Welcome to our new website!
Sept. 29, 2021

020 - Fire Safety Engineering as a socio-technical system with Brian Meacham

020 - Fire Safety Engineering as a socio-technical system with Brian Meacham

Do you sometimes feel that fire safety engineering is not making a footprint as it should? With all our knowledge, models, technology...why do huge fires exist? Why fire is such a threat to billions of humans? In today's episode, I'm hosting a guest who spent three decades researching what performance-based fire safety engineering is, and what it could be. And I'm not completely sure if I like the answers I got from this talk. However, based on my experience of 17 interviews with world-class fire scientists I confirm - Brian has a great point in seeking the breakthrough in a change on how we perceive fire safety.

It is a socio-technical system. A part of a much larger system of the built environment. If we don't learn how to treat it as such a system, if we continue to live in our silo separated from the rest of the engineering branches, there is not much that can change.

This is an important episode. It does not give you easy wins or short answers. But it certainly provokes you to think about what role do you play in the big picture. And to realize that, I reckon it is worth an hour of your time.

Learn more about Brian at his webpage:
https://meachamassociates.com/
or connect through LinkedIn

Brian is currently the Chairman of the IAFSS and past President of SFPE. Are you a member of these organizations? If not, maybe you should! Learn more at:
https://www.iafss.org/
https://www.sfpe.org/home

Here are some chosen papers by Brian, illustrating how his concepts evolved over time:

Transcript
Wojciech Wegrzynski:

Hello, and welcome to session 20 of the fire science show. Great to have you here, another nice round number for the podcast, and as usual, I'm having a really nice special guest for you. Um, my today's guest is also very special to me because he's research on the performance based engineering as being a starting point for many, many of my own endeavors. So I truly, truly admire him for his science, besides scientists as great that. During his years at Worchester Polytechnic Institute, he's shaped a whole generation of young fire safety engineers in the U S and not only. And, uh, his service to community is also astounding. He's served as the President of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers and currently is the Chairman of the International Association for the Fire Safety Science. This is an amazing record, but after all. Just a really nice guy. And if you ever meet him on the conference, make sure to talk with him because this, these discussions are the best. So please help me welcoming professor Bram Mitcham of Meacham associates and with Brian, what else can we talk about is going to be a discussion about the future of performance-based fire safety engineering, or maybe even the future of the fire safety engineering as a whole, that's not belong this anymore. Let's spin the intro and jump into the episode. Hello everybody. Welcome to Fire Science Show. I am today with Professor Brian Meacham managing principal of Meacham associates. Hi Brian.

Brian Meacham:

Hi Wojciech, how are you?

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

I'm great. I'm really happy. We got to this point to do this interview.

Brian Meacham:

I'm honored that I've been invited to join this a wonderful and important podcast. So thank you.

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

well, thanks. Thanks for your opinion. That's much appreciated. I'm really happy to hear that from you, especially. So Brian, I know your research. I know your studies. I followed them for years they've been the starting point for many of my own research items. And I really wish I could start this podcast by saying 15 or 20 years ago when I started my interest in this discipline, it was a completely different world. And now everything is different, but it's not I'm here just for less than two decades. And I don't see this paradigm shift around me. I go to my office, I do the same work I did 10 years ago. Did we slow down or stop? What, how do you feel about that?

Brian Meacham:

Yeah, I share a bit your same concerns. And for me it's been more than 30 years. So, when I started looking into, you know, the whole area of performance-based design for fire and performance based building regulations it was in a time when I think there was a lot of interest of, how we can do better and how we as fire safety engineers can add value and not just follow the regulations, but, break out and become designers. And unfortunately, at the time I talked about a paradigm that was presented by a great structural engineer, Alan Cornell from Stanford, who talked about the three phases of maturity, of an engineering discipline. And I always characterize fire safety engineering as being in the adolescent stage and kept projecting that we get out to the mature stage within the next 10 years. And then 10 years later, I said the same thing, 10 years later, I said the same thing. And now I'm not so sure that without a big shift where we're actually going to get there. And I think part of that is because we haven't, really absorbed and taken to heart well enough that we're just a small cog and the wheel of building design and building regulation and the built environment, and we should be reacting to the bigger system and we were trying to drive the system. And I think we need to maybe think a little bit more of how we can do a better job to advance ourselves and advance the system.

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

Yeah, I, if I remember your paper, it was like 1999, like the future of PBD. And I loved it. Then 10 years later, you've said pretty much the same after another paper. And then they see it years later, it's again, it reminds me of Shawshank Redemption when Red was filing for release from the prison. Everything is, and, and you finalize that now. You're not so sure. So it's a similar maybe that's a sign of a maturity of the discussion. For myself, I think the PBD approach in a way is a unicorn. And my daughters would really love and unicorn, but no one has seen one yet. And, in a way I feel chasing the same thing in this formula, this freedom of engineers, this, ability to craft shape design. And I'm not sure if PBD is that thing that, that we're chasing. I found this quote in 1925, us building code that wherever possible the requirements should be formulated in terms of performance, based on research results. And, that's pretty much PBD there a hundred years ago. So, I think this approach is as old as the engineering itself, maybe it is the engineering itself. So what for you is PBD. How do you see this unicorn?

