The Changing Nature of Fire Safety Engineering and Building Regulation - Briab

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The Changing Nature of Fire Safety Engineering and Building Regulation - interview with Brian Meacham

The fire safety engineering profession is subject to trends that may force us to rethink our current practices. Regulations have a large influence on the profession, and we do see new winds in Sweden and many other European countries. The European Commission is also exploring the idea of creating a harmonized fire safety engineering approach akin to the Eurocodes for structural engineering. At the same time, the wind of digitalization and new technology sweeps over the construction sector, challenging tradition and current roles.

Briab invited renowned fire safety and regulatory expert, Brian Meacham, to speak with our engineers about the future of fire safety engineering. Brian is the president of SFPE – the community of fire safety engineers that leads the development of the profession’s practices globally. Briab’s engineers engaged in long and interesting discussions that highlighted how the Swedish regulations have impacted our profession. For example, one of the recent graduate engineers expressed disappointment for the lack of engineering problems in most construction projects. The senior engineers welcomed the discussions and pushed for further talks on the subject.

Brian Meacham stresses that the engineers need to challenge where they are today, how our profession will change during the coming years.

Michael Strömgren, public affairs manager at Briab and Brian Meacham had a sit down for a chat about the changing regulatory landscape and how the profession is challenged.

M: Digitalization and technological advancements have a global reach, and we see increased movements of products and services on the market. Despite some backlashes in terms of trade barriers it seems like globalization advances and new players enter national markets and sectors. What do you think about this and its impact for national practices of fire safety engineering?

B: The future is tied to technological advancement. I have no doubt about that. Look at the impact that computers have had on fire safety engineering in the last 30 years, with the ability to conduct complex fire effects analysis, structural response analysis, and egress analysis, quite easily and quickly. In principle, technology has no geopolitical boundaries. This means that a broader array of technology should be available in all markets in the coming years, as we have seen with computational modeling for fire. However, the ability to take full advantage of the technology may be hindered, in some cases, by the lack of widely-agreed standards.

BIM, artificial intelligence, machine-learning, virtual and augmented reality are developing quickly. There is a potential concern that advancements outpace applications, development occurs and different rates, and we suffer compatibility and efficiency issues.  Consider BIM.  As of yet, a complete range of accurate, interoperable information models, which work for different disciplines, and across software packages, is not readily available. This makes it difficult to integrated FSE into a design. It may also be a concern when project partners are using different software.

Also, technology may face local barriers, in particular related to regulations that may be imposed, such as product, material and test standards, and those which need to be complied with, such as building regulation. This could be a potential concern with BIM software that integrates fire analysis software, and where ‘rule-based’ approaches to checking regulatory compliance of BIM-based designs in used. Nonetheless, the challenges are being worked on, new product is coming every year, and the firms that are prepared will be best positioned to work efficiently across geopolitical borders.

Will we our profession advance or regress in the coming years? The challenging questions from Brian Meacham opened for interesting discussions.

M: Taking into account the risks attached with the ongoing trends it becomes relevant to talk about what the profession should do. What’s the role of SFPE here and what should the individual engineer do to affect their own future?

B: In general, all engineers need to subscribe to the concept of life-long learning. Once you stand still and assume you ‘know enough’, the market will pass you by. With respect to technological trends, such as related to BIM and the integration of fire- and life-safety software, fire safety engineers can engage more closely with architects and other design professionals who are leading the way with BIM and be part of the transformation.

More generally as a profession, we need to constantly be defining what it means to be a ‘competent and qualified’ fire safety engineering. The public places confidence in us to develop appropriate fire safety designs, and we have to be able to deliver. The SFPE recently published a set of ‘minimum technical core competencies’ with the aim to help facilitate international consistency in understanding what is needed to reach minimum competency and qualification. This document is expected to be updated regularly as technology changes, knowledge advances, and the practice matures.

SFPE also publishes ‘model curricula’ for BS and MSc programs in fire safety engineering. While this may not be needed in Sweden, many countries do not have FSE programs, so these model curricula help establish international guidance. SFPE also provides continuing professional development courses, aimed at helping fire safety engineers stay current. These are representative of what SFPE is doing to help the profession advance and manage the risks of evolving technology. As individual engineers, we can take courses and seminars, continue to learn and expand our knowledge, and apply best-practice principles and approaches.

The worst thing we can do is keep our heads down and continue doing things the way they have always be done. At some point, this will not work any longer.

M: We’ve talked a lot about the technological trends and their possible impacts. For example, BIM, artificial intelligence, machine-learning, virtual and augmented reality are developing quickly. Let’s change perspective for a bit for a 10 000 foot view on fire safety in society and relate this to our current challenges and with hindsight with regards to the Grenfell Tower Fire. What is the potential impact for fire safety in society when technology has advanced the next decade or two?

B: In some respects, the Grenfell Tower fire is an example of technology outpacing practice, and having a market that is unaware of potentially ‘competing objectives’ imposed by different policy objectives and market expectations. Functional- or performance-based regulations were in part introduced to reduce regulatory burden and facilitate innovation and cost-effectiveness. Functional- or performance-based regulations and performance-based design approaches work well when you have knowledgeable, competent and ethical actors in all sectors, and when the methods of analysis are appropriate for determining and/or predicting performance.

One could look at England and observe that in the beginning, when the functional building regulations were introduced, the market was conservative in application of fire safety engineering principles. To help guide the market, BS7974, application of fire safety engineering principles to the design of buildings, was developed. Similar efforts resulted in the development of ISO standards, the International Fire Engineering Guidelines, and the SFPE Engineering Guide to Performance-Based Fire Protection. Concurrently, computational fire effects, structural response, and evacuation models became widely available.  Over time, ‘computational modeling’ came to replace ‘engineering’ in the minds of some, with models being applied to everything, even if not completely appropriate. The regulatory oversight of buildings in use also changed in England, with a ‘responsible person’ being charged with making sure risk assessments were completed appropriately and the building kept in safe operational form. The government then made a big policy push to make buildings more energy efficient to help reduce energy usage and therefore help the environment.

Taken together, one could observe that the market shifted focus to energy efficiency, and lower cost materials happened to be combustible in many cases. The risk management oversight was not at the level it should have been at the building level, and engineering analysis by ‘computational desk studies’ replaced specific product and system knowledge gained through appropriate fire testing. A focus on ‘low cost’ over ‘safe performance’, across all actor groups, and ‘engineering by computer model’ in the engineering community, raises ethics concerns.

However, what played out in England does not have to play out in other countries. If the right regulatory mechanisms, test methods, design approaches, and ethical standards are in place, things can work very well. If countries look at the building regulatory system as a complex sociotechnical system, where technology, actors and institutions all have to function appropriately in delivering societal expectations, many of the potential risks can be mitigated to tolerable levels. As technology continues to advance, it is my view that this type of thinking and approach will be needed across the board. If not, future Grenfell-type events can be expected. Perhaps not due to façade systems, but perhaps another material type, or due to computational modeling errors, ethical lapses or others. In the end, I think fire safety engineers have a high level of ethical standards, they want to deliver good public safety, and they generally want to do the right thing. I see good things happening in the future. I see fire safety engineers being key players in a safe and sustainable future for all.

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