Emerging Trends

Innovation and Emerging Technology Working Group

The Innovation and Emerging Technology Working Group (IETWG) was established to monitor innovation and emerging technology trends in the international fire safety and fire protection community and keep SFPE International abreast of such developments in industry, academia, and governmental institutions. 

Based on the results from a survey of SFPE members, the working group identified two areas related to emerging trends in the fire protection engineering profession: Emerging Hazards: Building Materials and Emerging Technologies Smart Technologies.

Emerging Hazards: Building Materials

The largest theme for emerging hazards was Building Materials.  Four of the top subjects for emerging hazards were related to building materials.  Specifically, an increase in the combustible or plastic makeup of construction materials, lightweight wood building materials, large wood framed buildings (tall wood buildings), and exterior cladding and facades. 

The common hazard across all subjects is that new construction materials are more prone to burn than their predecessors and are contributing to the fire load of a building.  These materials are being used without properly being assessed for the fire hazard they may be creating.  Specific areas of concern raised by the Membership are the use of these materials in high rise residential buildings.  Also, questions were raised about the need for fire protection during construction. 

New building materials are continuously being developed, tested and marketed. This is done by both public and private organizations around the world, under many different testing and standards regimes. Newer building materials that present a challenge to fire safety is primarily in the form of plastics and wood. Novel metal alloys are by their nature non-flammable, with some exceptions in extreme cases. Carbon fiber construction may utilize flammable resins, but is still too expensive to be widely used. However; increasing demand for strong, durable, light weight, affordable, and in the case of wood; sustainable, materials have dramatically increased both the development and use of plastic and wood building materials. Being flammable to varying degrees, these materials present new challenges for fire safety professionals. Their use is only scheduled to increase so the risks must be investigated and quantified, and appropriate safety measures must be developed.

Plastic materials

These can take many forms and the range of uses is constantly expanding. Usually it is as non-load bearing members, such as cladding and insulation, but reinforced with for example fiberglass, plastic can also be used for structural applications [1]

The increased risk posed by plastic building materials include several factors [2, 3]:

  • Higher fuel load than conventional materials due to increased energy density cause faster fire development and hotter fires
  • Thicker, denser and more toxic smoke as compared to conventional materials due chemical makeup
  • Faster fire consumption of structures leads to increased and more rapid smoke spread
  • Earlier structural collapse in cases of plastic structural members compared to steel, concrete and in some cases wood.

These factors increase the risk from fire to both building residents, neighboring buildings and fire-fighting personnel.

There is overall broad awareness to the challenges these new materials present from a fire safety perspective in the fire engineering community. There are multiple testing standards applied to plastic building materials to measure various properties (e.g. ASTM D635), in addition to plastics being tested under standard tests for the applications where they are used (insulation, cladding etc).

Less studied phenomena include broad effects of multiple plastic materials within one residence, i.e. as opposed to single item being tested in isolation in the lab. This includes both the effects on the fire growth due to plastic fuel, and the effects on occupants when large amounts of plastic effluents spread throughout a building.

The main priority for further study is quantifying how the use of large amounts of plastic materials, for many different types of constriction elements (insulation, cladding, load-bearing, etc) will increase the fire risk, growth and spread. Additionally, any possible mitigation procedures should be evaluated.

Wood materials

Two main developments regarding wood construction materials that raise fire protection concerns are on each end of the spectrum; light weight engineered wood materials, and heavy wood framed high-rise buildings.

Lightweight wood building materials

Lightweight engineered wood materials, such as plywood I-beams, opposite strand board (OSB), and dimensional lumber (e.g. 2x4) are being used increasingly in construction, primarily in low-rise residential and commercial buildings. By reducing or eliminating the use of large solid wood members in favor of engineered alternatives with less materials the same load-bearing capacity can be achieved at lower costs, both in materials and for transportation due to lower weight [4].

This can lead to increased challenges in the case of a fire. While the materials are still wood, and not more flammable to any appreciable degree, the beams, trusses and panels are thinner and can more quickly be consumed by the fire and create large void spaces where the fire can spread; behind walls, under floors etc. Additionally, as these load bearing elements are more quickly consumed by fire, without developing a sufficient protective char layer, the risk of building collapse increases, presenting a risk to both evacuation residents and firefighting personnel.

Large wood framed buildings

An increased interest in tall wood buildings presents numerous challenges to fires safety. Typically building codes require that buildings above a certain height, dependent on occupancy, be build of non-combustible materials, and having certain fire resistance ratings to prevent weakening of the load-bearing abilities [5].

