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Monday, 21 January 2013

'Engineered' Solutions ...

During the latter part of my career one of the 'new' approaches to life and property protection was the adoption of the "fire engineered solution" as a substitute for the so-called "prescriptive" approach to fire protection. The problem is that, all toooften, the motive was to reduce the cost of construction and not to ensure adequate protection. "Risk Based" solutions was the new buzz-phrase and a "risk assessment" was generally produced to support the non-provision of a wide range of protection measures. I annoyed some of those who believed everything could be reduced to 'ticks in a box" to support their idea of a "fire engineered solution" by having this definition on the wall in my office -

Fire Safety Engineering

The art of manipulating processes, materials and systems to protect buildings and people from events we cannot fully assess or anticipate, into models and structures we do not fully understand, in such a way the public at large has no reason to suspect the depth of our ignorance.

One of the pioneers of this field, a professor, saw it and took a copy to use in his lectures, an endorsement for caution in my view.

That view has recently been reinforced by the debacle of the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport. Scheduled to open in 2012, it will now not be open until 2015 at the earliest - and that assumes there are no further problems exposed as they attempt to put right what was wrong in the first place.

The problem is the fire protection. It was "engineered" and a lot of the fire barriers that would usually have subdivided spaces to slow down fire spread, have not been included in the design. The sprinkler system has been designed to a minimum and the heads placed at a height where it is unlikely they will respond to anything timeously. The smoke extraction system, a key element, is also found to be deficient and, despite repeated warnings from the responsible Fire Service, the whole scheme was rushed ahead without taking any notice of the objections. In response to the objections, the fire officer was told, 'its an "engineered" solution. It will all work when it is completed."

The result is that, less than 24 hours before the airport was due to be opened with a great fanfare and all the usual dignitaries making speeches - the Fire Brigade pulled the plug and refused to sign the safety certification. That was a year ago. The project is now running several billion €uro over budget, the Chairman of the Project Committee (the Mayor of Berlin) has resigned and more heads are likely to roll as it continues. There was enormous pressure on the fire officers to 'sign' and accept the 'engineered solution.' Based on their assessment - a thorough and very detailed review of the plans and systems and finally a 'hot smoke' test - they refused, and they have been proved right. The tests have proved the fire service was right all along. The "engineered" solution doesn't work.

One of the biggest problems is the smoke control system, which, for aesthetic reasons was not to have any roof mounted ducts, was supposed to pull the hot smoke down into under floor ducting and discharge it in 'towers' at strategic points. Anyone who has experience of dealing with hot smoke will tell you this is NOT the best way to try to handle hot smoke. For one thing, it is difficult to "pull" it into a duct, for another, it wants to go upward - and the ducts create turbulence at the intakes which means you're mixing air, increasing the volume of the smoke. No wonder it failed the tests.

One can only wonder, in the light of this experience, how many other "fire engineered solutions" may prove totally deficient if put to the ultimate test - a real catastrophic event.

In the meantime, the Berlin Brandenburg Airport remains closed. Many of the systems have to be pulled out, redesigned and totally replaced. Many of the buildings require major alteration or reconstruction and the taxpayers are picking up the tab. On top of this, the 'concession' shops had all been let, the tennants pressured into installing their fittings and stock and hiring staff - which is now all standing idle and costing ... If it all goes to schedule, and provided the government keeps paying, the airport now looks likely to open three years late and some €2 billion over the original €3 billion cost.

Probably not the best advert for the design team, the "fire engineers" involved or the Project Managers, who, just to add insult to injury, are all civil service bureaucrats.

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