Brian Meacham:

Yeah, well, it's interesting. I mean, I agree that, performance-based design at least how we use it in fire, really is design. It's engineering design. It's what we all should be doing. As engineers. I think the challenging part in particular for fire is that we've grown up as a discipline in the shadow of disaster and. Regulation was putting the place to mitigate disaster, which put boundary conditions around how fire safety engineering would actually be accomplished and the flexibility that you would have. And so you can look at the, all the way back to the great fire of London, if you want to go back that far, but even in the 19th century and in the U S for example, the Chicago Fire or the Boston Fire and the Baltimore Conflagration, even the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire in 1906. And then we kept burning cities down. And so that was actually the establishment of insurance, requirements around fire safety design, which ultimately went into building regulation. That at least in north America became, pretty much specified what you do rather than engineering solutions around it. And then we have the added complication that other disciplines don't have. Like, you could argue structural engineering has the same challenges to deal with earthquake loads, wind load, and other, cyclical, but not a consistent design events, but we have an no offense, a Fire Service. There's no Structural Police. Right, there's no Energy Police, there's no Structural Design Police. We've created this culture and this society where, we expect that there will be fires and the fire service or the heroes that will come in and save lives. And so the fire service, is a little bit I was going to say risk averse, but maybe practical in saying that, we don't adopt some of these thinking of the structural engineers of risk-based design we think you should be designing for zero risk. And even though they understand that there's no such thing as zero risk, there's kind of a public persona that you publicly can't say that there is a possibility that our building will burn down or a life will be lost because that's what the fire services therefore is to prevent that. So we have these challenges that you don't see in other engineering disciplines, which are our social constructs and cultural norms that, that change the way we operate the way we're regulated and how the discipline actually works.

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

With this, concept of firefighters beint there to mitigate in a way, the consequences of the building fires , that's additional layer of complexity to where the acceptance boundary can be, you know, because instructional engineering, you lose your load-bearing capacity the building collapses. That's very sharp, right? If you earthquake engineering, if you design a building for this magnitude of earthquake and you have a bigger one, it's gonna mostly fail. Right. But here it's blended because you're talking about the consequences of fire. First, the fire scenario itself is a complex thing. And, there is a design scenario, but it's not necessarily the fire that will be in the building or there, that is not the fire that will be in the building the fire response, how well they will go. It there's so many things to account for. so you're like interfaces blended there. It's not the single point goal that you go through.

Brian Meacham:

Yeah. And it's even more complex because we have the challenge of people, right? So you're not worried about people causing a seismic event. maybe if you get enough people jumping up and down that you'll have a little bit of a concern, but I mean, people and human behavior, people can start fires. People contribute to the severity of fires by the contents that they put in buildings, how they treat things such as, do they block open smoke or fire doors? And so you have this human component that adds a complexity to what the fire scenario and the fire significance is going to be in any given building, which increases the uncertainty in prediction because you have this huge variability in the population. and so people are an always have been kind of a focus of protection in fire safety. And again, the fire service plays a role in, in keeping the emphasis on people. And if you look to earthquake engineering or wind engineering, it's not that they ignore people, but they're. Very much in the paradigm of the probability of failure of the system or a significant part of the building. so the focus is the building and not the people. And what's the reliability of the structural system, given different load combinations. And so you never see a building regulation or a standard talk about, explicitly the life loss side of it. Whereas in fire, it's always talking about, what's the, how many people are going to die, what's the probability of, 10 or more people dying, which is by NFPA kind of a large event. And so this also dis dichotomy between people as a metric versus the building performance as a metric. And if we were in the building performance realm, I think it would be a little bit different, but I don't know that society necessarily will allow us to go in that direction, because they have this social conception of the firefighters saved people from burning buildings.

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

And this abstract concept of safety, the people would like to be safe. Now, the definition of safety in itself is a complex thing. I would like to take it closer to the PBD because, um, for performance based design, you don't mention some aspects like probabilities risks, the consequences of the fires, but the PBD is a big animal. It comes in flavors. It comes in different forms and you've mentioned it's, it can take different forms from even simple expert judgment, up to extremely complex risk analysis. So if you want the PBD to come as a tool for fire engineers, so designers can design, what flavor of that should it be? Should we. Let the expert judgment in, should we go into the risk-based concepts or maybe what's we're doing now in the middle, like taking a design fire, popping a CFD now, under there and seeing what's the outcomes. Where do you think, is there a simple answer to what the PBD should be? Or how can we push it to, to become a useful element of our environment?

Brian Meacham:

I think it already is a useful element. I think what it can become is more useful and more widely applicable. I would take it back maybe to a more fundamental question of what performance are we trying to achieve. One of the things that was always a concern for me. And one thing that I tried to incorporate when I was teaching about performance-based design is getting the problem definition, correct. Because over my career, I've seen a lot of people invest a lot of time in solving the wrong problem. And then at the end of the day you have all this nice analysis that says all kinds of wonderful things, but, somehow the point has been missed. And I think that's the root of the challenge here is that I don't think we've well enough to define what performance we're trying to achieve. And you can look at this. In different ways. If we go back maybe a little bit to the structural engineering analogy, it's trying to prevent unacceptable failure of the building given, load combinations that are imposed on it. In fire safety, we have a lot of objectives. We have basically the five fire safety goals of protecting people, property, business, operation, environment, and heritage. And each one of those has a different aspect, but this focus on people gets us into writing design objectives. Like, provide adequate time for everybody in the building to escape without being subjected to, untenable conditions. So now we've taken the design objective away from designing a building. That's going to perform at a certain level when subjected to a fire to trying to protect people who are highly variable in their physiology and behavioral responses. And we're expected to be able to say that people will be able to get out without walking through a smoke-filled corridor. We can't control people. You know, we take certain steps to try to control conditions, but maybe it's a. Yeah, we have to rethink, should we be really focusing more on what we can do with the building and its systems, given our understanding of human interactions, social constructs, and the regulatory environment and shift the objective, then. You can figure out the performance that you're actually trying to achieve and pick an appropriate method, which can still range from expert judgment to complex analysis. But you know, when you do it in the context of the institutions that are involved in the regulation and operation and occupancy of the building, then you're sitting in a little better position. So this taking better account of this social technical systems interaction, where you're really looking at the actors, the institutions and the technology together, and you're looking at how you can design the building to enable the objective, which may be, don't collapse, the building, same as you would do in earthquake engineering, which has the benefit of keeping people safe. And maybe that's a way to start moving beyond some of the roadblocks that we've seen with acceptibility with people who don't necessarily have confidence in our engineering analyses and the assumptions we make,

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

To make sure I understood correctly. So you would say that the objective should be, for example, less focused on individual tenability, for example, but more focused on the overall goal that we want to achieve by designing a building, taking into account this, actors, institutions and technology, which is what is possible with every level.