Recently architects and civil engineers have started designing buildings using mass-timber materials, primarily cross-laminated timber (CLT) or glued-laminated timber (glulam) [6] for use in high rise buildings (six stories and up). Engineered heavy timber members can show performance similar to steel and concrete but with numerous benefits [7, 8]. Fire risks associated with these buildings include [9]:

  • Contribution to fuel load from exposed timber, including delaminating CLT
  • Reduction in load bearing capacity during fire
  • Fire compartmentation concerns due to charring behavior, especially regarding service penetrations.

Because of the large interest in mass-timber structures, especially in Europe, these risks are currently being studied, but more work is also needed. For example, there are few of these buildings in existence so analysis of the actual finished buildings is limited. Soliciting information (e.g. conference talks) from architects, engineers, AHJs etc) who have been involved in the constructing of these buildings can provided valuable insight into where the greatest challenges lie. 

Exterior cladding and facades

Recent fires, most notably the Grenfell tower fire in England, has highlighted the dangers of flammable exterior façade cladding (often these contain plastics, refer to discussion above). Problems noted in that case include insufficient testing for fire resistance of the components used [10]. Questions have also been raised about the approval process and various other safety violations [11].

Cladding materials must comply with various testing standards, such as NFPA 285, Flammability Characteristics of Exterior Non-load-bearing Wall Assemblies Containing Combustible Components Using the Intermediate Scale Multi-Story Test Apparatus (ISMA). Though components that have undergone testing showing equivalent performance can be used in many jurisdictions. This is likely the area that presents the greatest challenges following recent fire incidents, questions such as; Are the test methods adequate? Do they account for the performance and interaction of the whole system, not just individual components? Do they account for future use and occupancy changes? Monitoring the outcome of expert reports investigating these incidents can provide important guidance where future research should be focused.

References (Building Materials)

[1] Hinderaker, Emily, “Plastic Building Materials: Common Types, Sources, Applications & Benefits”, Bedford Technology, May 30, 2018. Retrieved from: https://plasticboards.com/plastic-building-materials/

[2] Burke, Robert, “Plastics & Polymerization: What Firefighters Need To Know”, Firehouse Magazine, Feb 28, 1999. Retrieved from: https://www.firehouse.com/rescue/article/10544313/plastics-polymerization-what-firefighters-need-to-know

[3] Parker, Arthur J. and Beitel, Jesse J., “Flammability Requirements for Plastic Materials”, Green Building Solutions, Retrieved on 03-18-2018, from: https://www.greenbuildingsolutions.org/blog/flammability-requirements-plastic-materials/

[4] Mullins, Al, “The New Normal, Light Weight Wood Construction”, Fire Link, Retrieved on 03-18-2018, from:: http://firelink.monster.com/training/articles/225-the-new-normal-light-weight-wood-construction

[5] Stolark, Jessie, “Timber Cities – High-Rise Wood Construction Poised to Grow Thanks to New Codes”. Environmental and Energy Studies Institute, January 3, 2019, Retrieved from: https://www.eesi.org/articles/view/timber-cities-high-rise-wood-construction-poised-to-grow-thanks-to-new-code

[6] Moriarty, Nicholas A., “Evaluating high-rise wood construction “, Consulting – Specifying Engineer Magazine, July 12, 2018, Retrieved from:  https://www.csemag.com/articles/evaluating-high-rise-wood-construction

[7] “High-Rise Timber Buildings”, Fire Protection Engineering Magazine, Q3, 2014.

[8] Gerard, R., Barber, D., & Wolski, A. "Fire Safety Challenges of Tall Wood Buildings.” Fire Protection Research Foundation, Quincy, MA, 2013.

[9] Avsec, Robert, “Are wood-frame high rises a fire risk?” FireRescue1, March 14, 2017, Retrieved from:  https://www.firerescue1.com/fire-chief/articles/204582018-Are-wood-frame-high-rises-a-fire-risk/

[10] Torero, Jose, L., “Grenfell Tower: Phase 1 report”, Torero, Abecassis Empis and Cowlard, May 23, 2018.

[11] BBC News, “Grenfell Tower: 'Catastrophic' safety failures outlined”, June 4, 2018 Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-44351567

Emerging Technologies: Smart Technologies

Smart Technologies is the generic term defining common devices or systems that have been updated to include sensors, software algorithms, and integrated connectivity for communication of data.  Within fire protection and life safety, Smart Technologies are available or being developed within the realm of detection, suppression, smoke management, notification, egress, and as tools to aid first responders.

Technologies are often being driven by equipment manufacturers developing the products and marketing them to building owners and developers.  However, their pace of development is significantly ahead a coordinated industry strategy for the effective use of the technologies and how they can be integrated together.  Practitioners may be forced to use engineering judgement with new technologies to meet the intent of existing codes and standards.  This raises concern about the potential lack of guidance for appropriate installation and design guidance, system reliability and availability, listing certification, and IT&M requirements. 

