An introduction to holistic fire engineering and holistic fire strategies, by Paul Bryant

Published:  11 January, 2017

During the early days of my career in the fire industry, I was fortunate to witness the start of a sea change in thinking. I saw the emergence of a radical departure from the prescriptive codes that impacted in every aspect of fire safety and protection. A British Standard Committee had been tasked to develop a standard heralding a new, and more flexible approach to fire safety for buildings. The result was new British Standard Draft for Development DD240. Whereas prescriptive codes were often seen as obstacles, DD240 gave the fire engineering profession an alternative way forward.

DD240 was published in 1997. The title DD referred to the fact that it was a Draft for Development - which means, in effect, work in progress. Many of the ideas behind the standard were untested. A revised version of the DD eventually became a fully-fledged British Standard a few years later - BS 7974. The Standard is supported by a number of Published Draft documents covering many aspects of fire safety engineering design.

Today, the performance-based approach is no longer regarded as new or novel. It is used around the world. It now enables the dynamic and complex structures dreamed up by building designers to be realised. 

So, there it is – a happy ending. All fire engineers around the world can celebrate the fact that we have this thing “sorted”. Many of us know that this is not the case.

There is still a general mistrust of performance based fire solutions. Still, authorities around the world ask the simple question, “Is it fully compliant with the codes?” Even if approval submissions include pages of analysis, the design is still questioned. I’ve even known of the methodology being described “b******t”.

Without the rigid nature of prescription, it is difficult for those stakeholders, with ultimate responsibility to approve fire safety designs, to be sure that the proposed strategy will indeed provide for a fire-safe building. In many cases the techniques used to evaluate the building design, such as the use of fire and evacuation modelling, are questioned. And there is a more fundamental question, and that is to do with compliance itself.

When we talk about compliance, we normally mean compliance with national legislation and/or regulations. Such regulations will, more often than not, concentrate on the life safety risk. Consequently, the fire safety engineered solution will provide for life safety. Yet, this is such an opportunity to consider so much more. How many prescriptive or performance-based fire strategies adequately address issues such as the protection of the building and assets, or indeed of business continuity? We often forget that businesses today operate in much less tolerant economic landscapes than before. Even a minor emergency caused by a small fire could trip up many a modern company operating on tight margins and with constricted reaction times.

But the real threat is something that is usually only fleetingly touched upon, and that is the environmental impact of a fire. Apart from the ethical concerns, we are in a world where anybody and everybody could be minded to litigate if any aspect of a fire, caused by somebody else, affects them in any way. I have been preaching this for two decades but it still seems to go unheeded. Large organisations, especially those running services, are aware of this but I bet their fire strategies give a nominal nod to the environmental aspects of a fire. Is it time for the next generation of fire engineering?

The performance-based approach to fire engineering had given new life to a previously highly controlled profession, under the rules of prescription. We, as fire engineers, must be thankful for the added flexibility. Furthermore, it has given the more proactive of us a chance to be experimental – introducing new ideas and techniques. But is there further to go?

Since 2007, I have been developing the concepts and ideology of the humble fire strategy – from the publication of British Standard PAS 911 in that year to the publication of my book “Fire Strategies – Strategic Thinking” in 2013. What concerned me then, and still does, is that fire engineers do not tackle the full picture. Even with all the sophisticated ideas, computer programmes, and technical innovations, a fire strategy’s main aim is often stated as to “achieve compliance”.

One chapter of my book covers objective setting and equally considers the issues of life safety, property protection, business resilience and continuity, and the protection of our environment. What if we really did begin a project by considering all these objectives, rather than be guided by the need to simply be compliant? And let’s face it, those who write the regulations and standards (which once included me), write documents to be as generalist as possible. These documents aim to cover the most emotive issues such as the safety of life.  Regulations can be too limited to adequately address the multiple issues that impact on the range of design of building types and their uses.

2007 was also the year I became involved in the subject of crisis management. I believed that this was the next big thing – surely every business required proper crisis management planning? After months and months of persistence, the take-up was much less than I had anticipated. Had I wasted much time and money in an idea that was never going to take off? Yet I did put much what I had learned, together with ideas of my own, into a book titled “KF912 – Crisis Management Planning”. The book sold a few copies but not much more.

One aspect of the book that I felt was crucial to businesses was the subject of threat analysis. By combining a proper assessment of threat, together with an understanding of all objectives facing an organisation, an effective and relevant risk-reduction plan can be developed.

Of course, there are many ways a crisis can play out. Fire is only one possible outcome. But it is an important outcome, and can result as a direct consequence of a crisis, or could be one critical outcome of the handling (or mishandling) of a crisis. Thus, the analysis of threats can directly assist in the reduction of both the possibility and impact of a fire. So what if we combined expanded levels of threat analysis and objective setting as part of a fire engineered design solution? And what if we update our views on the performance based approach?