Brian Meacham:

Yeah. That's it that's a good summary. Another way to think about it is I view building as complex systems of systems. A building, the work, the interactions between all of the systems have to work appropriately. And the building fire safety system, as a holistic type of, construct means that your detection and your suppression, your compartmentation and resilience all has to work together, but the question then becomes work together to achieve what. And I think it's really thinking about this core issue of, is it really, to ensure that every person can get out safely or is it to ensure the integrity of the building and minimize the potential for, unacceptable loss associated with people, property operations, that could occur because there's always a probability of it occurring. Fire is astochastic event. And I do have concerns and we sometimes try to do everything deterministically and ignore the probabilistic aspects. And I think we have to mature in that way, but I think we can only mature in that way. If we mature our thinking about, what it is, we're really hoping to achieve in the building. And actually how we communicate that

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

When I'm doing analysis for buildings, I'm doing my CFD. I'm calculating the ASET / RSET times. And so on. I sometimes have this feeling. I cannot get rid of that. I'm building a proxy of safety. Like I am absolutely sure that this scenario I am doing is not a representation of a threat that will happen in the building. What I'm doing is I'm going through a social concepts that if for my design fire, taking this boundary conditions for my analysis, I prove that the building has passed the test. And one value is bigger than the other value. Then if something happens in the building, it will be okay because it passed my test. But I'm not seeking, the true safety or I don't even know what objective is there like, it's very hard to define it. My goal is to get one value above the other one, right. And I have to fit the building with solutions so long that it passes the test, but it's essentially, it's a test. It's not a measure of safety of that building.

Brian Meacham:

Yeah. And that's part of the challenge. If you look to the system safety literature, and some of the constructs that are used in other areas. Let's, take road safety just as an example, and in the Nordic countries and elsewhere, they have a vision zero objective to, try to reduce the number of accidents that you know, would lead to a death due to traffic accident. And so the aim is to put in designs within the system to control for, the type of accident or incident that could occur. That would be a an indicator or a predicator of that fatality. So the focus is on, putting in safety systems, safety boundaries, minimizing the potential for the unacceptable event to occur rather than calculating or estimating all the scenarios that would necessarily lead to the unaccepted or unacceptable loss. So if we change that over to fire, maybe we spend far too much time, trying to create scenarios that, address situations that yes, would result in a fire, but may not be the fire that we're going to see or as suitably representative enough. So what if we kind of take a step backwards to the idea of the most, worst credible case, fire event or the maximum foreseeable loss scenario type that the insurance industry uses. And the design is focused on putting in safety barriers that are intended to keep the loss within the limits. Maybe we're modeling situations that, we're trying to understand, but we don't actually need to understand to end up with the level of safety or the implementation of safety measures that would increase the safety to a socially acceptable level. But that's a much different way of thinking then performance-based design is currently being practiced.

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

So you've mentioned this socio-technical systems as well connected to the building engineering, but there's also technology it's legislators. So without changing this other elements, you cannot solve the building problem. And I had also this thought that, vision zero. When you said that vision zero is a goal and is vision is real possible in fire. The challenge is that even if we do improve our regulations, even if we do improve the technology, if we go through some courageous moves to improve the safety, we are usually talking about the safety of the newly built structures. And, from my experience is that the issues, the fatal fires, the problems are with the existing structures, not the, with the new ones. If you would like to push a vision, that's, it's the simplest idea. Let's sprinkler, every building in Poland would not be possible because, that the cost of this operation is unbelievable. So without an objective measure, of when it's worth to go to that, like we're blind. We, I don't know if it's worth it or not.

Brian Meacham:

Well, again that's part of the challenge with, the social technical systems thinking when you're dealing with the institutions and, regulations and again, for me, a part of that is the role of the fire service in, in looking at, this idea of, is there an acceptable level of risk or is there a tolerable level of risk or do you have to aim for being safe and at all accounts. And, you know, structural engineering, again using that analogy, is in the, is governed by the building regulations. Building fire safety design is often governed by both building regulations and some type of fire service regulation, in some countries, Asian countries in particular, it goes so far as said, passive protection and structural is in the building code, but active systems like detection and suppression is in the fire code.

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

It's the same in here.

Brian Meacham:

It's hugely complex. Why does fire design have to be that complex? And I think from the institutional perspective, as long as the fire service is engaged in the regulatory side of things and in the enforcement, it's always going to be an order of magnitude higher than designing for any other hazard, because you have a dual set of regulatory structures. You have a dual set of enforcement structures. You have one side that I would argue on the building side accepts the concept of risk and reliability based design because they do so for structures and for earthquake and wind hazards. But the fire service doesn't, they don't want to say what an acceptable level of risk is. So this gets into this challenge of how do you set an objective for building, if you have an institutional actor who's focused on life safety, because that's their primary job who will never agree to a level of acceptable risk or safety for the population, then you're stuck in this limbo where, you're negotiating all the time to try to determine what that target level is. And then it'll change from jurisdiction to jurisdiction within a country in between countries. And you can't say we've matured to a system that is universally acceptable. Maybe if we start thinking and trying to shift the paradigm a little bit more to focus on, system design and buildings as safety barriers to prevent a fire of a certain size from occurring, that fits more under the paradigm of say the earthquake engineering, there's going to be a risk that you'll have an event that is bigger than what the design of the building is intended to achieve. But then you're at least in this realm of being able to quantify those risks. Because now you're looking at the probability of failure of a system that you can control for versus the probability of death of an individual for whom you have no hope of ever being able to, individually control. And so as a, from a system design perspective, you're still going to achieve the same outcome of limiting the size of the fire, limiting damage to the building, increasing the probability of people reaching, a safe place and saving lives. But, the narrative that you have with the development of the regulation, a discussion with the enforcement officials and everyone else changes, and maybe that, facilitates better, ability to engineer better solutions.