In addition, these various technologies can be employed together requiring multiple system integration.  For example, an intelligent detection system could; provide input to a notification system with customized instructions to occupants; initiate an active fire protection system like electronically activated sprinklers; and communicate directly with first responders to aid in response.  While a completely integrated intelligent system would provide exceptional life safety, there is a potential that an improperly designed or implemented system could be detrimental. 

1. Smart Detection, Notification, and Egress

Respondents to the survey provided numerous examples of emerging alternative detection products that are entering the fire safety market.  The primary difference is that the devices are more intelligent and are being employed in new, innovative, and interconnected ways.  Wireless capabilities are also being employed for these systems providing a very high level of connectivity.  Multi-response detection systems with processing algorithms can reduce false alarms and respond more quickly than traditional single-response detection system.  There are also new capabilities of video fire detection, CCTV smoke detection, air sampling systems, and combined smoke and IR detection to name a few. 

The detection systems can also be used as an input to intelligent notification and egress systems.  Based on the local situation and fire development, messaging systems can be modified to flow occupants away from hazards.  Monitoring systems could identify the presence of occupants in an area and notify first responders accordingly.  These systems could also be used in non-fire life safety events like an active shooter.  Systems could either lock or unlock doors to prevent or provide building access or egress.

Additional research in the use and specification of Smart Detection systems is valuable to define:

  • System reliability requirements compared to traditional hard-wired systems
  • Data interpretation and output/response
  • Vulnerability of systems to malicious attacks
  • Inspection, testing, and maintenance requirements
  • Installation and design guidance
  • Adequacy of listing and approval standards

Smart Sprinklers

Electronically activated sprinklers (EAS), commonly referred to as Smart Sprinklers, are not operated by a thermal element like traditional sprinklers.  Heat, smoke, or another detection method identify the presence of a fire and electronically operates sprinklers over the hazard.  The size of a fire at the time of detection is much smaller than a fire that would operate a traditional sprinkler thermal element.  Initiating sprinklers earlier in the fire development results in lower overall damage and may be a viable solution for hazards that cannot be protected by traditional sprinklers.

These complex systems do have inherent vulnerabilities that need to be considered.  First, some EAS systems use a complex algorithm to identify where the fire is located and operate sprinklers over the fire.  The algorithm must be validated for the hazards being protected.  Second, electronically activated sprinklers may not possess a thermal element and would not operate without a signal from the detection device or panel.  In the case where a fire is not located correctly, or spreads beyond the initial sprinklers, additional sprinklers may not activate as the fire spreads.  Finally, based on the complex nature of the system, an electronically activated sprinkler system may not have the same reliability as a traditional system. 

Additional research in the use and specification of Smart Sprinkler systems is valuable to define:

  • System reliability requirements compared to traditional systems
  • Interpretation of detection data for locating fire and operating sprinklers
  • Vulnerability of systems to common building features like girders/purlins, sloped ceilings, and air movement equipment that could impact system response
  • Inspection, testing, and maintenance requirements
  • Adequate listing and approval standards
  • Appropriate fire codes for systems (NFPA 72, NFPA 13, New Standards?)

Integration of SMART Technologies

Individual Smart Technologies are being developed for all aspects of life safety and are inherently making buildings and systems more intelligent.  However, a holistic building integration of all systems is still rare.  This is partially driven by the fact that few product manufacturers can provide all the various systems for a building.  Proper integration may be possible across system provided by one manufacturer but lack proper integration with systems provided by a different manufacturer.  Each may have their own system communication and data interpretation framework. 

As an industry, a minimum level of integration (common framework or communication structure) should be defined between the various life safety systems.  Detection and systems from one manufacturer should integrate with notification and egress systems from another to best use data available.  Fire protection systems should also integrate with other building systems such as smoke or environmental controls.

Additional research in defining the minimal level various building systems should integrate, as well as a common defined communication framework, is needed. 

Building Information Modeling (BIM) and Building Intelligent Systems (BIS)

Building Information Modeling (BIM) system and Building Intelligent Systems (BIS) are two emerging methods of collecting and analysing data from buildings.  BIM is the process of creating a digital representation of a physical building and all the interconnected systems.  Different modeling tools allow for viewing of different layers based on need, which are automatically consistent and dependent (changes to one will automatically change the others).  This enables a virtual environment for all individuals involved in a project, such as owners, architects, engineers, and AHJs to correspond on common terms and maintain information throughout its life. 

Building Intelligent Systems (BIS) are building systems that incorporate smart technology.  These systems include automated systems, energy management, wireless technologies, networked devices, remote monitoring, etc.  These interconnected technologies make buildings more intelligent and responsive.  This philosophy is being employed in the fire protection aspects of a building from detection and suppression systems to notification devices and evacuation.

Additional research in guidance on how to incorporate BIM and BIS in building design and operation, especially related to life safety, would benefit the industry.