Fire Engineering – Challenges, Changes and the Redesign of Regulation

Fire Engineering – Challenges, Changes and the Redesign of Regulation

17 Feb 2020

By Honorary Consul Kim Lovegrove MSE RML FAIB, Chairman of the IBQC, Senior Lawyer and Law Reformer, Lovegrove & Cotton – Construction and Planning Lawyers

In many parts of the globe, fire engineering (‘FE’) or fire protection engineering (‘FPE’) is emerging as an increasingly critical discipline. A number of high profile vertical fire spread incidents in recent years have brought in to focus the importance of this profession. Rigorously orchestrated fire engineered design and installation inputs are critical determinants in the arresting of compromised fire suppression outcomes.

Considerations that are essential to the effectiveness of fire engineering dexterity are as follows:-

  • skill levels;
  • professionalism and objectivity;
  • fire engineering interaction with the building approval regime;
  • fire engineering interaction with codified higher risk based building classifications; and
  • the application of a holistic approach to fire engineering.

Fire engineering is a complex discipline and an emerging engineering science. It “is the practice of applying chemistry, physics and electrical engineering [principals from mechanical, electrical, chemical and civil engineering with additional education, training and knowledge of fire dynamics concerned with the protection of life, property and the environment in the most commercial and practical application.”[1]

Emerging Problems for Fire Safety that Require Fire Engineered Solutions

The complexity of the science of fire engineering is mounting for reasons including the two following notable additional factors:-

Climate Change

Climate change is generating more extreme weather scenarios and more extreme fire events, particularly in Australian bush fire prone regions. This is impacting upon fire engineering as policymakers and the fire engineering profession will have to divine solutions that are sensitive to climatic flow-on effects. Academic coalitions are urgently trying to find out ways by which extreme fire events can be better managed.

The International Fire Safety Consortium, a consortium of preeminent tertiary institutions recently published a release that stated the following: “Fires result in hundreds of thousands of deaths each year and significant financial losses, according to the Fire Protection Research Foundation. Due to current pivotal trends in global urbanisation, climate change, human migration, and social inequality, the need to address fire safety as a humanitarian issue has become urgent.”[2]

In addition to the very pertinent concerns regarding building regulation in bush fire prone regions is the concern regarding high density living in our cities in circumstances where extremely hot weather events will become increasingly frequent. In a period where there is densification in our major cities, the strain on our electricity grid emanating as it often does from air-conditioning requirements will be increased.

Novel Building Products

New technologies are changing the risk profile of buildings, particularly in the high rise paradigm. Case on point is the use of aluminium combustible panels (ACPs), which has become widespread. Fire engineers have not in all instances had sufficient regard to the issues posed in approving these new mediums. Some countries have enacted legislation demanding the removal of ACPs, whilst others are more agnostic about the impact of ACPs. That which is clear is that when widespread installation of ACPs was in vogue, there was insufficient appreciation of that which would unfold, and has unfolded, in some countries.

The acceleration of novel fire engineering scenarios accelerates the need for the fire engineering profession to uniformly upskill. The word ‘uniformly’ is emphasised as the writer has first-hand experience in resolving compromised fire related building disputes and has observed a significant disparity in fire engineering competence, which can, at times, be bewildering.

Licensing and Accreditation 

To bolster the uniformity of skill levels, it is very important that there is an expansion of licensing regimes that compel fire engineers (along with other key building practitioners) to be accredited and registered. It is submitted that the time of the ‘light-touch regulator’ is over and jurisdictions that have great faith in the ability of the free market to self-regulate may wish to rethink that.

Some of the most altruistic and progressive practice jurisdictions will ensure that the licensing bodies are exacting in terms of the qualification and experience criteria that determines registration eligibility. Lowest common denominator licensing criteria does not sit comfortably in best practice fire engineering ecology.

Progressive jurisdictions must also give serious consideration to imposing mandatory annual CPD requirements and that which is taught will be continually refreshed to ensure that the latest fire engineering knowledge finds its way into CPD curricula.

Too Much Variability in Licensing Criteria 

When viewed through cross-jurisdictional lenses there is tremendous variance in qualification criteria. In California, prospective fire engineers must have an engineering degree and a few years of mentored experience followed by an exacting fire engineering test that they must pass before they can join the ranks of fire engineers.

In Australia in some state jurisdictions, the licensing boards require diplomas in fire engineering yet others like Queensland require an engineering degree as one of the prerequisites to licensing.