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

I think we are somewhere there in tunnel engineering, because, and the reason for that is that it, it's very obvious that at some point you reach a design scenario, which is impossible to manage. Like if you have a collision oil tanker with a bus inside the tunnel, the outcome will be multiple fatalities. And the only way to prevent this scenario would be to ban traffic in a tunnel, which is kind of not the thing you would like to do with the tunnel. And, we actually do that sometimes to do ban the heavy goods vehicle traffic, and in this field, because this outcome is so obvious that there will be some events that have high consequences in terms of loss of life and they're impossible to prevent, if you want to keep the function of your tunnel, this concept of risk and managing the probability and consequences has led to the definition of, let's say, acceptable level of safety in a tunnel for which we design. And if we do that we are okay'ish with the fact that if a bigger fire happens, we are not able to control it because it's too big. Is this something that, could be also done for a buildings or buildings are a little more complicated than that, they have multiple functions, right?

Brian Meacham:

Yeah, but I think we can move in that direction. This is where I think bringing in systems thinking and social technical systems thinking is really important. It's interesting that you mentioned tunnels because I think, of the I can say this cause they are younger than me, younger researchers who are actually thinking in this way. Jonathan Tandler and Henrik Yellen are involved in the Nordic project, looking at, fire safety and tunnels and trying to implement, more systems sinking into the fire scenario development and the fire thinking. And we've been having some discussions with that group and Haukur Ingasson has been involved in Jose Terrero and Ricky Carvel. And, just trying to say tunnels are designed as socio-technical systems. How can we apply a little bit better fire scenario thinking and fire design thinking within tunnels as socio-technical systems. And then for me, the logical extension is how do we bring that into buildings? And you mentioned buildings being more complex from different uses. I think we inherently understand that because we often classify buildings by their use assembly, building industrial warehouse. We know that, and we've in a way been doing this, but we get stuck in how the regulation operates rather than thinking about what the use of that building means and how we should be designing for it. So in a way we've taken the easy way out of allowing the institutions to define, everything about the design and the level of safety and F taking the engineers out of it. But that doesn't mean we can't get back more involved and look at these issues on these different complex systems interactions under the different building uses and be able to do a better job than we currently are, which I have to say is not a bad job or. We're generally doing a good job with new buildings and structures, as you say, part of the challenge is how do we take some of this thinking into existing buildings and work with the institutions to make changes in those areas?

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

For us the fire engineers. what we do is sometimes we push for unnecessary solutions that do not improve safety at all, but we push for them. We put constraints on objectives of other branches, which sometimes, a building is a multi objective system is not just to not kill people in fire. It has thermal objectives, it has acoustic objectives, it has health objectives. It must provide comfort to the occupants. It's a multi objective system and sometimes pushing for some solutions of fire safety, put extreme constraints on the other branches where a problem could be solved in a different way, maybe not putting these constraints. That's a thing that when I think about how we can improve. Like we are already designing pretty safe buildings. Sometimes we fail and you can see that on television when the building burns down. Especially facades come to my mind as the first example of where we

Brian Meacham:

recently, for example, every

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

it's so often that this major events happen. And this obviously are indication that there are places where we fail. But generally as a professional, we're doing quite a good job of providing a safety, especially that most decisions related to fire safety are taken by non-fire stakeholders. Like. it's not the fire safety engineer who takes the majority of the decisions and how you fit this. other people in this process, because I think it's naive to think that a fire safety engineers can solve that by having a better fire safety engineering, framework. It will solve some of the problems, but without thinking about the other branches, it's not happening.

Brian Meacham:

Yeah. Again, it's an attribute of this complex socio-technical system. When we think about for building design and how the building design is done in its technologies, the institutions that control for that and the actors, and I would say. It works both ways because we've seen, fires in buildings that are attributes of pressure being put on other objectives, like energy performance, over fire performance. And then the decisions being made by either owners or regulatory officials who are unsure of the impacts and the fire safety engineer actually has no role in, in trying to help identify the challenge. So this whole a core part of the problem there is that we as I guess an industry failed to look at holistically buildings as complex systems of systems and we do design in silos. So there is the energy engineers and in one silo, the structural engineers and another silo, the fire engineers and another, they don't talk to each other as much as they should. You know, the architect is trying to develop a design, it's become so complex and multi-disciplinary that, a single responsibility for integrating the design is difficult. And the regulations get built in that same way. So you have the energy performance of buildings, regulation telling you to put more insulation in, who's checking that you're looking at the combustibility of that insulation or the protection needed. If you use a combustible material to achieve the level of safety. So you keep asking for more to be done through regulation and legislation, less to be done by design teams because you're trying to control the costs there. And you miss this whole, systems thinking and optimization that can be done when everybody's working together. And of course, the financial constraints on that are often what dryers these issues anyway, because nobody wants to spend the money to do a better job because they're always looking at the short-term gains rather than the, long-term benefits of overall building performance. And so it's in addition to the social technical systems thinking it's this real need for holistic view on things. And you know, some of the work that I was able to do with Patrick van Hees in Lund University on trying to look more holistically at facade designs is just a microcosm of the problem. If you have pressures to. Do energy performance and over override the pressures for fire performance or guests, what the fire performance will fall to the bottom. And then that's when you start to see the challenges in the system. And then I think an added complexity goes back to your comment of a few minutes ago about existing buildings. There's more to be done on energy retrofits of buildings, which can often be extra regulatory. And so if the fire engineer is not involved in the fire service or regulatory enforcement, people are not involved looking at fire aspects when an energy retrofit is done, there's no way to even catch the possibility of an unsafe system configuration being put in the place. So this goes back to this, how does the whole system have to operate better performance and existing buildings. I think there are some mechanisms that could be explored, but if you're requiring people to do, I don't know, a seismic retrofit in New Zealand or an energy retrofit in Poland. And you're not asking to have the fire system looked at the same time, you're creating the potential for problems where none existed or maybe amplifying a problem that is put into place by the change you're making to the building. So it's not an easy challenge by any stretch.

