Fire engineers and scientists work to reduce the risk of fire. They do this to save property and the environment, but most importantly, they do this to save people.

Researchers Mike Spearpoint and Charley Fleischmann are investigating how people behave in fire emergencies – this is very important when designing a structure for low fire risk.

In a university lecture theatre

One project investigated the time it took for university students to leave a lecture theatre after the fire alarm had sounded. Results from this project could help when planning to build lecture theatres. For example, engineers and designers could plan how many exits a lecture theatre should have. They could also plan where to put those exits to reduce the time it takes students to leave in an emergency. Engineers work out the best alarm to use by trying out various alarms, for example, bells and other sounds, lights or automated voices.

High-rise buildings and lifts

One project investigated using lifts for evacuation from high-rise buildings. Because of our ageing population, there is a lot more interest in using lifts for evacuation in the case of fire.

If the lifts are designed for fire safety and are highly reliable, people might be more inclined to use them. But how do we train people? Who decides who can use the lift? What proportion of people will use lifts and stairs?

Another way to explore these ideas is to make a computer model of the lift to determine how long it would take to get people out of the building. This is a computer programme that is able to predict the effects when different data is used. The simulation would have to be run many, many times with many different scenarios. The model would have to incorporate how quickly a fire is likely to develop. This would give the scientists a good understanding of fire development.

Nature of science

To make decisions that will reduce fire risk, scientists need to understand the science of fire and people behaviour. But there are many other considerations involved that are not scientific, such as perception of risk and cost. There are social and political considerations as well. Although scientists make suggestions based on science research, other considerations help to determine the final outcome.

Shopping malls

Research in shopping malls showed that a number of people wanted to pay for their store items before evacuating. Families will look for and wait for each other. In food malls, a number of people finished their food before they left. This information is important when planning for fire risk in shopping malls.

Asleep at night

Charley Fleischmann investigated how people respond to alarms that go off in the middle of the night. He found children tend to sleep right through an alarm (an alarm has been invented that uses a parent’s voice to alert the children) but the adults responded very well.

In this project, the alarm was intentionally activated 4 times during the night. Each time, the adult had to wake up, get up and push a number to show they had responded.

Rural communities

Rural communities are affected by fire. Social fire researcher Lisa Langer says New Zealand communities are often vulnerable because they are not ready for fires – they do not believe it could happen to them.

One of Lisa’s projects investigates how communities, and individuals and groups within these communities, perceive the risk of rural fires. Lisa also looks at how people prepare for, respond to and recover from wildfire events when they occur.

The work done by the scientists is passed on to fire and emergency managers so that they can develop education programmes that inform communities of fire risk and how to better prepare for rural wildfires. Findings are also used to prepare plans for how fire authorities and the communities they are protecting can recover from and become more resilient to wildfire events.

    Published 18 November 2009