Trailblazing

An international network to develop an emergency response system for fires in buildings is to be established this year, headed by UK researchers.

The network, which will begin work in September, will develop a system capable of providing emergency crews with instant updates on the spread of fire and toxic smoke within buildings, to improve their response to disasters and help save lives. It will be led by Dr. Asif Usmani, senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, and will include teams from Europe and the US.

The system, called FireGrid, is likely to be used primarily inhigh-profile buildings such as airports, major railway stations, nuclear power plants and particularly tall skyscrapers.

FireGrid will provide crews with continuously updated predictions on the spread of the fire and its impact on the structure, as well as the movement of smoke and other toxins, based on informationcollected from sensors throughout the building. Grid technology and high-performance computers will be used to transmit and analyse the information, said Usmani.

‘The sensors will pick up information from the building and relay it through the grid, which will allow very fast transfer of data to computers anywhere in the world. Powerful computers will analyse the information in seconds and predict what is about to happen,’ he said.

These predictions will then be transmitted to fire crews, to assist them in tackling the blaze. In the World Trade Centre disaster, fire fighters had no idea the buildings were about to collapse as they struggled to tackle the blaze and evacuate the occupants.

Ultimately, the information could also be sent to responsive fire-fighting systems within the building, to help suppress the fire until the emergency services arrive. These could include sprinklers; devices based on the use of carbon dioxide-type gases to extinguish flames; and vents designed to change the airflow through the building to prevent toxic smoke reaching anyone trapped inside.

Although the system will initially be used for fires in buildings, it could be used for all types of emergencies, said Usmani.

FireGrid will work in a similar way to the supercomputers and software systems used for weather prediction, but over a much shorter timescale, he said. ‘We call it super-real-time. Most existing computers struggle with real-time, so we will really be stretching the technology to its limits to do this, but we have people with the expertise.’

The system will require developments in computing and grid technology, as well as the wireless communications infrastructure needed to allow the sensors to transmit information between themselves and to other locations.

Also, while sensor technology is relatively advanced, the devices will need to operate in the very high temperatures of flash fires, which can occur minutes into a full-scale blaze, so further developments will be needed. As a result, it is likely to be a decade before the full system is in use.

The network will allow the researchers to bring together all interested parties, including the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Building Research Establishment, to discuss the issues involved in creating the system. The team has also applied to the EPSRC for over £2m in funding to develop FireGrid, and hopes to hear if its bid has been successful later this year.

The researchers will be working with the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the body responsible for developing building standards, which has been carrying out investigations into the WTC disaster.

To gain further information on the disaster, they also hope to talk to the UK team carrying out the biggest study of WTC survivors, led by Prof Ed Galea of the Fire Safety Engineering Group at the University of Greenwich.

The French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN) will provide the FireGrid network with results from its experiments into fires in nuclear power plants.