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

An interesting thing in what you've said is where to place the boundary between the design of this particular building and a whole system, like the whole legal system of how buildings are built in this place of the world. Because as you mentioned that some things shouldn't be like brought up, maybe put in into jurisdiction legally enforced. But that's also the things that we often try to escape with, with PBD approach, to show that there are other ways to secure the same objectives. If we eventually have an objective. So is there a good way when let's say them individuality of building ends, that it must be, taken to an upper layer or maybe we should not think in this way and just generalize the objectives, like what we really want the buildings to be in and give the full freedom at the building level.

Brian Meacham:

It's a good question. And I've been happened to, I've been doing some work the last a year or two with Sweden, thinking about how to redo their building regulations and, having discussions with different stakeholder groups there. And, one thing that really for me is become more apparent in recent years is that, we really should be changing the whole regulatory system to what I call a user-focused system, as opposed to a building focused system or really a compliance focused approach. And so if you can envision a little bit how the building process works. The whole design environment is aimed at, trying to, design a building that will achieve regulatory compliance. And then we don't care so much what happens for the building in use, but the building owners and the tenants of buildings are all focused on, how the building will work for them. And we're not really taking this user center life cycle focus of the building into account. So if you go back to the regulations at the highest level and say the objectives should be at targeted for. How the users use the building, how the building should be maintained, what their lifespan should be. How you are going to deal with the end of life of building and have that as your objective, that makes a complete different approach to building design. Then if you're looking for regulatory compliance at the time, you hand over the building to the user. So we focus on 1% of the life of the building, getting somebody in the door and then everybody else has to deal with the problems of the next hundred years of how they're going to use the building. It's crazy.

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

Do you think we have a good idea how to upgrade this, design fire approach we have to better work with this. Let's say objective based design, because for now when I'm designing a fire, I take a standard. Okay. Five megawatts. Nice. And, and I place it in there. And in, in one of your communications, you wrote it this, it's not great that in many cases that there is this linked between the fire scenarios and design fires, where they are inextricably linked, and that's a reformed concept that you have to link them together. So I see that there needs to be shift also in this, to move forward that the whole thing,

Brian Meacham:

yeah. Getting, specifically to that issue and then, kind of the back to the vision zero or the safety barrier concept. If the aim is to put a building performance and building fire safety systems into place to achieve a certain objective care so much that you have to model the probability of each ignition source or the evolution of a fire, to a very specific degree. What you need to know is what is the fire insult that is going to cause unaccepted performance of the system, or what fire characteristics are needed to assess the performance of those systems? So again, why are we going through this complicated, analysis to, to develop a fire that, we can say, history has shown us that if we have a 10 Megawatt fire and this system, no, we have a 20 minute rated door it's likely to fail, at a certain point. So we need to make that system more robust. Or if we're producing X amount of fire effluent, we need, smoke exhaust or other system of a certain size. So at a point that becomes less of an emphasis on doing, too much detailed scenario analysis and more on thinking of, what is the load against which the building has to resist and the individual fire safety systems, I don't think, earthquake engineering is running, a whole range of scenarios. Like we are, they're looking at the maximum considered earthquake and maybe one or two other earthquakes, why are we not looking at the maximum considered fire and how the systems will perform? We're maybe not optimizing in the right location.

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

And do you think that, generic fire safety engineer is fit to, to do this kind of thinking. Maybe educated fire safety engineer would be, but many times the shoes of fire engineer are taken by someone who's not a trained fire engineer, but they have to do take decisions. Right. , if that person takes a bad decision, then, the whole concept is in ruin. So to what extent should this go up to the legislation or be remained free, for the designer. And it's something that comes to my mind is the New Zealand approach with, the method they have with the scenarios to, to be considered. And I think some concepts like that were also in Sweden, for smoke control, to define this scenarios.

Brian Meacham:

Yeah. It's in the Swedish building code currently. It's also in the Japanese system, there's a variety of systems around the world that have, the scenario considerations built in fires and sometimes even the calculation methods that you should use, when addressing them. And again, this is, part of the bigger picture thinking. Some of it I think should be legislated, but the legislation has to consider the objectives of the building. And if it doesn't, then, you can't expect a legislator to make a decision on what's inappropriate fire size or a fire scenario should be, so you still have to work together. The fire engineers and the, the policy makers and the other actors in sorting that out. But if we go to more of a system safety approach, we can jointly develop what those. Threats need to be to a building. And I think we have to do a better job of educating, fire safety engineers on how to work with that way of thinking. And for me, I really, another big part of the problem is too many, ill equipped, improperly educated or trained people, making fire engineering decisions. It's not just legislators and others who don't have the background. It's people on the ground doing the analysis or purporting to be able to do the analysis who don't have the capabilities. And I think that's a bigger problem today that it's not the people who really can do good modeling and good fire safety engineering or creating bad buildings. It's the bad actors who really don't know what they're doing are creating unsafe, buildings that when fail are making fire safety engineering look bad. But that's also another part of the system because a lot of countries don't require, engineers to be licensed or registered or chartered. And you can be a fire engineer if you want to call yourself a fire engineer. So again, holistically, the system has a lot of challenges that, that, currently work against people who are trying to do the design in the right way.

