Fire safety engineering

Fires that are blazing out of control can costs millions of pounds worth of damage, as well as posing substantial risk to human life. Fire safety engineers are the professionals responsible for ensuring that fires never have a chance to get a hold, avoiding the crisis before it happens. Testament to their success is the fact that fire-related deaths has been falling steadily over the last 40 years.

A relatively young discipline, fire safety engineering is now respected world-wide as a crucial element of building design and construction, stretching across private and public structures, schools, tower blocks and oil and gas platforms.

A relatively young discipline, fire safety engineering is now respected world-wide as a crucial element of building design and construction, stretching across private and public structures, schools, tower blocks and oil and gas platforms.

It is also a rapidly expanding sector, offering opportunities to individuals with engineering skills who enjoy working at the cutting edge where the job satisfaction is second to none.

Graduates and new recruits can find themselves in a variety of engineering roles, ranging from creating a scale model of a building and setting it on fire to see how the space and building materials react, to ensuring off-shore platforms have effective evacuation procedures. Fire-safety engineers also undertake groundbreaking research and develop new technologies aimed at reducing the impacts of unwanted fire.

“Fire safety is a fundamental part of construction of any building or structure,” says Dr Ricky Carvel, a lecturer in combustion and fire dynamics at the University of Edinburgh, which runs under-graduate and post-grad courses in fire safety along with modules for civil engineers.

“It is great area to work in because it is inter-disciplinary. You get the physics of heat transfer, the chemistry in material flammability and fluid dynamics of gases in how smoke moves and mixes. You need to know all that to fully understand the problem and how structures respond as they heat up.”
Graduates can expect to find global opportunities with major engineering consultancies, architectural practices and fire safety agencies.

“Most have a job before graduation or within six months and I’ve never had a conversation with a former student who says their job is boring,” says Dr Carvel. “They are in a constantly evolving profession and it takes them into big construction projects and all aspects of civil engineering such as tunnels, bridges, platforms and even nuclear power stations.”

Innovative architecture has created a new wave of striking buildings with open-plan spaces and internal atria, but these features also demands a redefinition of fire safety.
Fire safety engineering is now a core concern at blueprint stage rather than a bolt-on once the cranes have started work. Architects increasingly value the expertise of fire safety engineers from the outset to ensure their cutting-edge creations are safe.

Fire safety engineering is now a core concern at blueprint stage rather than a bolt-on once the cranes have started work. Architects increasingly value the expertise of fire safety engineers from the outset to ensure their cutting-edge creations are safe.

The leading training, standards and consultancy agency is the Building Research Establishment (BRE), a former government body that was privatised in 1997. It has a strong university research base of more than 100 PhDs and 70 academic staff, with an annual research programme of more than £20 million.
BRE is expanding to meet increased demands from construction and has a range of jobs including laboratory technicians, apprentices, scientists, engineers and business managers.

“Most fire engineers, and certainly the people I work with, are really passionate about making a difference by ensuring the world is as safe as it possibly can be,” said Debbie Smith OBE, director of BRE’s fire sciences and buildings products who joined the company in 1984 after completing a degree in metallurgy and materials science at the University of Birmingham.
“The profession is a bit like marmite,” she says. “You either getting bitten by the fire bug and care passionately about what we do and why we do it or you quickly feel it is not for you.”

Disasters unfortunately occur from time to time and fire safety engineers are needed to evaluate the wreckage and draw conclusions. They often work as expert witnesses and forensic investigators deconstructing the technical issues of fires.
Smith worked on some the technical examination of the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster when an explosion on the platform in the North Sea killed 167 men in July 1988 on the North Sea oil production platform, and the 1987 Kings Cross Fire, which claimed 31 lives when a discarded match set fire to wooden escalators at the London train station.

Based on the in-depth knowledge of how fire can spread and overwhelm buildings and installations, BRE fire safety engineers draw up guidance documents and provide information for architects and insurers.
“Our aim is to make everything as safe as possible but we also work for insurers who have an objective of getting a building back in use as soon as possible,” she says.

In the long-term, she believes that fire safety engineering will be a sector that will provide life-long rewards for graduates and school leavers who are up for the challenge. “We still have a lot to learn but we are not finished yet and we are always researching for better methods. Discovery is a key attraction to the job,” she says. “It is a commitment but when you go home at night it is good to know you have made a difference to people’s lives.”

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