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Fire Safety Engineering Education - Part of a Certification Framework
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Fire Safety Engineering Education - Part of a Certification Framework

By Peter Johnson, C.P. Eng. | Fire Protection Engineering


 

Introduction

The Fire Protection Association, Australia (FPA Australia) has a new policy that highlights the need for practitioner competency and insurance in all areas of fire safety design and the fire protection industry.

 

Individuals have been able to practice as fire safety engineers, fire sprinkler designers or passive fire protection practitioners in some states of Australia with little if any control over professional competency or reasonable Professional Indemnity (PI) or Public Liability (PL) insurance.

 

There is a need, therefore, for a national approach to accreditation and to establishing certification of fire safety engineers and all practitioners in the industry, based on established levels of competency appropriate to their roles, as well as compulsory requirements to carry adequate PI and PL insurance and comply with ethical standards.

 

In a sense, the process starts with sound overall fire safety engineering design. If this is unsatisfactory, it cannot be easily remedied by fire protection systems design, construction or maintenance provisions. However, the situation can be made worse if these subsequent activities are equally not undertaken at a satisfactory standard.

 

Within this broad FPA Australia framework and policy, this article looks primarily at competency requirements for fire safety engineers developing performance-based fire safety solutions, i.e., the front end of the design and construction process. Some examples of the risks associated with a lack of competency and insurance in Australia are provided, which could affect building and infrastructure owners, designers and the industry as a whole, if this FPA Australia policy is not adopted nationally.

 

 

Current Situation – Fire Safety Engineering

Australia has a performance-based building code,1 which is based on the Nordic hierarchy, with objectives and functional statements that sit above the performance requirements. The latter of which are the legal requirements, which are referenced in state acts and regulations. The performance requirements can be satisfied by meeting the prescriptive, or so-called "deemed-to-satisfy” requirements of the code, or by developing alternative solutions, or by some combination thereof. The building code covers all requirements for buildings, including health, safety and amenity. There is no separate fire safety code. Any alternative solutions related to fire safety require supporting fire safety (protection) engineering analysis or risk assessment.

 

When the performance-based Building Code of Australia was introduced in 1996, most states introduced elements of a model building act, with reform of liability to include proportionate liability arrangements and avoid the "deep pocket” syndrome. That is, people who share responsibility for mistakes only pay in proportion for their contribution to the liability. In Australia, this sits with an English-style common law system. Another requirement of the model legislation introduced only in some states was to require some professional practitioners, but often not all types of engineers and often not trades people, to hold minimum levels of insurance. The principle was to ensure that where engineers or others failed in their duty, those affected by their decisions could at least recover some funds through insurance, even if the engineering firm or their engineers were made bankrupt.

 

 

Whilst a limited number of building failures, large fires and litigation may highlight some of the weaknesses in the performance-based building code system and in some aspects of fire safety design, it must be said that there are many sound fire safety engineers operating in Australia who:

  • demonstrate competence
  • have professional registration
  • maintain their continuing professional development
  • understand and operate within their code of ethics
  • carry the requisite PI and PL insurance, and
  • produce fire safety designs for some great buildings around Australia and internationally

This does not mean that there are no problems or issues with Australian buildings being constructed and operated. For a start, there are only a limited number of fire safety engineers who carry the National Professional Engineers Registration (NPER) or IFE Engineering Council registration or certification. A number of Australian states have no registered practitioner scheme for fire safety engineers. Even where these schemes are in place, the level of professional scrutiny and auditing is not rigorous. Equally, some fire safety engineers may be operating at times beyond their level of competence, and may not even realize this fact.

 

The problem issues that are sometimes seen in fire safety engineering designs include:

  • Discharge of exit stairs internally within buildings without protected routes, instead of direct to open space
  • "Performance-based” or "fire engineering” changes to sprinkler system design when no acceptable engineering method is available for this analysis.
  • Alternative solutions involving unprotected steel or reduced FRL elements with no input or review by competent structural/ fire engineers
  • Designs based on no or limited hazard analysis, and simple use of one scenario design fires.
  • Poor use of fire models with no proper understanding of heat transfer, fluid mechanics, or thermodynamics

Other Issues

If the fundamental fire safety strategy and fire engineering analysis is satisfactory, there are still a number of areas in which the overall fire safety outcomes for the building or infrastructure can go wrong. These include:

  • Poor design of fire protection systems, such as sprinklers, fire detection and smoke control, resulting in non-compliance with Australia Standards
  • Inadequate inspection of fire-rated construction and fire protection systems during construction
  • Structural designers deviating from prescriptive standards without proper fire engineering investigation
  • Inadequate system commissioning, particularly of systems integration, and poor Operations and Maintenance Manuals
  • Inadequate maintenance, and lack of audit by owners or third parties of maintenance contractors
  • Inadequate fire safety management, in terms of site induction training, hot work permits, evacuation drills, etc.

In part, faults in these areas can be attributed to:

  • A lack of proper professional or trade training at many levels of the fire industry
  • No accreditation or individual certification requirements for many design and installation practitioners in some states
  • Over-reliance by principal certifiers (building approval officials) issuing occupancy permits based on certification by others purporting to show adequate inspections of construction and fire protection systems were undertaken
  • Poor checking and quality assurance of design and installation work
  • Poor project management practice putting pressure on designers to lower their standards or over reliance on dubious practices such as "it was done on another job somewhere”
  • Consultants willing to operate outside their area of expertise because of market competition
  • Building owners looking to minimize expenditure on maintenance and fire safety management

Some issues relate to the certification process as exemplified by a recent discussion paper entitled "Improving Building Certification in Queensland.”2

This focused particularly on the role of private (non-government) certifiers. Issues raised include:

  • Handling conflicts of interest
  • How to manage the public interest role and maintain an "independent” approval view of the design
  • Avoidance of participation in design
  • Handling designs involving performance-based solutions
  • Making decisions on "minor” alternative solutions without a fire safety engineer being involved

Many practitioners fail to carry sufficient PL and PI insurance, unless forced by law, which means if things do go wrong with a design or within a completed project, they have insufficient protection. Equally, building owners and managers find they have little or no recourse to legal means of recovering their losses from the practitioners involved.

