Developing countries are wide open markets that offer huge opportunities to qualified fire protection engineers. These markets do, however, present a number of challenges, including a weak regulatory framework, underdeveloped physical and human infrastructures, and a limited access to skilled labor. Examining how fire protection engineering is practiced in developing countries offers useful insight into a number of issues that are relevant to practitioners in the developed world. These include a better under-standing of our own codes and standards, a better understanding of financial constraints in this engineering field, an opportunity to get back to basics, an opportunity to promote performance-based methodologies, and, last but not least, an opportunity to advance the science and practice of fire protection engineering worldwide.
DEVELOPING COUNTRIES A HUGE MARKET FOR FIRE PROTECTION ENGINEERING EXPERTISE
Public demand for fire safety is high in every country, irrespective of its level of development. Developing countries offer a wide range of perspectives because of their high potential for development and because of the low level of expertise available locally. By and large, most of the fire safety engineering expertise is concentrated in the developed world because poor countries suffer from inadequate educational facilities. Basic and vital services such as preventive maintenance programs and regular fire safety inspections are mostly implemented by subsidiaries of multinational corporations in most of the developing world.
AN OPPORTUNITY TO BETTER UNDERSTAND OUR OWN CODES AND STANDARDS
For lack of strong regulatory frameworks and for historical reasons, developing countries mostly rely on older versions of European and U.S. fire codes. It is a refreshing experience to read old fire codes. They are short, concise, and to the point. They remind us of the early days, when the "Life Safety Code" was called the "Building Exit Code." What fires prompted our regulators to make these old codes obsolete? What was the influence of lobbies (insurance companies, sprinkler associations, fire brigades, etc.) in the modification of the "old" codes? Did code writers overreact under the pressure of public opinion in the aftermath of the latest disastrous fire in the design of new fire codes and standards?
Are buildings and infrastructures less safe from fire in developing countries? For lack of reliable data, we cannot reach any definite conclusions.
FINANCIAL CONSTRAINTS IN FIRE SAFETY
Poor countries have by definition limited financial resources to meet required levels of public safety. In these countries, multinational corporations usually adopt a policy of following their corporate standards, in addition to the requirements of the host country. This often translates into "belts and braces" and excessive fire safety budgets. In the field of safety, more is not necessarily better, and multinational corporations usually devote large budgets for fire safety installations, both from an investment side and from a maintenance and operational side. In contrast, local corporations adopt a policy of strict compliance with local codes at minimum costs. Neither approach is fully satisfactory, and it is a challenge for fire protection engineers to design cost-effective solutions to fire safety problems.
BACK TO BASICS
Developing countries suffer from obsolete codes and standards, and from inadequate enforcement infrastructures. These deficiencies provide an opportunity for flexibility to the fire protection engineer, who can use his or her expertise to provide the required level of fire risk at the lowest possible costs. Taking an holistic approach to fire safety, the qualified fire protection engineer will find the best mix of software (human element) and hardware (physical installations) to reach any required level of safety at optimal costs. Low labor costs in developing countries will favor more frequent inspections, more reliance on human response, better emergency procedures, and more drills. High costs of mechanical and electrical equipment will favor better civil engineering, better compartmentation, and less reliance on high-maintenance/low-reliability installations.
Automatic sprinkler installations must be evaluated carefully, not only for insurance implications, but also from a "pure" fire safety standpoint. Sprinkler systems may not be as reliable in developing countries since water supply may be a problem in dry regions, and in tropical countries, stagnant water reserves may be a source of serious health problems for the population.
These challenges provide an opportunity to work with Authorities Having Jurisdiction in developing countries to assist them in improving their own fire codes and standards, to make them easier to understand, to implement, and to enforce.
PERFORMANCE-BASED DESIGNS AND METHODOLOGIES
The application of local codes and standards to the design of modern buildings is often difficult and cumbersome. Equivalencies were initially accepted on specific provisions of the codes. More recently, equivalencies on a broader scale have started to become the norm. In adopting a performance-based design, the fire protection engineer implicitly accepts a higher level of professional responsibility and must demonstrate to his or her client and peers, and to Authorities Having Jurisdiction, that proposed solutions will reduce the fire risk to required levels. This is a heavy responsibility for the fire protection engineer, a responsibility that will reflect on the entire fire protection engineering community.
Performance-based methodologies will become the way to translate codes and standards from various countries into a single accepted language. Inter-estingly enough, European countries have tried, unsuccessfully, to draft a common set of fire codes and standards that would be acceptable throughout Europe. Fire codes are too much a product of local cultures, local histories, local organizations, and local politics. It is now becoming obvious that each European country will keep its own fire codes and standards, and will accept performance-based equivalencies throughout the whole of Europe.
Performance-based methodologies will be accepted in Europe and in the rest of the developed world, but there will always be a temptation for Authorities Having Jurisdiction to adopt a defensive attitude, fall back on prescriptive codes, and refuse valid, but unfamiliar, designs. Developing countries, not yet frozen by litigious environments, should offer better opportunities for the fire protection engineer to "leap-frog" technologically and propose innovative and cost-effective solutions to fire safety problems.
