Author(s): Birgitte Messerschmidt. Published on January 1, 2020.

We Are the World

Globalization is erasing many of the differences in the built environment—and researchers can use that to their advantage


There’s nothing like watching a room flash over to make you realize how quickly a fire can turn deadly.

As a young engineer at the Danish Institute of Fire Technology, I had many opportunities to witness this firsthand; I often joke that my job title was essentially professional pyromaniac. I set fire to all kinds of things—Christmas trees, TVs, furniture, wall coverings—to learn how they burn so that we could make the world safer.

Over the years, my work has taken me across the globe and eventually to NFPA, where I became director of applied research in 2017 and, starting with this issue of NFPA Journal, the author of the “Research” column. My plan is to bring a more global perspective to the research commentary on this page. Having worked in multiple countries, I can tell you that the fire problem doesn’t abide by our manmade boundaries—given the right conditions, fire will burn with as much ferocity in Europe as it does in Asia, Africa, or North America.

Though this last point might seem obvious, I’ve been surprised to find how disconnected fire protection professionals can be from this truth. Most countries still largely ignore lessons learned in other parts of the world, and insist on basing their fire prevention and mitigation strategies exclusively on local knowledge. If a bad fire happens in Asia, for example, the fire protection community in Europe tends to not concern itself with it, falsely believing that the same thing couldn’t happen there. Local building traditions in China are too different to render any applicable lessons for fire protection in Germany or the United Kingdom, the rationale goes. This mindset is pervasive, as well as outdated and misguided—globalization is erasing many of the differences in the built environment across the world, leading to a more universal fire experience than perhaps at any time in modern history.

An example of this continuity is the series of recent high-rise building fires related to combustible facades, events that have occurred in the United Kingdom, the Middle East, Asia, and elsewhere. Many of these fires share striking similarities, as well as important characteristics that go beyond building design and how certain materials burn. They can also share contributing factors such as building codes that are ignored or not enforced, and materials fire testing protocols that are disregarded. Studying the conditions that led to devastating fires, regardless of where those conditions exist, can be just as valuable as examining the fires themselves.

We can use these facts to our advantage. Because we no longer have to look locally for many of the answers to our safety challenges, research findings from one country can now be widely applied to improve safety around the world. This allows us to better spread the load and cost of research, and to attain a deeper understanding of emerging issues faster than ever before. With research capability limited in many areas of the world, and with rapid changes in technology making it difficult to keep pace, the potential to share and learn from others will benefit us all.

To help with this effort, NFPA recently launched the Fire Research Network on NFPA Xchange. The Fire Research Network is a closed online community where fire researchers can share ideas and knowledge. NFPA posts its research findings with the network as well, in hopes that the lessons we learn can benefit others. If you are a researcher interested in becoming a member of the network, please send me an email at

A lot of exciting research is happening across the world right now. I look forward to sharing and discussing it with you in upcoming issues.

Birgitte Messerschmidt is executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler