Burning Questions: What's New in Fire Safety for the Next Millennium?

Worcester Polytechnic Institute Holds National Conference June 9-11

Contact: WPI Media Relations, 508-831-5616

WORCESTER, Mass. - Architects, engineers, building code and fire department officials, attorneys, insurance executives, building owners, researchers and academics will gather at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, Mass., June 9-11 to discuss a new paradigm in fire safety.

Supported through a grant from the National Science Foundation, about 130 participants will look for barriers to implementation of new fire safety design methods as well as strategies for overcoming those barriers.

According to David A. Lucht, conference chair, professor and director of WPI's Center for Firesafety Studies, the mindset for fire safety design over the past century has been oriented toward "meeting the code" rather than how a building will perform in the event of a fire.

Traditional building codes specify the maximum length and minimum width of exit hallways and the number of stairways required in a building. However, they do not address the most basic requirement: to assure that occupants can escape before being overcome by fire and smoke.

Known as the "performance-based code approach" to building fire safety design and regulatory practice, the new paradigm, to be discussed at WPI this week, aims to improve that situation.

New performance-based model fire safety codes are under development by organizations such as the International Code Council and the National Fire Protection Association. These approaches are expected to be available by the year 2000, changing standards for fire safety design and regulation.

However, Lucht notes a host of new problems will emerge with these standards. These include concerns of a technical nature as well as those having social, legal, economic, political and institutional ramifications.

"The goal of this 1999 conference is to help define a road map for advancing implementation of modern fire safety design practices," Lucht said. "Ultimately, the end result will be better fire protection in buildings at less cost."Keynote speaker for the conference is the honorable Howard D. Tipton, recently retired city manager of Orlando, Fla., and former head of the U.S. Fire Administration in Washington, D.C. Tipton will address public policy issues regarding performance-based design and regulatory practices.

Tipton served as executive director of the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control in the early 1970s, producing the landmark commission report, "America Burning." Among other findings, the report stated, "Appallingly, the richest and most technologically advanced nation in the world leads all of the major industrialized countries in per capita deaths and property loss from fire."

In 1975, Tipton and Lucht were appointed first administrator and deputy administrator respectively of the newly established U.S. Fire Administration. President Gerald R. Ford made both appointments, which received confirmation from the Senate.

Another international expert, John Trew, who will attend the 1999 conference, also came to the earlier WPI fire conference. Trew left WPI's 1991 gathering determined to unite those groups responsible for writing fire codes at the state and local levels. He returns to WPI in 1999 as president of the International Code Council, the first-ever joint venture of fire-code groups.

"Our 1991 conference stimulated changes in the industry," Lucht noted. "We've served as a catalyst in the past and hope to address the new issues with this conference."

Conferees will review a number of innovative concepts, including the computer modeling of fires, which predicts how fast a fire will spread before a building is constructed. Other topics include the study of how fast people can exit a building and how quickly a fire detector can do its job.

The third oldest private engineering college in the United States, WPI operates a distinctive program of post-graduate education in fire-protection engineering, fire research and technology transfer. WPI offers a dual degree BS/MS, master of science and doctoral programs in fire protection engineering. For more information, contact Lucht at 508-831-5104, e-mail fpe@wpi.edu or go to the conference Web site at http://www.wpi.edu/+FPE/Conf/, which includes a list of the conference steering committee members, a white paper of conference goals, strategic questions and the conference agenda.

NOTE TO EDITOR: David A. Lucht and keynote speakers are readily available for interviews. Please contact Arlie Corday at 508-831-6085 or David A. Lucht at 508-831-5104 to make arrangements.