I believe that there are still a few issues that we need to re-address. These include:

· Even with the use of applicable codes, a performance based approach can potentially allow for a spectrum of solutions. Not always a bad thing, I agree, but how can we be sure that the solution put forward is the most optimal in terms of efficiency, logistics and economics?

· Following on from the first point, there is still both confusion and mistrust regarding a performance-based approach. Those with the responsibility for approvals ask if the design solution is “code compliant” which, if you think about it, is probably not the correct terminology given the flexibility in application.

· A number of national regulations still do not adequately embrace performance-based solutions.

· “This fire strategy does not consider extreme events”. How many times have we seen this sentence at the front end of a strategy? Is it a cop out? What may have been once an extreme event may now be more commonplace. Should not a strategy consider anything and everything that could readily and realistically lead to a fire?

· There is still insufficient buy-in from stakeholders other than the fire engineer. Some project meetings can end up as a tussle between the fire engineer and architect, with the client, project managers, enforcers, etc looking on in bemusement.

A holistic approach

We have learned so much good stuff, from the earliest of the prescriptive fire standards to the latest fire modelling techniques. Is it now time for the application of fire engineering to further evolve? Note that I use the word evolve rather than replace, as fire engineering has always built upon the learning of the past. And we continue to learn. Perhaps, however, we need to introduce a new methodology; something that takes in much more – a holistic approach. For the sake of my argument, let us call this "holistic fire engineering". I believe this approach should embrace the following principles:

1. To ensure that a fire engineered solution properly accounts for the real and perceived threats affecting the building, it occupancy and processes. Extreme events may or may not be included based upon a risk evaluation.

2. That we consider, fully, all objectives, and not just those applicable to national regulations. Note that comparison with national regulations will need to be included within the process.

3. We use all recognised means to develop holistic fire strategies.

4. Critical to holistic fire engineering is that the analysis and design process is controlled by a measurement system to allow full auditability and comparison at any stage of the process. Consequently, third parties can be provided with greater assurance that the solution is compliant with “holistic fire engineering” metrics.

5. The process and metrics must be transferable globally such that they will be the same wherever they are applied.

The holistic fire engineering framework

The holistic fire engineering framework and process from feasibility through to delivery of the holistic fire strategy is shown below.

Figure 1: Holistic fire engineering process

Each of the items are described as follows:

Feasibility design review

This is a special review prior to the commencement of the design, to enable all stakeholders to gain an understanding of the building, its processes and occupancy profile. Any special issues can be raised at this point.

Threat assessment

Any and every perceivable threat can lead to several fire scenarios. Each building, each occupant and each process will introduce specific threats. Kingfell Guide KF912 has identified six threat types:

· Intentional

· Accidental

· Environmental

· Economic

· Operational

· People

The guide provides guidance as to how threats can be evaluated.

Objectives setting

There are four key objectives related to fire engineering. These are:

· Life safety

· Property protection

· Business protection and continuity

· Environmental protection

Each of these objectives can be sub-divided for specific consideration. British Standard PAS 911 contains details of this. Note that, at this stage I deliberately would like to remove the need to comply with national regulations as an objective. This allows for more open thinking and makes more sense as we work more within a global environment. National Regulations will be considered as part of the Gap Analysis.

Holistic design review

Those who have used British Standard BS 7974 will know of the qualitative design review (QDR). This is also included within holistic fire engineering although it is now a two-part process with the feasibility design review initiating the fire engineering process. This review will assess the scenarios and key objectives that derive from the two previous exercises.

Holistic parameter determination and agreement on methodology

Directly resulting from the design review, agreement is made both on the parameters used for the fire engineered study but also what methods are used for analysis purposes. This will include consideration of the use of evaluation tools such as fire and evacuation modelling. The RSET and ASET criteria will be maintained. In addition, new criteria will be introduced for non-life safety objectives.

Holistic fire strategy preparation

The fire engineering will be tasked with the preparation of the strategy, controlled by the metrics (see later).

Peer review and gap analysis

This is the point where an independent review will be undertaken, again controlled by the metrics. It is also this point where national requirements will be evaluated against the proposals and a gap analysis established. The gap analysis should be clear and concise and enable non-fire professionals to judge if the gaps are acceptable.

Holistic fire strategy

The final holistic fire strategy will be established and will be of a state that approval can be given based upon both the earlier analysis and peer review and that the metrics have been suitable followed.

Metrics

This is the complete control process for holistic fire engineering. It is there to guide the fire engineers and to improve consistency. The metrics are a combination of checklists and recommended methodologies at every stage of the process.

In some ways, the metric guide could be regarded as a replacement of the national codes and regulations. These will provide the same context for whatever building type, or for wherever it is – Dubai, Sydney, Amsterdam or New York.

Next Steps

Holistic fire engineering is, as yet, an idea – a concept. Critical to the concept is development of the metrics. I would love to hear from those who believe that this idea can provide for a new way forward. If you are interested, please contact me at paul.bryant@kingfell.com. I am also writing a book on the subject that should be available by Summer 2017.

Kingfell Guide KF912 is available on Amazon.

  • Operation Florian

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