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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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