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Friday, December 16, 2011

The Sociology of Fire Engineering?

I was recently asked to to explain to a group of Fire Safety Engineers, Policy Makers, Architects, Firefighters, and others why I think the University of Edinburgh's new project on "Integrating Technical and Social Aspects of Fire Safety Engineering Expertise (IT-SAFE)" is so exciting and important. Here's what I decided to say... in case anyone is interested in a self-indulgent, self-critical mini rant...


Good afternoon, and thank you for attending this talk on our new research collaboration, IT-SAFE, which I find myself rather surprised to say I consider among the most important activities I have ever been involved in as a university academic and as an engineer.

For me, this new collaboration with sociologists of science is fundamentally about making technology matter. It is about making me, my colleagues, and my engineering discipline maximize our impact.

I’m a structural engineer, or rather more specifically a structural fire engineer. My specific expertise – such as it is – is in studying the thermal and physical response of materials and structures to fire. I’m interested in the weakening of materials and structures during fire… the 9/11 scenario where fires cause buildings or parts of buildings to collapse.

So why then, has sociology become so important to me?

As explanation, I hope you’ll forgive me for recounting a rather self-indulgent story of intellectual atonement.

Sir Duncan Michael, Trustee of the Ove Arup Foundation, to whom I am eternally grateful (both personally and professionally) for his support and more importantly for his prodding, will tell one story of how it is that I’ve come to work at Edinburgh, in partnership colleagues at Arup. My version of the story is somewhat simpler than his. I’ve said many times that I came to Edinburgh simply to atone for my sins.

I’ll not bore you with too many details, but my PhD in Structural Engineering, performed at Queen’s University and the National Research Council of Canada, was concerned with collapse of innovative types of columns – vertical load supporting elements in buildings – during fire.

To study this issue we did what any self respecting structural engineer would do; we performed a number of very costly and time-consuming standard tests in large scale fire testing furnace. Essentially, you take a column, you place a load on it, and you heat it in a furnace until it collapses… and in doing so you “prove” that the column is safe in a building in a fire… don’t you?

We spent about half a million dollars and several years performing these tests… we spent further years building sophisticated computer models to accurately simulate the tests and predict their outcomes… and further years interpreting the results and developing simplified design guidance. We obtained underwriters’ certified fire resistance ratings for our industrial sponsors, enabling them to sell their products to architects and developers… they were very pleased… and of course being good academics we wrote lots of papers.

And I knew that none of it truly mattered.

The testing furnace wasn’t a real fire.

The test columns weren’t real columns.

They weren’t in a real building; they didn’t interact with the rest of the building.

Essentially everything in these tests was unrealistic in some fundamental and important way.

Worse than this, the important aspects of the test results could easily have been predicted using simple hand calculations.

My tests were unnecessary. My models were misguided. I was very, very clever; but I was meaningless.

So why did we do it?

We did it because the regulatory process in North America (and in most other places) for approving use of new materials in structures requires this standard furnace testing and is willing to sacrifice rational thought and scientific understanding for compliance with the “standard”. The regulatory tail was wagging the scientific dog. I saw this, and I began to feel that I didn’t deserve my PhD.

But not so in Europe… or so I thought. This was a North American problem. Europeans, particularly Scots, are much more enlightened. So when Jose Torero at the University of Edinburgh and Barbara Lane at Arup Fire, the most advanced and innovative fire engineers in the world, came knocking, how could I resist the chance to set things right.

So I came to Scotland, began to atone for my sins, and for the past three and a bit years I’ve continued my efforts to truly understand the way that materials and structures respond to real fires in real buildings; and this is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

But all is not well. The problems I saw in North America exist also in Europe, and globally. I remain a very frustrated man. Read my letter to the Editors of Scientific American (below in the Blog) for an indication of my frustration.

In any case, I now find myself asking a number of questions that neither I nor my engineering colleagues are equipped to answer:

How is it that structural engineers and architects have managed for more than a decade to largely ignore the key engineering significance of the events of Sept 11, 2001 – that fire can cause the total collapse of a modern office building?

Why are so few buildings engineered with fire safety explicitly considered in the initial stages of design, particularly given that we (i.e. Arup and others) have the knowledge and skills to begin to do this?

What are society’s true perceptions and understanding of the personal, financial, environmental, and social risks associated with fire, how is tolerance of these risks shaped by our testing, design, and regulatory processes, and how does this perception and tolerance of risk influence design, regulation, and policy?

How do current fire safety testing, design, and compliance processes encourage or hinder innovation? To what extent is the tail wagging the dog, and how can we change this?

In short, how can we make our technology matter?

These questions (and many others) can’t be answered by engineers alone, as much as I prefer to think we have all the answers and that rationality will always triumph. It’s my hope that engaging with sociologists of science, Robin and his colleagues, will help us to understand and influence our own playing field, leading to better, more rational and holistic design, and eventually to a safer and more sustainable built environment; and I hope that all of you will engage with us in this process.

My deepest thanks to the Ove Arup Foundation and the Royal Academy of Engineering for supporting this unique initiative. Thank you for listening.

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