A trip to Shanghai in China will reveal astonishing high rise architecture; it is little wonder as highly trained ‘quality assurance supervisors’ are essential artisans in the practitioner ecology. They all have engineering degrees with the learning accoutrements of a further 5 years’ training before they become ‘medium level engineers’. There is then a further 4 years of training before being eligible to sit a battery of tests that enable them to become quality assurance supervisors.

Such are the demands of rapidly changing technology and such is the potential for negative impacts to flow from compromised fire engineered solutions that the qualification criteria for fire engineers should be somewhat onerous. Fire engineering is a high-risk profession which is borne out by insurers increasingly electing not to insure staple elements of fire engineering work.

Upskilling, however, cannot happen overnight and has to be graduated and grandfathered in, as there is a shortage in many parts of the world of ‘fire engineers’. Upskilling processes must keep abreast of the science; for, when skills fall behind the science and technological progression, the ‘educational tree’ has a tendency to bear the bitter fruits of unintended and un-envisaged consequences.

Professionalism, Objectivity and Judgment 

Professionalism is more than just about qualification and experience. It is very much about the way the actor approaches the totality of the task. The following elements are part of an ideal building professional disposition:-

  • unflappability;
  • impartiality;
  • an ability to be detached and single minded in the pursuit of professional purity; and
  • an ethical mindset with the ability to say no when nefarious pressures are brought to bear urging one to say yes – the moral response has to be the automatic response.

These qualities bode well in the high-octane environment of the construction industry where economic and time drivers weigh heavily upon the exercise of judgement. Engineers and other building practitioners have to adjudicate without fear or favour and the difficulties in maintaining this rigour cannot be underestimated as there is never any let up.

The Interaction of Fire Engineering Inputs with the Building Permit Ecology

In a post-Grenfell world, the role and participation levels of the fire engineer in the permit ecology are being redefined. In some parts of Australia, building surveyors were, for many years, allowed to issue occupancy permits without any legal requirement to procure fire engineered solutions. In the new world of escalated fire risk, this status quo is no longer sustainable.

To allay concerns associated with the building industry’s changing risk landscape fire engineers may soon by force of law be called upon to certify design, and test, commission and sanction fire engineered inputs. Building certifiers (or building officials – call them what you will) have for too long been burdened with the responsibility of approving that which goes well beyond their professional comfort zone. For an article relating to ameliorating this burden on Private Certifiers, click HERE.

The insurance fraternity is increasingly loath to underwrite private building officials in both the UK and the antipodes in light of their unintended assumption of responsibility. In terms of ensuring a balanced chain of accountability, there cannot be the continuation of liability and risk diffusion, and confusion of responsibility. When this occurs, expensive litigation is often a by-product where cases run to trial and judges and tribunal decision makers are left with the arduous task of apportioning liability. Such apportionment is never easy and judicial determinations are often appealed due to the ultimately somewhat arbitrary science of liability apportionment.

Better Delineation of Accountability Is Required

Some jurisdictions have tried to use statute to better delineate liability for outcome. In the early nineties in the Australian state of Victoria, the Building Act 1993 was proclaimed. Section 238 provides that the Responsible Building Surveyor (RBS) can rely upon a compliance certificate issued by a prescribed class of building practitioner that their work complies with the Building Code of Australia. Section 128 of the Building Act 1993 additionally provided that as long as that reliance was in good faith, the RBS would be exonerated from liability.

The writer was instructing officer to the parliamentary counsel the drafters of the Act. The intention of the compliance certification regime was to ensure that those in possession of skills bespoke to the specialist task would be best suited to certifying compliance. The prescribed practitioners were electrical, structural and civil engineers.

The hopes of the policymakers were never realised as many within the engineering fraternity were advised by their lawyers to abstain from issuing compliance certificates.

By default the building surveyors were left ‘carrying the can’ and in so doing went well beyond their intended statutory remits, as they, by default, exercised professional judgments that they were not trained to exercise. Engineers, of course, were still deployed extensively but by and large refused to issue the compliance certificates. Liability thus cross pollinated rather than vesting with the responsible practitioner.

It is submitted that, in light of recent fire calamities, the legislated discretion that permits engineers to elect not to issue compliance certificates may well need to be revisited. A failure to do this will, in all likelihood, further accelerate the demise of the private certification fraternity and local government will once again be “groundhog dayed” into becoming the insurers of last resort. The private certification profession was extinguished in NZ early in the third millennium because of these very facilitators. For more regarding suggestions concerning the sustainability of private certification, read an article on point HERE.