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

I think you have to also take into account economical pressure in the building process that, you have this, let's say primary objectives of building, not collapsing, providing fire safety and meeting the fundamental roles of the building should have, but then again, the building is built by a stakeholder. And that stakeholder has their objective is to finish the build on time and earn money while building that and hopefully not, go into bankruptcy because of the building. So often, uh, many decisions will be driven by non-safety factors, but economical factor. And, replacing technologies, replacing materials, choosing different ways, maybe some changes to the way how the building will be used. We've seen that multiple times when officers were turned into apartments or otherwise, for example, and this, uh, here it's this competing objectives like, well, maybe not competing because I assumed the contractors would also like to build the building safe. Right. But, when you have, we're giving this talk in Rotterdam about where we are and someone in the audience said that the paradigm is CATNIP- Cheapest Available Technology Not Involving Persecution and that's, that was like really nailed, When you were, you close yourself in the fire safety engineering offices, it's often this, atmosphere of trying to build a safe building. But when you go to the field and go to the construction work, it's often it's becomes purely economical battle. So this also is a part of this social technical system that you're talking about, right?

Brian Meacham:

Yeah. And that, unfortunately that situation exists in a lot of countries. I've been involved with New Zealand a bit and Scotland. And Scotland over the last few years wanted to try to find a way to facilitate more fire safety engineering and performance-based design. And they recognized that, there were certain actors that had a race to the bottom, perspective. And so the government actually was looking at what kind of mechanisms could be, available to help either raise the, the level of knowledge and ability within what they call the local authority verifier, who are the ones that approve the buildings, or even consider a way to put in a national peer review system. And so that you put mechanisms in that, help to filter out the bad actors by requiring more, to be done, putting a higher level of capacity in those people reviewing the design. So they're not just, allowing, inappropriate designs to be put through, but then you also have to have, ethics considerations within the design community as well. I mean, if it's true that every building has a budget and every project has a budget and as an engineer, you have responsibility to your client. But, for example, in the SFPE Code of Ethics, your responsibility first and foremost is to public safety. And, sometimes you just have to be willing to say no, and that's a tough thing for especially small businesses. I'm fortunate that in my point, my career, I can just turn down jobs and, it's also one reason I don't do a lot of legal work because usually the first thing the lawyer asked for is we want to hire you to, to demonstrate our case. It's that's not my role. The role is to determine whether or not the building is safe or the product is safe or whatever, and how to make it better. There's this big challenge that if you don't have, again, the institutional systems to either raise the bar in terms of ethics of the practitioners or put controls on, financier's who are trying to put too much emphasis on cost savings, over safety, all of that has to be taken into account as well. And no system will be perfect. We know we're going to grapple with these issues, but I think fire safety engineers can do a lot just in terms of deciding which projects to take and what they're willing to agree to. And, when they are willing to be able to say enough is enough relative to some of the requests that are put to them by the market.

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

If you look from a perspective of being a fire engineer on your own scrutiny, that's probably correct approach. But if you look at the global ecosystem of building environment, you would like every built building be built the same, let's say level of ethical, course. So the system should actually not, it should exclude from itself, the ones that do not meet this constraint. And okay. Previously we've mentioned the, new Zealand's approach with, defining scenarios in, in, in the PBD. Now we've mentioned a national peer review systems, and let's say authorities being more involved in verifying the scrutiny of the design. So if this boundary between the competing economical ends and safety objectives was crossed in, in, in wrong direction, at what moment it stops being a PBD at what moment we are back to the prescriptive system? Where's the boundary, because I've heard, some people not happy with the New Zealand system of defining the scenarios because it takes the possibility of them designing, let's say a perfect scenario for the building.

Brian Meacham:

I think a little bit, this takes us almost full circle back to the beginning of the discussion, but you know, Regulators are imposing more constraints on the system because they don't have confidence in the fire safety engineers to be able to deliver robust designs, because we haven't advanced far enough as a profession to have the robust performance-based engineering methods. And we lacked the, in some areas, the ethical constraints to apply appropriately. What we do know is right, within the system. And so you can think of. The regulatory system as a pendulum you'll swing back and forth. And in the 1980s and nineties, a lot of countries moved to performance-based regulation because of ideas of deregulating by some governments, giving more to the market to take responsibility for allowing more innovation. And what happens anytime you see a market failure, more regulations. New Zealand is an example of, they went performance because they thought, the maturity was there to, to design better buildings. And ultimately, they've decided, in not just in fire, but they had their moisture issue with the leaky buildings. They had found some challenges with, earthquake engineering and they had the, canterbury earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. And so there's always a bit of system correction where you're trying to, find a way to go. And then I think that's what happened for fire. Is it because they didn't have a way to really regulate for fire engineers. Anyone could call themselves a fire engineer, lesser qualified people were taking projects at a lower fee and doing, not such a good job so that the enforcement officials lacked confidence. They said, okay, we'll put in a more prescriptive performance approach as a dampening measure on some of that behavior. And so we're going to see more of that until we get our act together in actually developing a more robust approach that raises confidence in the market. And then this is where, I'm trying to think of. If we change the focus a little bit about what we can actually predict control for and gain confidence in relative to building performance and system performance more so than, how likely we're actually able to predict individual safety or population safety and having that be a subset of building performance, maybe that's a mechanism to, to build confidence. And, but we have to find what that measure is, are we're going to continue this cycling back and forth as the pendulum swings that, you know, they gave us enough rope to hang ourselves. We hung ourselves and now they're tightening up things again. And what do we have to do to be given more freedom? And we don't get more freedom by doing the same things.

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

It's not the fundamental, issue with the designs we're creating or the methods we're using. It's also an issue with communication trust, maybe clarifying the competencies of actors, right? it's not that we will invent a new, better model for fire or invent a new tool that everyone will shift to because that happened in the past, there was an invention of a zone model. In seventies, there was the invention of CFD and creation of the FDS, which democratized the powerful abilities of numerical calculations. And yet the issues with swinging the pendulum has not stopped. So it's not the single shift in technology that can enable us. It's the building, the confidence of the authorities that we can do.

Brian Meacham:

Right, but that's why it's a socio-technical system. So, you know, partly I would argue that we've missed the social and institutional components for the last 20 years. We focused on the technical parts and the advancements in the technology and again, no offense because I know you're excellent modeler and your knowledge of fire fundamentals is phenomenal, but modeling is not engineering and there's too much today of the model being the tool to design a building.

