AFTER the smoke clears from a major fire, questions about what
happened and what can be done to avoid future conflagrations often
linger. That's when Jonathan Barnett's know-how comes in handy.
Dr. Barnett, a fire-safety instructor at Worcester (Mass.)
Polytechnic Institute (WPI), is an expert in using computer models
to reconstruct and study fires. His next project may be a study of
the Scandanavian Star tragedy, the North Sea ferry fire that claimed
161 lives in April. He is negotiating with a consultant to the
boat's owner about doing a computer simulation of the fire.
"There are several scenarios of what happened," Barnett explains.
"We can take those and feed them into the computer and see if the
computer gives us the results we expect."
Once the appropriate scenario is identified, "what if" games are
possible. That may mean looking at the under trained crew to see if
an improved firefighting response would have made a difference.
"Maybe the fire was so large that irrespective of what the crew
did, it wouldn't have mattered," he says. "And what if there had
been more fire doors? Or what if the interior finish in the corridor
had been changed? Would these have made a difference? This is
important not only for litigation purposes, but also for the design
of new ships."
The potential uses for this advanced technology include any
designed structure - commercial, residential, or public. In fact,
Barnett is working with two large subway authorities (he can't
divulge the cities) that want to determine how effectively smoke and
toxic gases could be vented if a fire occurred.
For small personal-computer type projects, Barnett uses the
HAZARD I program developed by the National Institute of Standards
and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md. By further developing such
programs, says Richard Bukowski, the agency's manager of technology
transfer, designers will be able to "look at fires in buildings that
are still on the drawing board. (The architect) can set fires in the
building to determine the response of that design, the materials,
the layout, arrangements, and so on."
With the existing program, computers can handle several thousand
heat-transfer calculations per second of simulation time, determine
a fire's spread, and see what the effect will be upon a building's
This design tool is possible because of the amount of
sophisticated knowledge that exists about the nature of fire. But
putting this knowledge to practical use has occurred slowly.
"While the United States is near the forefront in the development
of advanced fire technology, it appears to lag behind in its
application," says David Lucht, director of WPI's Center for
This conclusion, included in a written assessment of the problem,
will catalyze discussion at a conference on fire-safety design in
the 21st century, to be held next May at WPI. The school offers the
country's only advanced-degree program in fire protection
engineering. (The University of Maryland will launch a graduate
program in September.)
Mr. Lucht says that because so much is known about the properties
of building materials and fire dynamics, builders, engineers, and
architects can bypass costly and time-consuming lab testing.
A case in point, he explains, involves the steel girders used in
high-rise buildings. Since steel beams lose their strength at 1200
degrees F, they frequently are encased in concrete or gypsum to
prevent their collapse. …