A Review of Sociological Issues in Fire Safety Regulation

‘A Review of Sociological Issues in Fire Safety Regulation’ by Graham Spinardi, Luke Bisby and Jose Torero presents an overview of contemporary sociological issues in fire safety. The Ove Arup Foundation has supported research into the sociological issues in fire safety at Edinburgh University for several years.

Download here:

A Review of Sociological Issues in Fire Safety Regulation (pdf, 629KB)

Annual Reports

Links to available Ove Arup Foundation Annual Reports are listed below.

The Ove Arup Foundation Annual Report 2016-17 (247KB pdf)

The Ove Arup Foundation Annual Report 2015-16 (224KB pdf)

The Ove Arup Foundation Annual Report 2014-15 (200KB pdf)

The Ove Arup Foundation Annual Report 2012-13 (156KB pdf)

The Ove Arup Foundation Annual Report 2011-12 (156KB pdf)

The Ove Arup Foundation Annual Report 2010-11 (155KB pdf)

The Ove Arup Foundation Annual Report 2009-10 (155KB pdf)

The Ove Arup Foundation Annual Report 2008-09 (1800KB pdf)

The Ove Arup Foundation Annual Report 2007-08 (31KB pdf)

The Ove Arup Foundation Annual Report 2006-07 (34KB pdf)

The Ove Arup Foundation Annual Report 2002-03 (111KB pdf)

The Sociology of Fire Engineering?

Dr Luke Bisby was asked at the launch of the new fire research fellowship to explain to a group of Fire Safety Engineers, Policy Makers, Architects, Firefighters, and others why he thought the University of Edinburgh’s project on ‘Integrating Technical and Social Aspects of Fire Safety Engineering Expertise (IT-SAFE)’ was so exciting and important. His speech is reproduced below.

Good afternoon, and thank you for attending this talk on our new research collaboration, IT-SAFE, which I find myself rather surprised to say I consider among the most important activities I have ever been involved in as a university academic and as an engineer.

For me, this new collaboration with sociologists of science is fundamentally about making technology matter. It is about making me, my colleagues, and my engineering discipline maximise our impact.

I’m a structural engineer, or rather more specifically a structural fire engineer. My specific expertise – such as it is – is in studying the thermal and physical response of materials and structures to fire. I’m interested in the weakening of materials and structures during fire… the 9/11 scenario where fires cause buildings or parts of buildings to collapse.

So why then, has sociology become so important to me?

As explanation, I hope you’ll forgive me for recounting a rather self-indulgent story of intellectual atonement.

Sir Duncan Michael, Trustee of the Ove Arup Foundation, to whom I am eternally grateful (both personally and professionally) for his support and more importantly for his prodding, will tell one story of how it is that I’ve come to work at Edinburgh, in partnership colleagues at Arup. My version of the story is somewhat simpler than his. I’ve said many times that I came to Edinburgh simply to atone for my sins.

I’ll not bore you with too many details, but my PhD in Structural Engineering, performed at Queen’s University and the National Research Council of Canada, was concerned with collapse of innovative types of columns – vertical load supporting elements in buildings – during fire.

To study this issue we did what any self-respecting structural engineer would do; we performed a number of very costly and time-consuming standard tests in large-scale fire testing furnaces. Essentially, you take a column, you place a load on it, and you heat it in a furnace until it collapses… and in doing so you “prove” that the column is safe in a building in a fire… don’t you?

We spent about half a million dollars and several years performing these tests… we spent further years building sophisticated computer models to accurately simulate the tests and predict their outcomes… and further years interpreting the results and developing simplified design guidance. We obtained underwriters’ certified fire resistance ratings for our industrial sponsors, enabling them to sell their products to architects and developers… they were very pleased… and of course being good academics we wrote lots of papers.

And I knew that none of it truly mattered.

The testing furnace wasn’t a real fire.

The test columns weren’t real columns.

They weren’t in a real building; they didn’t interact with the rest of the building.

Essentially everything in these tests was unrealistic in some fundamental and important way.

Worse than this, the important aspects of the test results could easily have been predicted using simple hand calculations.

My tests were unnecessary. My models were misguided. I was very, very clever; but I was meaningless.

So why did we do it?

We did it because the regulatory process in North America (and in most other places) for approving use of new materials in structures requires this standard furnace testing and is willing to sacrifice rational thought and scientific understanding for compliance with the “standard”. The regulatory tail was wagging the scientific dog. I saw this, and I began to feel that I didn’t deserve my PhD.

But not so in Europe… or so I thought. This was a North American problem. Europeans, particularly Scots, are much more enlightened. So when Jose Torero at the University of Edinburgh and Barbara Lane at Arup Fire, the most advanced and innovative fire engineers in the world, came knocking, how could I resist the chance to set things right.

So I came to Scotland, began to atone for my sins, and for the past three and a bit years I’ve continued my efforts to truly understand the way that materials and structures respond to real fires in real buildings; and this is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

But all is not well. The problems I saw in North America exist also in Europe, and globally. I remain a very frustrated man. Read my letter to the Editors of Scientific American for an indication of my frustration.

In any case, I now find myself asking a number of questions that neither I nor my engineering colleagues are equipped to answer:

How is it that structural engineers and architects have managed for more than a decade to largely ignore the key engineering significance of the events of Sept 11, 2001 – that fire can cause the total collapse of a modern office building?

Why are so few buildings engineered with fire safety explicitly considered in the initial stages of design, particularly given that we (i.e. Arup and others) have the knowledge and skills to begin to do this?

What are society’s true perceptions and understanding of the personal, financial, environmental, and social risks associated with fire, how is tolerance of these risks shaped by our testing, design, and regulatory processes, and how does this perception and tolerance of risk influence design, regulation, and policy?

How do current fire safety testing, design, and compliance processes encourage or hinder innovation? To what extent is the tail wagging the dog, and how can we change this?

In short, how can we make our technology matter?

These questions (and many others) can’t be answered by engineers alone, as much as I prefer to think we have all the answers and that rationality will always triumph. It’s my hope that engaging with sociologists of science, Robin and his colleagues, will help us to understand and influence our own playing field, leading to better, more rational and holistic design, and eventually to a safer and more sustainable built environment; and I hope that all of you will engage with us in this process.

My deepest thanks to the Ove Arup Foundation and the Royal Academy of Engineering for supporting this unique initiative. Thank you for listening.

Mathematics in the University Education of Engineers

Kent-Noss-reportMathematics in the University Education of Engineers
Dr Phillip Kent & Prof Richard Noss – Report Summary

Advances in the use of information technology and computers have transformed engineering analytical techniques, and production and management processes. As these advances continue, opportunities will be generated for all engineers, both in the way knowledge can be acquired, and then applied.

The role of mathematics in engineering education is a major opportunity. There has been much recent debate on what mathematical skills are needed for the engineers of tomorrow, and how and when these might best be acquired. Against this background of problem and opportunity, the Trustees of The Ove Arup Foundation commissioned this study from Prof Richard Noss and Dr Phillip Kent, both mathematics educators at the Institute of Education, University of London.

The report outlines a situation ripe for change, and indicates that professional engineers will need to develop greater interdisciplinary understanding, and acquire more specialist skills. An intuitive understanding of the sciences that underpin the art of engineering, it says, will in turn require the mathematical skills necessary to apply these sciences.

A copy of the report can be downloaded below.

Mathematics in the University Education of Engineers (840KB pdf)