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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Awards to Edinburgh students at the 10th IAFSS

The last Symposium of the International Association for Fire Safety Science (IAFSS), held at the University of Maryland, was attended by 18 members of the group who presented a total of 6 papers, 4 workshop talks, 9 posters, and 5 photos. 

Members of the University of Edinburgh at the 10th IAFSS Symposium 2011.

Congratulations to our two students who recieved awards for their research:

Angus Law recieved the Best PhD Thesis Award in Europe/Africa for his thesis titled The Assessment and Response of Concrete Structures Subject to Fire (2010).

Cristian Maluk recieved the Best Student Poster Award for his work Bond Strength Degradation for CFRP Bars and Steel Prestressing Wires in Concrete at Elevated Temperature Fire Behaviour of Novel Concrete Structural Elements.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Researchers offer hope of answer to Bing fires

Researchers at the Universities of Edinburgh and Strathclyde have studied a burning Bing. A 30 m high waste heap at Bogside, North Lanarkshire, Scotland, started to smoulder (flameless combustion) in 2009, approximately 80 years after the closure of the pit. They are studying how the fires develop and spread, and hope their new understanding will enable development of a low-cost effective way to manage or extinguish the fires.

This will help protect local communities by limiting the risk of landslip, and also safeguard local ecosystems and the environment. There are hundredds of these bings in Scotland alone. The threat of burning and risk of land movement pose a risk to those who live nearby. Anything we can do to limit the potential harm to local people and the environment is a step in the right direction.

The work was presented at the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting: Investigation of self-sustained combustion of a coal waste heap in Scotland. It was also featured in the The Scotsman, Edinburgh website, Strathclyde website, and Vision Systems (on our use of thermal imaging).

Coal mining was widespread in the central belt of Scotland from 1830 until the 1970’s and created a legacy of waste heaps or ‘bings’ that still dot the landscape. High content of coal fines and carbonaceous shales, make bings very prone to self-heating and smoldering combustion. Chemical, geotechnical and physical parameters of the Bogside Bing have been studied.

A combustion front is seen moving from west to east along the axis of the bing at an approximate rate of 1m/month. Three well-defined zones were identified and mapped using thermal imagery and temperature probes: the undisturbed zone, the preheating plus drying zone and the combustion zone. The subsurface fire results in a detrimental effect to the vegetation and structural integrity of the heap. Spread of the combustion is accompanied by the development of vents ahead of the front, fissures that run parallel to the direction of heating and smaller landslips along the flanks. Changes to the heap's soil mechanics induced by the smouldering front create a network of fissures, some running deep, that supply the front with enough air to sustain the process.

Analysis of gas from the vents, show elevated CO2, CO, CH4 and SO2, and partially depleted in oxygen. All these are indicative of smouldering activity within the bing. The primary environmental concerns are likely to be from SO2 release and metals leaching from waste material (i.e. Pb, Se, Cr). The stability of the structure may be compromised as smouldering progresses. Bogside Bing continues to release products of combustion and represents an accidental source of fossil fuel burning.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

IT-SAFE Project Launch

Integrating Technical and Social Aspects of Fire Safety Engineering and Expertise (IT-SAFE)

Monday 7 November 2011, 5.30 – 7.00 pm
Playfair Library, Old College, South Bridge, University of Edinburgh
Drinks and canap├ęs

An interdisciplinary programme of social-science research designed to improve fire safety and the quality of our built environment by better interaction and integration of social and engineering research. Supported by The University of Edinburgh, The Ove Arup Foundation, and The Royal Academy of Engineering.


