Worcester Conference Calls for Fire Safety Reforms

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WORCESTER, Mass. - The Worcester Polytechnic Institute Center for Firesafety Studies today released its long-awaited report, "Regulatory Reform and Fire Safety Design in the United States," calling for national vision, leadership and coordination toward modern building safety concepts. The report summarizes a two-year research project conducted at WPI with funding from the National Science Foundation. The central highlight of the project was the Second Conference on Firesafety Design in the 21st Century held at WPI in 1999.

The report notes that the United States lags significantly behind other world nations in the adoption of modern performance-based fire-safety practices. Regulatory reforms were instituted in the United Kingdom in 1985, New Zealand in 1992 and Australia in 1997, and others are well underway in Canada, Japan and the Scandinavian countries.

According to David A. Lucht, director of WPI's Center for Firesafety Studies, project director and chair of the 1999 conference, "Modern performance-based practices not only stand to yield higher levels of building safety at less cost but also offer more flexibility in achieving a wide range of public policy goals aimed at economic and community development, historic preservation and revitalization, affordable housing, building product development and industrial competitiveness. Unfortunately, these approaches have not yet found their way into routine day-to-day building code and design practice in the United States. At the same time, the U.S. continues as an international leader in per capita fire losses." (See the illustration below, based on data from the World Fire Statistics Center in the Annual Report of the United Nations Committee on Human Settlements, September 1997.)

According to the fire-safety report, the transition to new approaches in other countries "has come with significant national government vision, coordination and leadership. Unlike other countries, the United States government has no public policy responsibility for building safety (except a few special cases like nuclear power plants or government-funded health care facilities)." The mainstream of building fire safety is deferred to state and local governments, who, in turn, depend heavily on a cadre of non-profit model codes and standards groups.

According to Lucht, conferees did not call for federal government intervention or oversight in the United States. The non-profit private sector has proven itself to work effectively in providing tools for achieving building safety. But there was overwhelming agreement on the need for national vision, coordination and leadership to make sure American buildings take advantage of state-of-the-art methods. State and local policy officials including state legislators, city and county counselors and commissioners, governors, mayors and city and county managers will have a key role to play in the process.

Co-sponsored by WPI and the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE), the 1999 conference brought together 120 leaders and practitioners representing the full range of perspectives in fire-safety design and regulatory practice in the United States. These ranged from practicing engineers, architects, and members of the fire service and building code officials, to insurance engineers, attorneys, researchers and academicians. The goal of the conference was to identify barriers to widespread adoption of modern fire-safety methods and strategies for overcoming those barriers.

"The first conference on fire-safety design, held at WPI in 1991, was one of the important milestones toward reform in the U.S., defining a blueprint for the future," said Kathleen Almand, executive director of the Maryland-based SFPE. "The second conference gave us a chance to review progress over the past eight years and refresh our aspirations for the future."

In addition to a call for national coordination and leadership among stakeholder groups, conferees agreed on the following priority national needs:

Education - Conferees noted the need for major improvements in education and certification programs for key participants in performance-based design and regulatory practice.

Research - Conferees recommended dramatically improved investments in basic and applied research aimed at producing a wider array of validated, performance-based fire protection engineering design methods and regulatory practices. Special emphasis was placed on research needed to help state and local officials define "acceptable risk" or performance goals.

Data - Conferees identified a priority need for a wider array of objective and reliable data. This included national fire loss statistics as well as the performance of building systems and materials, reliability and the management of data systems.

Resources - Priority resource needs included those to support basic and applied research. (One breakout group recommended an annual investment of $20 million per year.) It was also recognized that the time and talent needed to execute performance-based designs, and to review and approve them, require significantly increased resources in both the public and private sector.

Professional practice - Recommendations in this area centered on qualification and certification of practitioners and codes of ethics for professionals in the new world of performance-based design and regulation.

The 48-page summary report can be obtained from the WPI Center for Firesafety Studies by calling 508-831-5593 or via e-mail at fpe@wpi.edu. A 255-page proceedings containing 19 detailed papers is also available. Both can be found at www.wpi.edu/Academics/Depts/Fire/Conf.

The third oldest private engineering college in the United States, WPI operates a distinctive program of postgraduate education in fire protection engineering, research and technology transfer. WPI offers the dual degree BS/MS, master of science and doctoral degree programs in fire protection engineering, serving the needs of students ranging from high-school graduates to senior practicing professionals.