The Problem of Insurability – High Noon

A cornerstone of the British and antipodean building permit ecology over the last few decades has been the ready availability of construction Professional Indemnity (‘PI’) Insurance. A tectonic shift is underway where insurers are retreating from traditional fire-related risk underwriting. This means that many fire engineers are ‘running bare’ or ‘self-insuring’ their own risk liability. The consequences of this are profound: absent the availability of Professional Indemnity, the engineers will imbibe a frightening level of personal liability exposure. Consumers will find themselves bereft of redress which will compromise the integrity of statutory frameworks.

The Demise of Insurability Will Require a Redesign of Building Regulatory Ecology

Building legislation will need to be redesigned to incorporate more failsafe regulatory mechanisms to better guarantee robust as built outcomes. This may well require the mandated involvement of independent peer review mechanisms (for an article concerning independent peer review, click HERE).

In the case of high risk classes of buildings, a new paradigm where compliance certificates are issued by experts may well become the norm, complemented by an extra ‘set of eyes’ being brought to bear by way of independent peer reviewers or proof engineers.

The importance of this is borne out in the following passage extracted from an Engineers Australia publication:

When assessing the reliability of systems, when assessing means of escape-pre movement time – it is expected that the fire risk assessment be subjected to peer review by a fire Safety Engineer. The peer review should be independent from the risk assessment, be appointed by the client, be suitably qualified and registered competent professional, and the appointment agreed with the stakeholders including the appropriate authorities. An independent peer reviewer must be able to demonstrate no conflict of interest and must have clear guidelines as to the tasks and responsibilities in the process and their liability in the final assessment – shared with all of the relevant stakeholders.[3]

The above passage is very instructive. Having said that, some actors, albeit a very small minority, may find it difficult to always be clinically objective where they are retained and remunerated by the client to peer review in a context where there may be cost cutting commercial imperatives. Legislative probity controls should be developed to ensure that the peer review system is inoculated against anything that may compromise optimum levels of objectivity.

There are a lot of moving parts, so a high level of cooperation by key actors is naturally required; without a regulatory mechanism to compel expert conclaves, the spirit accord may prove illusive. Independent peer review is a major discussion in its own right and the writer has explored the issues further in his piece on ‘Robust Peer Review Systems and their Importance to Modern Day Building Control’.

A peer review mechanism combined with a bespoke compliance certification regime will, in the writer’s view, culminate in more robust built outcomes which in turn will diminish the need to have an insurance safety net. Well-built buildings do not fail; so the need for an insurance safety net becomes superfluous. Intrusive holistic regulatory architecture can achieve this outcome.

The Importance of Holistic Fire Engineering 

Fire engineering is multi-faceted and well-engineered fire solutions and systems are the ‘sum of all parts’; ‘parts’ being defined as elements, systems, the interaction of the relevant actors and the forecasting of human behaviour when it interacts with fire engineered outcomes. Reminiscent of a jig saw puzzle, a missing piece delivers a conspicuous hole; an incomplete thesis; a compromised outcome where that missing piece can, in certain scenarios, compromise the integrity of the system.

The following quotes from Haejun Park’s dissertation are illustrative and go a long way to encapsulating the more poignant components of the fire engineered ecology.

A building is a complex system of multiple sub-systems; not only the physical equipment but also the other design features. Its performance depends on the level of interactions of these systems as a whole as well as each system’s functionality. If one sub-system is not operating well or interacting properly with other sub-systems, the entire system… …would not perform as intended.

In terms of fire safety performance, people are also additional dynamic variables… interact[ing] with building design features and physical fire protection systems. As such, to have a better understanding of fire safety performance, it is critical for FPEs to have a holistic perspective to observe the interactions of building and people in fire conditions…

…fire protection engineers need to understand a holistic building fire safety performance considering the characteristics of building’s physical components including, its design features, people (occupants and firefighters), and fire as a system in order to estimate what can actually happen as they are all influencing each other determining final performance.”[4]

Considerations such as[5]:-

  • External walls;
  • Fire safety systems;
  • Passive protection;
  • Population means of escape;
  • Fire-fighting existing condition; and
  • Remedial activity and Construction fire safety

Are all factors that come into play for holistic fire engineering solutions.

