A Mentor Who Transformed Our Profession

From the Technical Editor:
A Mentor Who Transformed Our Profession

By Chris Jelenewicz, P.E., Senior Manager for Engineering Practice, SFPE | Fire Protection Engineering

Last October the profession lost one of its legends. Professor John L. Bryan, known to his students and friends as the "Prof," left behind a legacy that was twofold. That is, he made significant scientific contributions that changed our profession and he was a mentor and friend to thousands who practiced in our profession.

So much has been said about how under Prof' s leadership the Department of Fire Protection Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park evolved from a modest, one-person operation, to a mature and vital program that has made significant contributions in reducing the world's fire problem. Moreover, he was not just known as a typical professor and department chair, but as someone who changed the lives of hundreds of his students.

Whenever I think about the Prof' s long lasting contributions to our profession, it was his research in how humans react during a fire emergency that transcended the field of fire protection engineering. Before he started researching human behavior, most of the focus on protecting people from fire was related to prevention and protection measures such as limiting combustibles and installing fire protection systems in buildings. Although these methodologies had positive effects on life safety, Prof always knew that society could not get to the bottom of the fire problem until there was a clear " understanding and appreciation for the complexity of the behavioral characteristics of the individual in a fire situation." In his writings and lectures, he frequently reiterated the fact that the difference between a minor fire incident and a major fire incident often involved the human behavior of the occupants immediately prior to the fire incident or during the fire incident.

One his first noteworthy studies involved interviewing survivors of the Arundel Park fire that occurred in 1956. In this study, he discussed the concept of re-entry behavior. This is where people who successfully exited the fire building re-entered the building to assist family members or attempt to extinguish the fire.

He continued his research in the landmark Project People study that analyzed post-fire questionnaires of 584 participants in 335 fire incidents. In this study he documented that an individual's response to a fire incident is affected by 1) building characteristics and 2) the perceived physical cues of fire severity at the time the individual becomes aware of the fire. These two factors became the foundation for future human behavior studies.

With the success of the Project People study came Project People II that analyzed 65 fire incidents. Most of the incidents in Project People II involved health care facilities. This study showed us that staff will perform their professional roles in assisting occupants during fire emergencies even in situations with a high degree of personal risk.

In his studies of high-rise building fires such as the MGM Grand Hotel fire, he brought light to a phenomenon called Convergence Clusters. This is where groups of humans tend to move to specific rooms that serve as an area of refuge. He also identified how the occupants selected rooms for the area of refuge that were located away from the fire and often had balconies that provided a way for occupants to get away from the smoke.

Prof also taught us that humans react deliberately and purposefully during a fire emergency and that "panic," although commonly observed in Hollywood and the news media, is an unusual behavior observed during fire emergencies. He also stressed how humans need and seek information during emergencies and how voice alarm systems are an effective means of providing this information.

His contributions have resulted in numerous changes to our codes/standards and provided a basis for how fire protection engineers are using performance-based design today. Although the Prof will truly be missed by his students, colleagues and friends, his contributions to the area of human behavior in fire will last forever.