 

Risks

The fire statistics in Australia do not show at this stage any major market failure that could be attributed to performance-based design, fire safety engineering or other aspects of fire protection in the construction industry. However, there are a number of risks.

 

The first is that failures of design could result in fire deaths or injuries, asset damage, business interruption or other losses when key measures of fire protection do not function as intended. The risks could include endangering the lives of fire fighters, even if the facility occupants are able to escape.

 

Another risk or opportunity lost can be if facilities are grossly over designed because the fire safety engineer or services designer did not understand their task. For example, the fire resistance of structural elements could be chosen to be significantly in excess of the fire severity requirements if this analysis process is not well understood, thus resulting in wasted construction funds. At least this design ends up "on the safe side.” However, the community is not served adequately because resources are wasted.

 

An increasing risk is that of litigation where a facility owner or manager finds that they have building elements that are poorly designed or fail to perform their function. A number of the legal cases for residential buildings in Australia have first been detected as acoustic problems between tenancies, but with further investigation have shown to also be a failure to build separating walls and floors to the required fire resistance level (FRL), including penetrations.

 

A greater risk than all of these is that the fire engineering profession becomes marginalized because of the conflict of interest that private certifiers operate under. Possible examples include:

  • Certifiers, whether government or private, have a critical role with approvals to look after community interest above their duty to their client. However, where they have involvement in the design process, the private certifier may then not judge the design impartially in issuing approvals.
  • The private certifier wants to help his or her client and make more fees, and so he or she might recommend alternative solutions that he or she has approved before. Poor design may result from this situation through higher safety risk or missed opportunities.
  • The profession of fire engineering becomes diminished and de-valued because the design process is short cut or avoided, and the fire engineer is either 1) not involved in the process or 2) reduced to simply justifying a design solution developed by the private certifier and which may not be appropriate.
  • The fire services tend to see certifiers as part of the client team, and not independent. The result is that the fire services consider it is their duty to do much of the certifier’s job of assessment of an alternative solution on behalf of the "public interest” and some may not have the skills for the task.

 

The Way Forward

If these issues are to be resolved satisfactorily, and future major industry and individual problems prevented, then action needs to be taken.

 

FPA Australia has taken action at the broad industry level by setting policy on competency and insurance. To that end, FPA Australia is ramping up its learning and development activities and practitioner certification schemes. These need to be complemented by consistent actions by all state governments to require certification of all practitioners and set requirements for mandatory insurance.

 

The second step is to get the certification/approval and inspection of fire safety measures in buildings improved, as is being proposed in Queensland, and have it rigorously enforced. Conflicts of interest and no involvement in design by certifiers must be enforced, especially in relation to fire safety. Equally, inspections need to be more thorough.

 

The third step is to reexamine what constitutes fire safety engineering and what sort of background, qualifications and training practitioners should have to ensure fire safety strategies are robust.

 

 

Edinburgh University

The University of Edinburgh held a global technology leadership seminar on fire safety engineering education in May/June 2011. This week-long seminar on the future of fire safety education was the start of a major program sponsored by the Lloyd’s Register Educational Trust (LRET).

 

The objective of the seminar was to review the current position of the profession of fire safety engineering, and the present approaches to fire safety engineering education. The aim was identification of areas for improvement and future needs.

Some key conclusions from the seminar were:

  • The profession of fire safety engineering is still in adolescence.
  • Courses need to have a rigorous approach to fire fundamentals, including fire dynamics, that is built upon a good foundation of fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, and heat transfer.
  • Fire safety engineers need a good understanding of structural behavior and human behavior.
  • Courses could benefit from more experience of real world problem solving, design studies and practice oriented projects.
  • Most courses need to pay more attention to hazard analysis, risk assessment, uncertainty/variance, sensitivity analysis, etc.
  • Real fire training is essential to complement theoretical studies.
  • Many practicing fire safety engineers lack the rigorous knowledge of fire safety engineering as a result of inadequate education or insufficient professional experience.

There was a good deal of discussion around a set of five criteria that were agreed as measures of successful fire safety education programs. These measures were:

  • Good quality students entering the course
  • Sound curriculum (rigor, fundamentals)
  • Good teaching faculty
  • Strong research programs
  • Demand for graduates

The Lund University program in Sweden for fire engineering and risk management was highlighted as the exemplar of a successful program.

 

A number of attendees at this LRET-sponsored seminar could point to programs and courses internationally where graduates were not targeted by the top firms because those programs accepted students who were not technically strong and the university curriculum lacked rigor in the fundamentals, and often was not supported by world class research.

 

Peter Johnson is with Arup.

 

A longer version of this paper was first presented at the Fire Australia 2011 conference held in Adelaide, Australia, in November 2011 under the theme, "The Essentials of the Future – Education and Maintenance."

References:

  1. Building Code of Australia, Australian Building Codes Board, Canberra, 2012.
  2. Improving Building Certification in Queensland, - Department of Local Government and Planning, Queensland, Australia, 2011.

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