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People-watching is one of my favorite pastimes. I guess that has been a good thing, since I often seem to be waiting in places (airports, check-in lines, traffic jams and stores) with not much that can conveniently be done, other than watch the world around me — and, of course, the people.
In many engineering roles, the job is to make something easier, simpler, faster or safer for people. When looking specifically at fire protection, public health, safety and welfare is readily at the forefront of thoughts. To accomplish this, it is essential to examine and understand human behavior in fire events to apply appropriate protection.
Fire can be an event that fascinates some and terrifies others. Yet, the fire protection scheme for a space needs to protect all who are in it. Even with years of studying human behavior within fire scenarios, there is still much to learn. Passive and active fire protection measures assist in protecting the occupants of a space, but an individual’s response to a fire event is one of the biggest unknowns.
In most cases, codes and standards offer guidance on when and where these systems and measures are necessary. However, there are always scenarios that do not fit precisely into the requirements of the codes. Often, this is where a fire protection engineer gets involved in examining the situation.
Why Study Human Behavior?
Many have questioned, “If the codes and standards guide fire protection systems installation, then why study human behavior?”
This relates to the fundamental goal of public health, safety and welfare, which is done using the best methods to protect the people in a space where fire protection is being analyzed and installed.
Understanding common thought processes, reactions and movement of people in fire events have improved codes and standards, especially following tragedies where multiple lives were lost in a single fire event. Unfortunately, it is often that society waits until a tragedy happens before the study begins, at least in the history of fire protection. Too much of the public has an “it won’t happen to me” mentality that can make fire protection a battle, especially with limited budgets for a building project.
Human behavior can be one of the most significant variables in a fire event. The 1970s and 1980s saw funding from the U.S. government surface to look at the fire problem in the country. This included studies that explored evacuation, refuge and even use of elevators among other topics. These studies led to many modifications to improve life safety in fire events from examining the velocity of movement and how occupants flow through a space.
Many of the concepts were incorporated into standardized regulations. One example of this is people movement on stairs and the standardization of treads for the most efficient movement of people.
Codes, standards and guides regularly incorporate new information and studies as it becomes available. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that codes and standards are typically the minimum required level of protection. Applying basic principles and knowledge of human behavior can result in good fire protection that is more efficient and effective for a space.
This is especially true when the desired space has features that put it within a gray area of the code/standard requirements. Protecting the occupants means knowing what can typically be expected in terms of egress, evacuation and refuge during a fire event.
There are tools such as evacuation software and egress models that can aid in determining fire protection schemes and analyzing people movement. However, this is no different than any other software or model used in fire protection; it is only as good as the information input and the user’s understanding of the software limitations. This also leads back to the user having knowledge and comprehension of human behavior so that the tools can be used in a beneficial manner.
So, where does the average person learn more about human behavior in fire, if they have not already been exposed to this knowledge? There are many sources available, but one book recently updated is the “SFPE Guide to Human Behavior in Fire.” This second edition was released in 2018 and gathered many of the experts in the field as part of the SFPE Task Group on Human Behavior in Fire.
This task group approach to producing the updated publication ensures that the information is current and useful to fire protection engineers/fire safety engineers, human behavior scientists/researchers, design professionals and code authorities, too.
The studies continue as there is always more to learn with human behavior, especially as the world around us continues to change. One of the concerns in recent years has been movement speeds for people. Previous study and publications may not hold the most accurate information based on current demographics as some of the data is approaching 50 years old. This includes, but is not limited to, the average age of the population, increase in obesity across the population, vulnerable populations and cultural differences.
This subject was part of the SFPE Research Roadmap. The SFPE Educational and Scientific Foundation put out a request for proposal earlier in 2019 to look at research for anthropometric data and movement speeds. The project was awarded to York University and is expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2020. This project hopes to update data and have practical application for the fire protection engineers analyzing evacuation and movement speeds of current populations.
Human Interaction with Systems
The behavior of those who interact with fire protection systems is also essential to review. It is vital that inspection, testing and maintenance of passive and active systems are done in accordance with their standardized or recommended schedules. These schedules may vary based on the fire protection scheme that was used for protection. This is not the behavior of the occupants during an event, but the behaviors of the owners and personnel that work with fire protection systems to help ensure that the planned protection is functional.
The lifespan of the system, which could be decades, allows for many personnel to come into contact with different system components. Whether intentional or unintentional, if a fire protection professional is not the one who has touched a system or its components, there is the risk of an issue. Therefore, some components have devices such as tamper switches to know when something has been touched. Inspection, testing and maintenance are essential for building owners and occupants to know, just as it is for fire protection professionals.
As an example, an owner may update a space, such as a fresh look with a new coat of paint. A knowledgeable facilities person used protective covers over the fire sprinklers during the painting. Once the space is returned to normal operations with its new look, human inspection is used to make sure all the protective covers have been removed. This is of utmost importance to the functionality of those sprinklers should there be a fire event.
Excluding those who may aim to cause malice to a system or fire protection scheme, even small actions from individuals may have an impact on a system. Fire protection systems need to have detail-oriented behavior by anyone working with them — or, in some cases, near them. This can ensure they operated as intended and installed.
Human behavior is no small subject to tackle. From a fire perspective, the primary focus is on occupants of a space and how to maintain public health, safety and welfare. Studying human behavior has led to many advances in both standardized and performance-based approaches to fire protection. It has also assisted fire responders to evacuate people from a fire event.
Knowledge of these behaviors can empower the best fire protection schemes for a specific scenario. This can assist all those who work in fire protection to achieve the common goal of making a fire safe world. l