tools and systems used by the drilling contractor? This is also unlikely, as modern drilling systems contain multiple redundancies that, if used correctly, should prevent any blowout from occurring.

Just 5 months later the Deepwater Horizon suffered a similar blowout, and although the circumstances were very different, the root cause appeared to be the same: Human error. It seems that both the Montara disaster and the Deepwater Horizon could have been prevented if rules had been followed and/or people had understood what they were doing.

So if the regulations and technical systems are indeed up to standard, oil companies seeking to improve safety should seek to reduce human error. One option is to create and enforce new rules (and remove responsibility from employees) or educate employees to understand the risks and subsequent need for safety procedures.
The $250M Montara rig, after the fire

If oil companies choose to create and enforce new rules they must focus on training. Employees must be taught to conform to the new rules and learn that rule breakers will be punished with disciplinary action. There are two major issues with this approach:
1 - Employees do not need to understand why the rule is there, just that they must obey it. To break the rule is to risk being punished; the implied risk to personal safety is not necessarily understood.
2 - If employees encounter a real situation for which they have not been specifically trained, they will be unable to react. If the rules are followed this should never happen; if the rules are followed.

Alternatively a company could educate employees to understand the risks and the resulting safety procedures. This could be done first by establishing a purpose - a desirable outcome - in this case: to prevent a blowout. Initially, rig workers could be encouraged to identify ways in which a blowout could occur, familiarise themselves with the problem and offer preventative measures (including ones they construct themselves). Only after employees have established the problem and attempted to solve it using their own methods should the company train them in additional, standard procedures and tools that have been shown to achieve the same result. In this way, employees learn to use safe methods and understand the underlying reasoning.

The Montara and Deepwater Horizon blowouts demonstrate that, even with extensive safety regulations and procedures in place, the responsibility for ensuring safety still lies with the individuals involved. If safety is to be improved proactively, rather than design-by-disaster, and if the industry is to contain responsible individuals who respect safety procedures then there needs to be a system of education that promotes understanding, not just compliance.

I wonder how many more catastrophes it will take for industry to realise this.

Monday, September 05, 2011

FIRESEAT: The science of suppression

Join us in Edinburgh on 9th November this year for a one day symposium on 'The Science of Suppression'. Online registration now open. Click the image above or visit for more information.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Behind the scenes at the end-of-festival fireworks

On Thursday I had the chance to look at the impressive amount of work that goes on to create the firework display to mark the end of the Edinburgh International Festival. The display is set to live music (this year it's a feast of Glinka, Sibelius, Borodin, Nielsen and Tchaikovsky) using Edinburgh Castle as a backdrop.

This year, like many before, the fireworks are designed by Keith Webb from Pyrovision and he was kind enough to show us a bit of what goes on. The first thing that becomes apparent is the sheer scale of the display. There were fireworks everywhere!
More fireworks.
Even more Fireworks

 Some of the fireworks are mounted to create directional displays.

And this is only half - it is replicated on the other side of the castle!

We heard about how the display is planned to fit in with the music and how the use of computer firing means they can incorporate fancier sequences in the display. Surprisingly (at least for me), most of the firing is still done manually to make sure it is in time with the live music. This is what a firing board looks like:

Firing board.  It has a lot of buttons.

It's a high-tech operation deserving of its own control room. This is where they plan, rehearse and manage the operation/tangle of wires.
Control room with maps of the castle, the sequence of the display.

Two fire extinguishers ought to be enough.

Unfortunately, time was limited and I have a few more questions that I would like to have asked Keith.
  • How do you get the cross/heart shaped fireworks?
  • What is the biggest firework in the show?
  • How do you time the actual firework explosion to the music?
Keith, if you are out there, please leave a comment.

The fireworks display is this Sunday evening at 9pm.