IN JUNE, I TRAVELED TO LONDON to attend Interflam, a global research conference on fire safety science and engineering. The work of the Fire Protection Research Foundation is driven by the needs of NFPA technical committees, and is, thus, very applied in nature. The conference was a rare opportunity for me to spend some time considering more purely scientific research.
Based on the size of the conference and the number of young researchers in attendance, the fire science research community is thriving. Researchers from around the world presented more than 100 papers to more than 350 global participants, and this variety and international flavor is very encouraging. Despite reported cutbacks in government-funded research, the growth of the academic programs in fire protection and fire safety engineering worldwide is bringing a fresh set of research resources to the problems of fire safety.
One thing that particularly struck me was the exponential growth of work that seeks to apply the understanding of human behavior to improving fire safety. The program included 14 presentations by researchers from 11 different countries on this topic during the three-day conference, an astonishing development in the eyes of a structural engineer like me who continues to find much of human behavior mystifying. In my view, the nature of this work has changed from observational research — the how and why of behavior in a fire — to the application of that work to fire safety design and even to the codification of safety provisions in our codes and standards.
NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division, in particular Rita Fahy, manager of fire databases and systems, has had a long-standing interest in this area and is assuming a leadership role in this discipline. The Society of Fire Protection Engineers and the International Standards Organization both have active programs to integrate the quantification of certain aspects of human behavior, particularly egress, into engineering methods, and NFPA has incorporated new work on human behavior into our codes and standards.
International research on human behavior in tunnels, for example, is informing provisions in NFPA 130, Fixed Guideway Transit and Passenger Rail Systems. The Fire Protection Research Foundation recently sponsored a variety of projects on this topic, including work to support the development of provisions associated with the use of elevators combined with stairways in mixed evacuation strategies; to support the development of effective emergency messaging strategies for buildings and campuses in response to various threats; and to improve our understanding of human response to new light sources proposed for strobe emergency signals.
One of the most challenging aspects of integrating human behavior into design, as well as into codes and standards, is its high variability. But today’s enhanced numerical methods and computing capability have helped transform this fascinating but very challenging aspect of fire safety science into a design variable that can be used in a number of different ways.
When we consider this process, we should applaud NFPA’s leaders who decades ago had the foresight to recognize the future importance of the science of human behavior and helped lay the groundwork for NFPA, and all who use its codes and standards, to benefit from it.
Kathleen H. Almand, P.E., FSFPE, is the executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.