ADVANCING THE SCIENCE AND PRACTICE OF FIRE PROTECTION ENGINEERING INTERNATIONALLY
The Society of Fire Protection Engineers finds here an historic opportunity to become the liaison between all national and regional fire protection engineering societies that are struggling to move forward in the direction of performance-based methodologies. From New Zealand to South Africa, from the U.S. to Europe and Japan, from every corner of the world, countries are turning to fire protection engineering to transcend prescriptive codes and standards.
THE NEXT STEPS...
During a U.S. congressional breakfast meeting held on April 24, 2002, then-SFPE President Fred Mowrer reminded his audience that "we (fire protection engineers) are the people who design fire protection systems in buildings to mitigate fire hazards, reduce fire losses, and protect people."
Fire protection engineers must work to better organize their profession in order to deliver better fire protection services in developing countries and throughout the world. Education, fundamental and applied research, better international cooperation, and wider use of performance-based methodologies hold the highest potential for future benefits in this field.
Advancing fire protection engineering starts with a wider access to fire protection engineering education and a better promotion of this discipline. Only a handful of institutions offer high-level education in fire protection engineering throughout the world. Distance learning is now becoming widely available in this field. All these facilities should be vigorously promoted, and specific courses should be tailored to every country, to every situation.
Fire protection tools and toolkits should also be made available throughout the world and adapted to all cultures and situations. Translations may be sufficient in some instances, such as videos or fire reports, but in most cases, U.S.-made material will need to be adapted to the specific needs of the relevant country. NFPA International has been instrumental in translating some of their material into Spanish and other languages, and in opening up offices in Latin America, in Southeast Asia, and in Europe. The International Code Council is also offering building codes, textbooks, videos, and practice courses. There is a high demand for basic engineering material throughout the entire world.
And finally, guidelines are desperately needed by all fire protection engineers worldwide. In fire protection engineering, no two problems are alike, and there is never a single solution to any problem. Fire protection engineers need to stay in permanent contact with their peers in order to stay abreast of new technologies and new discoveries in the ever-changing field of fire protection engineering. Technical guidelines are needed, but just as importantly, so are organizational guidelines, methodological guidelines, and peer review guidelines.
In addition to the traditional research in fire protection engineering and to the usual fire testing of new materials, computer research and analysis of human behavior in fire situations are drawing considerable attention and offer wide re-search opportunities to the next generations of fire protection engineers. Re-search is also needed in the areas of simulation of fire development and smoke movement, risk modeling, and risk evaluation. Once completed, results must be disseminated and integrated into tools that are used in widespread practice.
Research is expensive and will require a more coordinated approach between national and international fire service laboratories. The European Union is an opportunity for various European fire testing laboratories to engage in transnational testing and research programs, and to initiate or strengthen ties with other laboratories throughout the world. The Society of Fire Protection Engineers has a unique role to play in this process, as a catalyst for change, as a forum for exchange, and as the primary source of fire protection engineering information.
Performance-based methodologies can be applied directly to developing countries where there is no preconceived bias towards prescriptive codes and standards. With the assistance of SFPE, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank Group, conducted a thorough review of all existing English-language performance-based codes in use internationally. In the same spirit, IFC determined that all IFC-financed projects needed to meet three specific fire safety objectives: The first goal was "fire prevention" and dealt with ways to reduce the frequency of fires, mainly through adequate employee training and through the use of proper appliances and electrical equipment. The second goal was related to "fire control" through adequate design, construction, protection, and alarm and evacuation systems. The third goal was related to "fire protection of adjoining properties and the environment" through proper layout and adequate safeguards. The SFPE study facilitated the establishment of specific performance criteria for all identified objectives.
A technical guideline was also issued that prescribed the preparation of fire safety master plans by qualified fire protection professionals to review all IFC-financed projects. Each fire safety master plan must adequately address each of the following elements: fire prevention, means of egress, detection and alarm systems, compartmentalization, fire suppression and control, operations and maintenance, and, finally, emergency response planning.
New guidelines will be needed to provide objective evaluation methods, in order to ensure the fire risk is kept within acceptable limits at all times and to offer a methodological framework (similar to ISO series 9000 and 14000) in analyzing IFC-financed project risks.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
The trend towards performance-based codes and methodologies is clear, but prescriptive mentalities are very much embedded into our day-today activities. It will take decades for codes and standards to evolve "naturally" towards performance-based mindsets and methodologies.
Developing countries offer a unique opportunity to the international fire protection engineering community to leap directly into performance-based codes and standards. Authorities Having Jurisdiction in developing countries are just as interested in public safety as their counterparts in developed countries. They are dedicated, knowledgeable, and have the added advantage of an open mind and fewer preconceived ideas about new and more efficient methodologies. The successful transfer of efficient new technologies to developing countries should facilitate the adoption of these very technologies to developed countries.
Compliance with two different sets of codes can be very expensive, without providing significantly higher levels of safety. When dealing with investments in the developing world, corporate fire safety engineers should work closely with local Authorities Having Jurisdiction not to impose their corporate standards, but rather to improve on these corporate standards and to optimize their fire safety budgets investment budgets and operational budgets to meet or even exceed the level of fire safety required by the strict application of their corporate codes and standards.
Performance-based methodologies offer a unique opportunity for all fire protection engineers to work together towards a real transformation of their profession, across borders, across national codes, across cultural differences, and make the world a safer place.
Jean-Michel Attlan is with the International Finance Corporation.