Feature - Disaster management: in safe hands with FireGrid
Fire breaks out.
Your fire fighters arrive outside the burning building. It is buried in smoke; flames flick behind the haze. Should you enter? Or evacuate? Is the fire waning? How will it progress?
Countless fires have come under this same spotlight, including the World Trade Center collapse in 2001; the Mont Blanc tunnel fire in 1999; the Piper Alpha Explosion in the North Sea in 1988; and the Kings Cross subway station fire in London in 1987.
"These were all major disasters," says Dave Berry, research manager of the National e-Science Centre in Edinburgh, UK. "People ask why they happened; in each case, if we'd had more information, the fires could've been dealt with more effectively."
Berry is working on FireGrid, an R&D initiative with the long-term vision of running real-time fire simulations that include data available from multiple sources-models of fire and human behavior simulations; sensors like smoke detectors, motion detectors, temperature sensors; information from building management systems; and data from scenarios predicted by emergency service experts-and then incorporating these simulations into active fire response systems.
In this way, FireGrid aims to provide firefighters with the best available information, right when and where they need it.
"We're bringing grid computing to bear in modeling fires in buildings, building structures and evacuation," says Berry. "We want to provide immediate advice, feedback and control. In this particular fire, at this particular instant, should you open a window or shut a door? Should you turn fans on? In what direction? You can run an ensemble of simulations to see how the fire might develop and use sensors to guide your model as it is running."
The next thing, says Berry, is to provide this information to the people who need it.
"The goal is for this information to be available to fire fighters in real time, linked to a decision support system to help them decide how to fight the fire. It needs to be presented in quite a clever way; there's no point in just giving people numbers."
Grid-powered fire-rated architecture
Shorter-term goals for FireGrid include venturing into the world of building design: the FireGrid team are developing simulations that will assess the effect of a building's design on the spread of fire within it.
"People don't yet have the ability to take an actual design and test it in silico, to see how it performs in a fire and make changes based on that," says Berry.
The potential for improvements in safety and damage reduction already has insurance companies interested, Berry says.
Another shorter-term goal is the development of an intelligent response mode for building management systems, such that the building itself is better equipped to manage its own response to a fire incident.
"For example, in buildings where staff swipe in and out, the building response system could use swipe records to accertain that the building was empty, then automatically close doors and windows within the building to prevent a fire from spreading," Berry explains.
FireGrid also aim to develop a framework incorporating fire management software, structural design software and training software for fire fighters.
Although the immediate focus is on developing fire management technology, FireGrid methodology promises to be applicable to other disaster scenarios, such as natural disasters and terrorist incidents.
Diverse talents; distributed resources
FireGrid connects a multi-disciplinary team of seven partners: The University of Edinburgh provides the majority contribution to research and development for all areas of the project; BRE is the project leader and also provides state-of-the-art experimental facilities; design consultancy Ove Arup is the overall project manager; ANSYS-CFX are contributing advanced structural mechanics and Computational Fluid Dynamics modeling software; ABAQUS UK Limited are also contributing to structural aspects of the project; and Xtralis provide expertise on active fire protection systems and sensor equipment in support of experiments.
The London Fire Brigade represents the future users of FireGrid and guides the development of the command and control interface.
FireGrid is funded by the UK's Technology Strategy Board.
- Cristy Burne, iSGTW