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

An Oracle.

Brian Meacham:

And that's not the case. The model is a tool and if every problem, if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And so you. Hammering away at, I can model this better and better and better. When are we going to get back to talking about engineering?

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

Uh, you're right. We can add these improvements and this is what they've seen over the course of my career. The models are more sophisticated. I have more meshes to play. I have better turbulence models. I've learned a lot on heat transfer, but in essentially the fundamental questions are still the same. And I still sometimes fail to answered them because the new capabilities of my model didn't resolve the issues. And the last thing, which I think it was very interesting in our pre discussion to this episode is the pace in which the technology develops, because it's also like you have to also put all of this in the timeframe that's moving. You've said a hundred years ahead wonder what we will have and what problems we'll face. But even today, if you put a new technology on the market, you would expect that it will create this positive disruption that, okay, we stopped doing what we were doing and we're using this new technology and everyone says, it's great. Sometimes it's not clicking because of low, let's say economical benefit from putting this new technology. So if we cannot earn more money on using this technology, why shift our ways when the old ones are working and are cheaper. Or maybe the Authorities will not believe that technology solves an issue and we're failing to communicate like what will create this shift, or maybe you're putting technology and tools of people who are not ready to use it. So it's also creating a interesting, the social dynamics between the actors.

Brian Meacham:

Yeah. And I think it's all of the above. We're putting tools in the hands. We're putting sophisticated tools in the hands of people who maybe know how to use a tool, but not in the context of the design environment to try to achieve an objective, that's not well agreed enough between all the actors and you have a problem. And when you think about technology introduction, there's always a time lag. Whoever develops the technology, you start promoting it, everybody gets excited about it. You think it's going to solve the world's problems, you know, computational modeling for fire effects. We can do everything now. Great. Well, We may be think we can do that, but the institutions, the approvers, the legislators, aren't so sure yet. And so you hammer away at it, but the confidence is going down because you're not actually necessarily showing any better performance. You're showing that you can do more modeling, but in the end of the day, how much have you actually changed the building design or showed that you're able to create safer buildings and have a bigger impact on society? Maybe we take our tools and instead of doing all the modeling you're doing for individual projects, create , a set of what are the what's the design basis, fire what's probability distribution, representation of the fires that would impact buildings of different types and uses that would become a legislative basis for a performance-based design. There's still a lot. You would have to engineer for the building to get it right, but then it gets away from modeling as being the act of engineering, to modeling, being a tool, to understand the building performance, to enable better engineering designs. And so even within the discipline, changing how we think about how we approached the problem and giving data to the institutions who don't necessarily have confidence in us to raise the confidence, will help us, shift the pendulum back to having more engineering freedom particularly when warranted. And, I'll go back again to the structural analogy. There's a whole lot of buildings that don't require a lot of complex structural analysis. And, the loads and resistances have been codafide and distributions exist. We know the load factors and combinations, but. And it's, if it's a complex building or a unique building, it does require that engineering analysis. So why should fire be any different? We haven't gone back to the basic buildings with the data to show how you can do it better based on our knowledge. And so therefore you haven't built up the confidence that when it comes to the complex building, the methodologies are equally applicable to solving the unique and innovative challenges.

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

In my case, like looking at the case of Poland, I think the issue is that, it's difficult to define the middle ground between the two approaches, because a it's either a one push two to go fully prescriptive and the issue of blocking innovation, or you would like to go full freedom, which creates all these issues we've discussed before. So, the best, like the most efficient way, I think from looking at the build environment as a whole system would be a codification of standard solutions and a clear and easy path to obtain an non-standard solution for a non-standard problem. And both of these connected to the same objectives and the same, let's say objective level of safety that, is the ultimate goal of the whole system. That, that would probably be something of, good world live in, right.

Brian Meacham:

But we're lacking in all the areas, right? We don't know what that objective level of safety is that we're aiming for. We haven't taken our engineering knowledge and produced back into the prescriptive, the simplified, engineering approach, like, a load and resistance factor design for structure that builds that baseline confidence that you can then go and do the unique components with the right level of oversight. We tried to do everything in the performance realm without feeding back into the prescriptive with, enough engineering, methodologies and approaches, so that it's common, right? It's still unusual for a lot of. Regulators to see the engineering analysis we're doing, right whereas in structure it's built in to the regulation for simple buildings. If we build that, if we do the simple analysis, following the same process and embedded in the prescriptive approach, then it becomes much easier to show how you're expanding that same principle in that same system to a more complex design and taking into account the uncertainties associated with the unknowns and in the innovative design. But if we don't give the regulators and the enforcers, the benchmark understanding of where we're at, why do we expect them to, automatically assume we can do the more complex buildings?

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

And they also have no clue what is the safety they expect. Because there is no, probably there are there exists measures. Maybe risk would be one way to quantify safe let's say of a building. But that's a complicated, approach for legislator to go through. It's impossible for them to do this sort of analysis. And then you face issues. Like you've mentioned multiple times in there that it's difficult to say that the person candie in a fire. Because there will be a hero that will save her and it's not possible to, we need to prevent that when there are scenarios in which it could happen. I also, once naively said that today's best, performance based solutions, are the prescriptions for future, but it's not this feedback loop is not working like I thought 10 years ago,

Brian Meacham:

Yeah that's a big problem. We don't have, good enough feedback loops. That's back to one of your first questions about, have we stagnated a bit? We've learned a lot. I'm not sure we've incorporated what we've learned into the processes we use the, our engagement with the stakeholders, both the building owners and the developers, as well as the, authorities. We're still working in silos and not on this kind of continuous learning and an advancement loop. So I think, that's part of the system that we, we need to go forward with an end to your other comment about, the legislators having difficulty with risk. And we talked about that before, but they do seem to accept risk when we're talking about probability of failure of a structure to events a certain size.