Practitioner Ecology and the Need for Architectural and Fire Engineering Coalition

It is expected that the engineer will recognise their knowledge limits and, should a skill be lacking (e.g. Environmental sustainable design, façade Design, buildability, Staging , etc.), then a suitably qualified person or organisation (e.g. ESD Engineer, Architect, Structural engineer, mechanical Engineer etc.) should be appointed to ensure all necessary details can be obtained.”

Architects and FPEs have not seemed to fully recognise the Architect’s critical role in determining fire safety for designs based on the prescriptive-based regulations… …the influence of building design features on fire safety performance should be included in the performance analyses conducted by FPEs… …fire protection engineers need to recognise architects as key players for fire safety, and help them understand their capability to increase fire safety performance on building safety performance in order to [consider] fire safety design from the earliest building design stages.”[6]

Both architects and FPEs, and ultimately building outcomes, will benefit from more dialogue between the two professions, and further education on the respective design roles  of the other discipline in the overall process of designing functional, aesthetically-pleasing and cost-effective buildings with the required levels of safety.”[7]

Again, these passages are instructive as they emphasise the importance of all of the actors involved in building design to have regard to holistic design considerations that reconcile all of the ‘sub systems’. The professional inputs of all of the relevant actors must calibrate, design contributions must not be carried out in isolation of one another. The architect will be the principal designer but must have regard to the interaction of the other designers when fashioning that which will deliver viable, desirable and sustainable building in use outcomes. This is particularly important in high consequence building classifications, be they SHRs, places of public entertainment, densely populated buildings and the like.

It is submitted however that absent the intervention of mandatory multi-skilled peer review involvement the required level of practitioner coalescence will not gain sufficient traction.

Conclusion

The criticality of Fire Engineers in the modern building regulatory and quality assurance paradigm must not be understated. In an era where climate change and building product innovation present new fire safety challenges, regulators must be agile and concurrently innovative to ensure that the regulatory paradigm is not left behind.

Registration requirements for Fire Engineers must be exacting as these practitioners should be very highly skilled in their niche discipline – robust registration requirements are the key cornerstones of the effective regulation of as-built fire engineering solutions. Certification of fire suppression systems and fire engineered design by fire engineers will ameliorate the increasing absence of Professional Indemnity Insurance. Such a legislative requirement would interact well with a legislated building risk-correlated peer review mechanism.

Whilst legislation can increase rigour concerning the sanctioning of fire engineered solutions, key practitioner collaboration will also be essential to ensure that all design solutions in a building work hand and hand, and that there is a holistic picture concerning the systems within building projects. Architects, civil engineers, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, builders, building managers and the likes, along with the consumers of as-built product, should all collaborate with fire engineers to ensure that the project’s systems work as a whole, and do so in perpetuity.

Where there is a culture of collaboration and a regulatory system that is rigorous in its methods of ensuring that highly qualified fire engineering practitioners are brought into the regulatory circle, and where fire engineered solutions are reviewed and endorsed (where risk dictates that occurs), the risks of adverse fire related outcomes be likely to diminish.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Firehouse, ‘What is Fire Protection Engineering?’ Feb (2003), accessed at <https://www.firehouse.com/operations-training/article/10576275/what-is-fire-protection-engineering>

[2] Melbourne University, ‘Media Release: International Fire Safety Consortium Launched to Address Urgent Global Challenges’, 11 Feb. 2020.

[3] Engineers Australia – Society of Fire Safety, ‘Façade Fire Safety Design’, 10.

[4] Haejun Park, ‘Development of a Holistic approach to integrated fire Safety Performance and Building Design’ (2014), 25.

[5] Engineers Australia – Society of Fire Safety, ‘Façade Fire Safety Design’, 8.

[6] Haejun Park, ‘Development of a Holistic approach to integrated fire Safety Performance and Building Design’ (2014), 25.

[7] Ibid, 26.

 

Honorary Consul Kim Lovegrove MSE RML FAIB – Law Reform Consultant

Honorary Consul Kim Lovegrove MSE RML FAIB has 30 years’ experience in law reform, strategic advice, the design of building regulation and best practice building dispute resolution, overhauling and re-engineering liability and probity insurance regimes, the design of licensing and registration regimes and the design of regulatory risk management systems.

If you wish to engage Kim Lovegrove or the firm, feel free to contact us via +61 3 9600 4077, our website or by emailing enquiries@lclawyers.com.au.