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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

6th International Symposium on Tunnel Safety and Security (ISTSS)

I attended the 6th International Symposium on Tunnel Safety and Security last week (Wed 12th to Friday 14th March 2014). The venue was the 'World Trade Centre' in Marseille, France. Despite the number in the title, this was actually the 7th in a series of tunnel safety conferences organised by SP, the Swedish National Testing and Research Institute, and the 5th of them that I'd attended. The conferences are held approximately every second year and the next will be in Canada in March 2016.

I attended the original "Catastrophic Fires" symposium  (2003, Borås) as well as the 3rd (2008, Stockholm), 4th (2010; Frankfurt) and 5th (2012; New York) ISTSS gatherings. This conference, like the last few, was attended by well over 200 delegates from all around the globe, although the majority this time came from European countries. In general I found the presentations, discussions and debates at this conference better and more engaging than at either of the last two.

At previous conferences, the topic of water spray systems for fire protection and suppression was considered to be a 'niche' area, sometimes relegated to the smaller parallel session. That was not the case this time, with the 'Fixed Fire Fighting Systems' (FFFS) session being in the main room on the first morning of the conference. The opening keynote address by Magnus Arvidson from SP proposed a new set of 'performance objectives' for a standard test of the capabilities of water spray systems for tunnels. Much of what he said paralleled my keynote presentation on "Mitigation of Tunnel Fires" from the NYC conference 2 years ago, but some of the objectives he discussed appeared (to me at least) to imply a bias in the standard against water mist systems. Other presentations on FFFS were a mixed bag containing details of some new tests I wasn't previously aware of, through to some doubtful claims about the capabilities of computational fluid dynamics models like FDS being able to accurately predict the suppression effects of sprinklers on vehicle fires.

The "Fire Dynamics" session had some interesting stuff in it too, perhaps the most worrying of which was the presentation by Norm Alvares where he showed how easy it is to ignite vehicle tyres, and how hard they are to extinguish with water sprays.

But for me, the highlight of day 1 was the demonstration smoke test in the nearby Prado-Carénage Tunnel. The test was a demonstration of the capabilities of their ventilation system, which was quite impressive. Despite a naturally windy location, the system is able to control ventilation in the tunnel, so that if there is a fire in the tunnel, the airflow can be reduced to zero at the fire location, while smoke is extracted on either side of that location.

On day 2 of the conference I spent most of the day in the 'Ventilation' session as I was chairing the session in the morning and speaking in the afternoon. I have a particularly biased view of this session as my paper "Rediscovering the Throttling Effect" was awarded 'best paper' at the conference dinner. A video of my presentation is given below.

The other papers in the session were generally interesting and contained a good mix of experimental and modelling studies. It is clear, however, that we are still as obsessed with 'backlayering' as we were over a decade ago. I caught the final few talks in the 'Risk Analysis' session, and these were also interesting, some of them daring to ask questions about ethical issues and the value of human lives.

Photo thanks to Mia Kumm, Mälardalen University
The conference dinner was a good end to day 2 and featured singing by members of the SP team as well as awards for the best poster, the best paper and the ISTSS 'Achievement Award' which was given to Dr Yajue Wu from Sheffield University. An after dinner speech was given by Arnold Dix where he commended, amongst other things, the papers that took seriously the ethical issues of fire and life safety in tunnels. He also urged the delegates to share knowledge, in particular with developing countries - a message which was well received, but only time will tell if its actually applied.

The final day seemed slightly muted compared to the previous two, although there were still some interesting debates following Peter Johnson's claim that suppression systems do not hinder egress in tunnels. In the other session, there were some good presentations on passive fire protection and structural issues, with the 'mobile furnace' presented by CETU and CSTB being an interesting innovation. Following lunch, the day closed with a few presentations of case studies, including the worlds longest undersea tunnel project in Norway.