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

They understand it in tunnels. They underst it's the same authorities. They understand it very well that this risk means there is a fire that can kill this many people. And we have no way to ensuring it will not happen unless we close this tunnel and they understand that there.

Brian Meacham:

So now we have to say, what, how did we get to that point in tunnels with fire and how do we have those same dialogues with the authorities for buildings? And again, as you said, communication plays a huge role. And it often seems that there's an adversarial arrangement between the fire safety engineer and the enforcement official because enforcers are the authority sink. You're trying to reduce something in the building rather than actually assess the safety and provide appropriate safety. So it's how we communicate. It's how the developer or the building owner communicates. And it really is a confidence. I think we can do what we need to do. We haven't been very good at being able to tell people and bring them along and show them how good we are at what we're able to do.

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

So imagine a situation in which you chair the most powerful organization in the world of fire scientists, which you are, uh, where, where should the fire science go? What are the pain points on the map. And the map is in your head is built on your experience of this 30 years, battling with the system and now realizing how it interconnects. So where should we like press research? Where it is most urgent? Is it in quantifying the objectives? Is it an objectifying the safety is it's developing new. I don't know, measures to, to measure safety. What's your take?

Brian Meacham:

Yeah. So it's a complex issue obviously. And, from the fire safety science perspective, we always do. Fundamental research to better understand, phenomena, performance and materials under fire condition, understanding human behavior. Of course, there are big issues and in the wild land fire arena now, and this intersection of , wild land, urban interface, fire, where the natural fire event is impacting on the built environment. But I think when you get to the applied side or the engineering side, engineers should be about solving problems using the, benefits that science has given us in terms of knowledge, information, and data. And we should be thinking more about tackling the social problems. So it is, what do we need to know to solve or help wildland-urban interface fire resiliency of communities. How do we take the fire safety science knowledge we know, and build more robust, settlements in developing low and middle income countries where the informal settlements can displace 10,000 people and create a whole environment or destroy a whole environment. And when we get to buildings and in more developed countries, why are we, trying to apply complex models to relatively easy problems. Let's work more on getting the system objectives. The system design the confidence in the stakeholders of we know what we're doing. We can apply engineering analysis to simplify the problem. We can agree objectives and figure out how to go forward. Not keep focusing on this narrow part of increasing the computational capacity that we can do and refocus on how we do better engineering. And so, again, it's a spectrum, but I think, the science has got a lot to do with dealing with the wild land fire issue. I think sociologically, we have a lot to do with how we handle, low and middle income countries where resources aren't available, but in high-income countries, let's stop, over-analyzing buildings and let's work on the building regulatory system and the infrastructure and the system parameters and the safety objectives, so that we're able to do better engineering

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

As the last thoughts, if we could come up with really good. Safety objectives, goals of the fire safety approach. That would be easy to explain to other stakeholders. It was significantly improve their chances of succeeding and not creating another fire issue where the fire engineer was currently unavailable to do help and aid. Because if you look at structural engineers, architects, or other stakeholders you need to give them fairly simple tools to quantify if the decisions are going on the good side or on the bad side,

Brian Meacham:

Yeah. I think when we look at overall objectives for buildings, you can modify a lot of them by saying things like we need to increase the energy. Performance capacity of the building and decrease the energy needs without creating unintended consequence associated with fire indoor, environment or other health or safety effects, right? So it's somehow building into the objectives. The fact that it's not a singular objective. You're working on energy performance, but not to the exclusion of, of safety. You're looking at thermal insulation of buildings, but not to the exclusion of healthy indoor environment that requires a certain amount of air movement and filtration. You're working on the seismic performance of buildings, but not to the exclusion of post-earthquake fire performance or others. And if we keep thinking objectives early, as each discipline in its silo, you're never going to even give indicators to the other disciplines of what to consider, let alone getting them actually talking to each other.

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

That's a great summary, Brian. Thank you so much. It was a huge pleasure discussing socio-technical systems with you. And like I'm taking this bird's eye view on the which puzzle we are in this big puzzle of built environment.

Brian Meacham:

Well, thank you very much for having me. It's, it's interesting to see how one's own perspectives change over 30 years or so. And you know, I, I think being able to constantly evolve is a good thing. So we all should try to do that

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

I see this year, 30 years ahead of us in this process, the process of rethinking fire safety. So that's a great thing. Thanks so much, Brian.

Brian Meacham:

Thanks Wojciech.

Wojciech Wegrzynski:

Wow. What a episode, I hope you felt this power of the thought that the fire safety engineering is not just models, tools, law or regulations. It's a whole socio-technical system within a larger system of a building environment. And if we don't start treating it as a system, it's doubtful that it's going to work well. So I think it's not only a summary of this episode, but. Of the 20 episodes of the podcast. And what I've learned in the last three months is that, , fire safety is much wider than I felt. I knew it was going to be huge. It's going to be interesting varying in topics, jumping from evacuation, human behavior, combustion science, to fire safety engineering, to modeling and stuff like that. I knew it's going to be fun, but I never thought it's going to be that much varsity in it. And when you really listen to what people have to say, when they come to the podcast, you'll notice that they all speak the same language. They often see the issues outside of the modeling, outside of the tools. They see issues with education, with the system as whole, with the way how we approach modeling with our assumptions with blindly following the results without questioning the scope without finding objective. And, this is something really fascinating to me. And for the next episodes, I'm going to dig into that even more because this is something I have never learned in my professional education. You know, I was taught models. I was taught the law. I was taught the code speak, but I was never taught the socio-technical system I'm living in and I am a part of, so I'm really happy to be discovering this on air with you. And I really hope you are enjoying this journey. So, yeah, I, I can only promise you, we're going to keep doing this and there's going to be a lot more coming your way. So if you're interested, share the knowledge with someone, you know, and, yeah, come back here the next Wednesday for the next episode. Thank you very much.