Andre’ Muscat from SHIELD Consultants Ltd. has recently finished his studies in Fire Engineering at the University of Central Lancashire. We discuss with him what this interesting field, what it means in practice and how it is impacting on the contemporary business, commercial and residential environments.
CORPORATE BRIEF: SHIELD Consultants Ltd specialise in providing operational risk management and consultancy training services, focusing mainly on high-risk market segments in the Mediterranean, Middle East, Gulf Region and Africa. The company also specialises in maritime security; critical national infrastructures and Oil & Gas. SHIELD combines operational with technology in bringing innovation into all functional elements of operational risk management – Security; Maritime Security; HSE; Business Continuity Management; Fire & Safety; Crisis Management and Emergency Response, as well as Quality Risk Management.
MBR: What is Fire Engineering and how does it differ from traditional methods?
AM: Good question to start with. Fire Engineering refers to the application of scientific and engineering principles to the design of a building. The purpose is to protect people, property and the environment from the effects of fire and smoke. In short, FE is about prevention and controlling the effects of fire to mitigate damages.
MBR: How does fire engineering defer from standard approaches and what are the benefits of such solutions?
AM: Standard approaches normally rely on prescriptive codes and guidelines that specify solutions to a particular type of building. This might be very well applicable in most cases, but in some situations these standards might prove to be constraining or simply not applicable. In these cases an engineered solution allows for a level of fire safety to be maintained, even if conventional standards cannot be meet.
This would require a tailored solution for the particular building type, size, and function and would not force the application of any set standard but would rather focus on achieving the final required result. We at SHIELD specialise in this proactive approach to fire prevention and control.
MBR: Can fire engineering be applicable only for new constructions or can some principles be applied to existent buildings?
AM: No. Fire Engineering solutions can also be applied to existing buildings in order to improve or maintain the fire safety of the building, especially if the use of the building is going to change from what it was originally designed for, or if the age of the building is such that no prescriptive methods can be applied to it.
MBR: In your studies you focused on the effects of ageing and wear of fire protection in buildings. What where your main findings?
AM: Yes, my final study regarded a particular aspect of fire safety within buildings that is very often overlooked. This is the part called Passive Fire Protection (PFP). These include techniques and applications such as compartmentation walls and fire doors, amongst others. To an observer who is not well versed in fire engineering solutions, these parts of a building might not appear to serve an important role in the fire safety of the building. This could lead to certain changes being made to the building, resulting in deterioration in structures, without essential fire mitigation and control.
The studies focused on the primary documented reasons for failure in PFP and through experiments in a fire testing laboratory and also by using a specialised computer simulation programme, it was observed that small gaps around doors did not have severely impact safety conditions of the escape route. However, as soon as these gaps are widened slightly, environmental conditions in terms of smoke and heat start to pose a threat to life quite quickly.
MBR: What are the most common damages sustained by Passive Fire Protection systems within buildings?
AM: Some of these damages simply occur due to the passage of time and the wear and tear that components sustain. These include fire doors sagging and not being able to close well into their frame, or intumescent strips (material that expands when heat is applied) that are fitted around fire doors that become damaged due to abrasion over time.
Other damages are sustained to the changes in the building that the occupants carry out on them. These would not normally be carried out while knowingly damaging the building, but simply because the building users would not recognise the problem in effecting such changes. These can include, drilling holes through walls to facilitate the passage of services, changing fire doors to a non-fire rated door, or removing a door altogether. Sometimes spaces that are normally unseen, such as above soffits or through ventilation ducting, might be left unprotected simply because they are forgotten and are left free to allow the passage of smoke and heat.
MBR: Do you think that recent fire incidents overseas will leave an effect on the current fire safety regulations?
AM: The latest great fire that the world has suffered took place just over a year ago in the UK. The incident at Grenfell Tower will not only leave an effect in the UK but has reverberated throughout the entire fire safety industry worldwide.
The rapidity, intensity and extent to which the fire spread and the effects that it had, took many by surprise and due to this incident many failing factors that were being overlooked have been brought to light. In the UK the investigation that is currently being concluded will be leading to a considerable change in how fire safety is regulated.
Apart from the Grenfell incident, there have been other big fires that left its effect on the industry such as the fire at Club Collective in Bucharest, Romania that killed 64 and injured 147. However no other incident has left as big an effect as the Grenfell fire.
MBR: What sort of problems do you come across most commonly in terms of fire safety within buildings?
AM: Building occupants, including management, not understanding the importance of fire safety in their building, thinking that small changes do not matter, and the overall notion that it will never happen to them. At times, als thinking that having lots of fire extinguishers makes the building safer, something I would find very funny, were it not such a serious issue.
Sometimes building owners do not know what is installed in their building, especially when they were not the original building users or when the building has been taken care of by multiple entities through the years.
At SHIELD, we normally find that most problems are in fact not engineering problems but managerial problems. And these would also not be because the management does not care but because they do not understand the importance of some of the issues.
Many times, people would worry if they are meeting legal requirements. What I try to explain is that legal requirements stop at having the occupants getting out safety. But if the building sustains a substantial fire of damage business continuity would be severely disrupted and recovery would be so much harder.
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