Professor Sir Timothy O'Shea, Principal, University of Edinburgh

Mr Steven Torrie: Head of Fire and Rescue Advisory Unit, Scotland
Professor Robin Williams: Director, Institute for the Study of Science, Technology
and Innovation, University of Edinburgh
Sir Duncan Michael: Trustee, The Ove Arup Foundation

RSVP by 31 October 2011
Eileen Mothersole, University of Edinburgh
Telephone : +44 (0)131 650 6398
E-mail :


An afternoon seminar will proceed this launch event:
In Case of Fire, Please Use the Elevator: Simulation Technology and Organization in Fire Engineering will be presented by Professor David Gann (Imperial College Business School) between 3.30 – 5pm in the Raeburn Room, Old College, University of Edinburgh. This event is free and open to all to attend. For further details please visit:


A London launch event for IT-SAFE is also being held on Tuesday 8 November 2011, 5.30pm for 6.15pm start, at Arup, 13 Fitzroy Street, London. For further information please contact Stephanie Wilde:

Friday, October 14, 2011

L&B FireFighter Internship 2011

Angus Elliot - 4th Year MEng Student

This year myself and Alastair Temple were lucky enough to be picked to take part in the Lothian & Borders Fire and Rescue Service internship, and what an experience it’s been! The internship lasted a total of 5 weeks and took us round every aspect of the Fire Service and enabled us to get a fantastic insight into what they do, how they do it and how engineers can make their job easier and safer.

For our first week, we were to be based at the Scottish International Fire Training Centre at McDonald Rd, learning the basic skills we would need in order to make the most of our time with the Service.  Against all logic and common sense, the principle structure at the centre is The Ship. The huge ships hull, sat in the yard is completely dark inside and is filled with smoke and fire to enable firefighters to get as realistic an environment as possible to hone their skills. What would they do with us on the first day I wondered? Surely nothing too demanding, probably just a nice easy introduction and some simple tasks I thought. Wrong! Within a couple of hours of arriving we were fully kitted up in fire fighting gear and being given a crash course in setting up, servicing and operating the fire service breathing apparatus, or BA for short. What followed, we were told, was usually taught to recruits over the space of a week and involved an afternoon learning search and rescue techniques in the hot, smoky and completely dark ship in full kit! A real highlight was the ‘confined space’ test involving crawling through a purpose built narrow, multi-storey cage in the dark and finally lying down and pulling yourself through an even narrower 10ft long tunnel only just big enough to fit your shoulders and cylinder in. Not for the claustrophobic!! Most of the rest of the week was spent watching, helping to set up and also taking part in the various training exercises at the centre for the watch crews. A real eye opener into the skill and professionalism that fire fighters perform their duties with, and the level of pressure they can be under. On the Wednesday we were also able to spend the day with one of the instructors who was running a Fire Marshals course at the offices of a large company. This involved educating staff members on fire safety, evacuation and basic fire fighting skills (and also providing an excuse to try all the different kinds of fire extinguishers without being told off).  In the space of 3 days, were fully qualified BA wearers and Fire Marshals!

Week 2 was based at Fire Service Headquarters on Lauriston Road with the Business and Commerce department. The week was spent following their fire officers as they carried out fire safety audits on various commercial properties in the city ranging from care homes, bingo halls and industrial units. Although it may not have been as action packed as the previous week, it was interesting (and also frightening) to see for ourselves the range of fire precautions businesses use, from fully integrated systems and engineering, to hand held air horns and propane cylinders stored next to bronze kilns! You could get a real sense of the distance we still have to go to really get home the message of fire safety engineering, and avoid the completely preventable accidents which still commonly occur. On the Tuesday, a trip had been organised for us to visit the fire station at Edinburgh Airport. Here we were shown round the phenomenal equipment they had there and were also shown round all areas of the airport to learn about the complex fire systems they have in place there. We even got a cheeky wee tour up the Air Traffic Control tower! The next day we were also shown round Scottish Parliament, where even though it is a new building, there are still some seemingly fundamental fire design flaws when looked at closely.