And then it was over. All in all it was a good conference, in a good location with some interesting presentations. I'm not a great fan of 'networking lunches' and the poster session was not given the prominence it deserved, but aside from those two minor niggles, this was an enjoyable and well organised conference. I look forward to the next one in Canada...
Ricky Carvel

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Blog post 2.0 – An Edinburgh Postdoc’s IAFSS Experience

The IAFSS 11th international symposium was held this February in Christchurch, New Zealand.  The fact that the conference was held in Christchurch, not too long after the devastating earthquakes three years ago, which crippled the city and from which it is still only just starting to recover, is a testament to the Association and the organisers to stick with, and support, Christchurch and the University of Canterbury.  It was clear from Prof Charley Fleischmann’s opening address that the past few years have been tough for everyone in Christchurch and it was a privilege for me to be part of this conference, in this place.

As at most academic conferences, there were a variety of presenting styles for the technical and keynote talks, some of which were good and some that were on a spectrum between slightly confusing, to somewhat hard to follow, to downright incomprehensible.  In general the keynote addresses lucidly conveyed their messages, with clear and concise descriptions of what had been done, why it had been done, and why the varied audience attending the conference should be interested in the research outcomes; and in general, the better presentations contextualised and provided a history up to the point of the novel research being presented (as should be expected for a keynote address).  Particularly good exponents of this were structural engineer John Hare, who spoke on the immediate structural engineering problems that arose in the aftermath of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, and Prof Bart Merci, who eloquently highlighted the need for more information on the appropriate allocation of computing resources used in research and consultancy to ensure appropriate use and development of computer models and programs in fire safety science and engineering applications.

Other highlights of the conference from my point of view were the presentations given by Dr Mike Spearpoint and Prof Jose Torero. Mike’s presentation on the probabilities of finding doors open (10% apparently), and Jose’s talk on the history and future of the compartment fire, respectively, were excellent.  Both presenters were confident and casual, and clearly explained the context, limitations, equations and methods used in their work. The slides were clear, uncluttered, and comprehensible in the short time that the audience had to look at them (unlike in some of the other technical and keynote presentations). And for the most part the peer-reviewed papers, posters (including a cartoon poster!), and images that were presented were of very good quality; providing topics leading to interesting debates. However not all the presentations were up to these standards and, as in previous IAFSS meetings, lack of clarity or an inability to place oneself in the place of the audience member was a serious problem for some presenters. 

As for the organisation of the conference – I was duly impressed with the programming of the various conference components, with complimentary areas of interest being separated into parallel sessions so that one would not have to choose between Paper X or Paper Y, but could happily see both; also the venues and the evening entertainment programme were very well chosen (particularly considering the post-earthquake destruction), allowing discussions and networking to easily take place between all the participants – of which there were about 250 in total with 15 having strong ties to the BRE centre at Edinburgh (see photo below). However there were no participants from Africa or from South America, which is clearly not due to any failing in the organisation of the conference but a reality which raises questions for the Association in general:  Is this a concern? Are there fire science research centres in these continents with sufficient funds to come to international conferences? If yes, why is IAFSS not sufficiently appealing to them? If no, how can IAFSS support and involve researchers, students, and practitioners from these continents in the progress of fire safety science?

The Membership Business Meeting reported that the Association is in very good financial health, membership is on the rise, and the new committee was announced. In light of the financial state of the association, it seemed a shame that two of the three recipients of the Best Thesis Awards did not attend the symposium to receive their award and accolades in person, even though there is apparently money set aside for students to attend. 

The membership meeting also highlighted, for me at least, a certain (and worrying) lack of transparency within the organization.  I found it odd, as a relatively new member, that I could vote for members to be appointed to the executive committee but not for the chairman (more appropriately chairperson), who will lead the executive committee and the Association for the next three years.  I found it odd that that there were no clear indications as to why there are 24 members to the committee or why these need to equally represent the three regions that the Association has (rather arbitrarily it seems) separated the world into.  It is also odd that, having looked at the bylaws of the association, the association could be run by the six officers (Chairman, 3 vice-chairmen, an honorary secretary, and an honorary treasurer) and two members of the committee, without the need for 16 additional committee members. 

However, for all my nit-picking at certain problems and concerns (which are intended to help the IAFSS to improve in the years to come), I thoroughly enjoyed the well organised conference; I learnt a good deal from, and enjoyed many of, the presentations; and I had the opportunity to build research contacts with several people.  I look forward to Lund in 2017!

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