Alastair and I split up for weeks 3 and 4 between Fire Investigation and Fire Crew Operations. I did fire investigation first, followed by a week following the watch crews at Tollcross fire station, and Alastair vice versa. The Fire Investigation branch is based in Livingston, shadowing the investigators whenever they were called to investigate the causes of a fire. Unfortunately for me, Edinburgh was being very sensible and there weren’t many call outs that week! I did however have the opportunity to accompany them to re-investigate the cause of a fatal fire at a chip frying factory in Duns. Picking through the wreckage of a completely destroyed building certainly opens up your eyes to the power of fire and what it can do to a structure.
The highlight of the week however, was the Fire Behaviour training day at Fillyside. The Fire service use Fillyside as their base in which to train crews in Fire Behaviour. It includes a full scale flashover unit, attack unit as well as a mock-house. The day included kitting up in full kit and BA and sitting in a shipping container in full flashover conditions. Inside the unit, temperatures range from 750C at 2m, to 400C at 1m and are enough to melt fire proof clothing! Inside we took part in the crew training exercise, taking it in turns to control the conditions with water. Although we were safety briefed and there was a safety team monitoring the exercise, it gave us a huge appreciation of the dangers caused by a fully developed fire and the effect it can have on humans as well as the structure. In terms of fire safety engineering, this day is absolutely invaluable and will be extremely useful in years to come during our studies, as well as being a lot of fun!

Next up was the week I’d been waiting for, a week ‘on the run’ at Tollcross fire station.  As Tollcross serves virtually the entire city centre, it’s the busiest of the Edinburgh fire stations. A majority of the calls were AFA’s, or automatic fire alarms, however on the Tuesday I was lucky enough to be in the appliance which was first on scene to a flat fire on the Royal Mile. It was an incredible experience to see the skill and professionalism of the fire fighters, and to see them implementing the training they’d been given at ‘the ship’. Even though it hadn’t quite flashed over, the flat was almost completely destroyed, taking with it all of the 93yr old residents possessions. A sobering reminder what we’re all up against in this discipline.

Alastair Temple - 4th Year MEng student

I was not quite so lucky (or maybe luckier depending on what point of view you take!) in that I didn’t manage to be on the scene of any fire in either week. Despite this I managed to see a lot of what the Fire Fighters do in the more “everyday” sense, from tests on all the equipment which is held on the appliances to once again getting acquainted with my notes and lashes. Or in the week at Livingston even getting a demonstration of the force of which car airbags deploy with and how to avoid accidently setting them off when performing a recovery at a road traffic accident. And I did get a glimpse of the professionalism of the fire fighters with the speed and no-nonsense reactions each time we got a call out to an AFA even though the likelihood was it would be a false alarm, they never take this for granted.
Week 5 involved us being back at the MacDonald Road training centre for half the week where we got a refresher with our BA skills and then helped prepare the centre for the weeks recruitment drive by being guinea pigs for the tests that they put wanna-be fire fighters through in their initial screening process. These range from a confined space test (like the one we did on the first day but with just the mask and without the tunnel) to check for claustrophobia, to a fine motor skills test where some equipment must be assembled and de-assembled within 5 minutes, to physical tests of of upper body and arm strength as well as general fitness. Suffice to say here I established that I am definitely not of the right build to become a fire fighter, some serious gym work would be required before I could haul the weight up two stories on the single pully! 

Our final day with the Service was the week after where we spent a day at The Fire Services Training College in Gullane, this is where all new fire fighters in Scotland go for their first 13 weeks of training after joining the Service. We got to see quite a few new things here including our first backdraft done in the back-yard of the centre which was really interesting to see. It also gave us another chance to get use your newly found BA skills (something we were definitely enjoying by this point!) in some more unusual situations as they have a roll-over simulated gas fire to simulate flashover. This was also great as it was the first (and only) time either of us had taken a camera down, and getting some photos of us doing some things, was… well… definitely worth it.

All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable and informative 5 weeks and I would highly recommend applying for it to any Fire Safety Engineering students.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Another dangerous media interpretation: Castles in the Air

Letter to the editors, September 2011

Dear Editors of the Scientific American

I am writing in response to the article “Castles in the Air” by Mark Lamster, featured in the September 2011 issue. I have struggled to find the word to describe how I feel, but I think the best would be to suggest that I am overwhelmingly disappointed.

Firstly, I am disappointed with the content and indeed with the approach Mr Lamster has taken in proposing to discuss the issues of tall building design that have apparently been addressed over the last decade as a result, or at least in part to the events on 11 September 2001. Secondly I am disheartened that this article, in my opinion, propagates almost completely the anecdotal approach the media seems to take time and time again with respect to issues of debate in engineering fields. Obviously, I don’t expect to open Scientific American and find myself faced with a selection of technical papers, however I would expect that an article designed to give readers of related or scientific fields some insight into another area, would at least be built upon the founds of the root problem to which solutions are being proudly presented.

Surely before explaining the “new” measures that have been adopted in tall building design in response to the collapse of three such buildings, one might consider, as a premise for the article, alluding to why the buildings did collapse in the first place? I find it odd that one might present answers to a problem when the problem has not actually been defined. Indeed, how is it possible to present “answers” in this circumstance?

As a professional in Fire Engineering and research, my immediate reaction was one of outrage, followed by disappointment, followed by despair. Three buildings collapsed that day due to uncontrolled fires and as a function of how the steel structures subsequently performed under such conditions. I feel that the omission of at least an acknowledgment of this fact seriously undermines any arguments or conclusions drawn in the article.

Unfortunately I feel that the inadequate definition of an accurate premise further hinders the article throughout and in fact, after reading for a while, I feel that for me, all meaning becomes lost. Certainly, I lose faith halfway through that I will find some definitive, purposeful and inspiring reports of meaningful developments within tall building design for life safety.

Mr Lamster opens with the Les Robertson remark: "I espoused… that the responsibility was to keep planes away from the buildings and not to design the buildings for that circumstance". On one hand, I fully understand this philosophy and agree that it would be impossible to design every building for an “imagined future worst case scenario”, but one has to ask at this point, if fire is not noted as a issue, and we are ignoring the attacks by hijacked planes, then what are the problems with the buildings that we will seek to address during the rest of the article?

As Fire Engineers, we do hope that fire will be kept out of buildings, but to assume that it will be so would be to miss the point entirely. Dynamic, performance-based solutions and cost effective fire engineered designs are sought to minimise the effects should an unlikely event such as a fire occur. Is it not realistic to hope rather, or at least suggest, that we will be able to design buildings where life safety will not be so severely impacted because of intuitive design and advancement of materials science in the future, as opposed to what seems to be assumed here, that buildings would need to be made “sturdier” in the traditional sense with more materials and more expense? Perhaps this is a question for engineers and persons whose sound bites appear in this article rather than the author.

"One safety-enhancing design feature that is only beginning to be
implemented is the use of sky-bridges between buildings"

Certainly, access between buildings at high levels provides more safety through increased egress options, but I struggle to agree on the appropriateness of highlighting this as one of the "new", main safety design features in response to WTC 1 & 2. A poor choice given the context.

I could go on, but I think at this point it would not be constructive to do so. In fairness, Lamster does not have much to work with. Perhaps the lack of formal examples presented here of lessons we have learned from 9/11 with respect to all aspects of tall building design, is so because, frankly they are few and far between. Certainly, with regards to fire safety, no direct changes can be cited since the problem of fire safety was never defined in the first instance. I would certainly hope that the inclusion of “radio repeaters in stair towers” [to improve fire fighter communication] does not define the evolution of fire and life safety measure development over the past decade.

The problem on that day was the subject of the accumulation of numerous independent events, however the final trigger for the catastrophic outcome was one of inadequate performance of the building structures under fire conditions. Subsequently egress was compromised due to the nature of the attacks and how these impacted on the specific design of WTC 1 and 2.

I felt disappointed mostly because I was excited to read a summary of meaningful progression in design ideas and technical thinking about a difficult and sometimes misunderstood issue, but instead was presented with an anecdotal article whose main purpose seemed to be to continue the overarching theme of the September 2011 issue that [from cover] “We have seen a brighter future, and it is urban”, and very little else.

A purposeful consideration of steps needed in order to incite meaningful changes to the way we design for fire and life safety can be read here:

Article entitled “Challenging Attitudes on Codes and Safety”.

The author, Prof. Jose Torero, is Co-chair of the CTBUH Fire and Life Safety Working Group. Mr Lamster does include comments from several CTBUH members in the article, so perhaps this may be of interest?

Thank you for your time

Kind Regards

Ryan Hilditch

PhD Researcher
BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering
The University of Edinburgh