23.09.2015 : Paul Williams

Increasing need for fire engineering services

Fire engineering services is really taking off in New Zealand. We speak to two of our Technical Directors, Daryn Glasgow and Paul Williams on why.

Fire engineering services is really taking off in New Zealand. We speak to two of our Technical Directors, Daryn Glasgow and Paul Williams on why.

Q1: What does your role as a fire engineer involve? Would you recommend it as a career path?

Paul: Fire engineering is the art and science of designing buildings and facilities to minimise the risk to life safety and protect property in the event of a fire. This can come in many guises and it is difficult to describe a typical day. What I can say, is that no two days are ever the same and as a fire engineer you would typically be involved in multiple projects at any one time.

Projects can range from initial scoping exercises to determine the feasibility of a design, through to in-depth design team meetings and finally on to site with construction reviews to check your design is being correctly implemented. I would definitely recommend fire engineering as a career path.

Daryn: As a key member of a design team, the fire engineer monitors the design of a building to determine how successfully its occupants can escape in the event of a fire. They assist the design team in developing solutions where the building is not performing well enough. At the end of the design, they then demonstrate that the building fully complies with the relevant provisions of the regulations related to fire.

This distilled description obviously doesn’t come close to covering the complex computational fire and smoke modelling we do in a building, the 3D pedestrian movement models we use to show how people escape, and the close relationships we nurture with the Fire Service and regulator.

Obviously my opinion is biased, but I consider fire engineering as a discipline to be one of the most interesting, challenging and varied  fields of engineering to work in.

Computer model output of smoke control analysis for recent commercial buildings project.

Q2: Why is fire engineering essential for businesses?

Paul: Fire engineering is important for business because it touches so many facets of the world in which we live. With many of Beca’s clients, we are often helping to design a new building or a new piece of infrastructure or working with them to create better value from their existing assets. This invariably has an impact on people and, wherever the safety of people could be effected, it is more than likely that there will be fire safety regulations which need to be considered.

Add to this the upcoming Health and Safety at Work Act, insurance requirements, business continuity and property protection, and there is a great many areas where fire engineers can add value to any organisations.

Daryn: In the built environment, there are a number of regulatory requirements around a building’s means of escape from fire provisions. When designing buildings or facilities, or reviewing existing ones, an assessment of compliance can range from a simple comparison to a prescriptive approach, or else more complex performance based assessment methods can be employed. The former can in theory be done by anyone but since fire engineers are very familiar with these documents they are often engaged to apply these prescriptive requirements to a building design or review.

Where a fire engineer really comes into their own is in the application of performance based design and analysis. This allows new, innovative, out of the box solutions to be developed for a facility while still meeting the regulations.

Q3: Is there a reason why there’s been an increase in demand for fire engineering services in New Zealand?

Paul: One of the primary reasons for the increase in demand for fire engineering services in New Zealand is the changes to the regulations implemented in 2012. As with changes in any industry, changes result in uncertainty, uncertainty leads to risk and risk leads to opportunity. The 2012 Building Code changes led to more uncertainty in the application of the new rules and consequently more clients managing their risk by engaging fire engineers. The regulators also mitigated risk associated with the regulation changes by requiring chartered fire engineers to “sign-off” on their designs and for a second chartered fire engineer to provide a peer review.

The 2012 changes focused sharply on the process by which alterations to existing buildings are undertaken. Fire engineers were overnight faced with providing up to date reviews of the compliance of existing buildings in the event of an alteration to that building. At the extreme, this meant that a small tenancy change to a multi-storey building resulted in a review of the entire building. Thereby turning what might have been a day’s work in to a process which took months. Thankfully, a degree of pragmatism has been applied to this process but the more stringent focus on alterations has contributed significantly to the demand for fire engineers.

Ignoring the regulatory changes, it is quite likely that there would still be an increase in demand for fire engineering services. This is driven by, amongst other aspects, the Christchurch rebuild and strong growth in other New Zealand centres. In Auckland, we are seeing an unprecedented numbers of tall buildings on the drawing board. Being able to bring our international experience to these large projects whilst providing expert guidance on local requirements means the demand for our services in this one space alone is particularly strong.

Daryn: New Zealand's performance based Building Code allows designers and engineers with the necessary expertise to step beyond the restrictions of a prescriptive code and apply performance based methods to building design. There are however, large variations in the level of expertise being applied by practitioners, and in the quality of performance based design.

So, in 2012 the fire safety regulations were restructured. The prescriptive elements of the framework were largely unmodified but the scope of buildings to which they are able to be applied was reduced. The framework for performance based design was redefined, and in my opinion, ‘dumbed down’ with prescriptive acceptance criteria applied and the Verification Method introduced. More buildings are now required to have fire engineering done using the Verification Method and so the need for fire engineers with the expertise to do the analysis has risen sharply. Coupled with this, the Verification Method prescribes a design and analysis process which in many cases is much more detailed and requires significantly more in the way of documentation than the previous framework.

So - the number of projects which require a suitably qualified and competent fire engineer has therefore increased and the time required to do the fire engineering for each of those projects has also increased, resulting in an overall increase in demand for fire engineering services.

Q4: Is this a trend globally?

Daryn: Not to the extent being felt in New Zealand. More countries are adopting performance based codes, and the complexity of projects in most countries is also increasing – which requires competent and suitably qualified fire engineers.

The means by which performance based design is required to be carried out internationally, while for the most part robust, is not as protracted as that now required in New Zealand. The increased demand for fire engineers is therefore not as acute.

Paul: No. It is fair to say that globally fire engineers are always in high demand but New Zealand is going through a particularly strong surge. Looking at the recruitment trend in Beca, most fire engineering candidates are applying from overseas which indicates a lower demand outside of New Zealand but also reflects the higher New Zealand remuneration and higher standard of living.

One of the great aspects of fire engineering is that skills learnt in one country can very easily be applied in another. So, although the local regulations might change, the principles remain the same and transferring between countries can be undertaken at any stage of career.

Q5: What work do you enjoy the most?

Paul: For me, it's all about working with our clients. As a fire engineer you will get involved in a wide variety of projects but unless we understand what our client's main drivers are it is difficult to provide them with the solution that works best for them. The worst outcome for me is that I deliver a fire engineering solution which doesn’t meet our client’s needs and they end up with a compromised product which they have to work around or spend time and money fixing.

Daryn: Large performance based fire engineering projects. I enjoy working on the largest atrium smoke control solutions in the country, the tallest buildings, the biggest stadia, the most challenging architectural features. These projects require me to actively solve complex problems rather than simply follow a set of rules or ‘this is how we did it last time’ type scenarios.

Q.6: What advice you would give to a fire engineer just starting out?

Daryn: Take it slow. You are lucky to be working in a field where projects vary in complexity. By starting out working on the less challenging designs, using prescriptive codes and in lower risk consenting environments you will develop the knowledge and experience of the regulations and the analyses required – not just what they say and what buttons to press, but how they actually work, what the history is behind them, what their limitations are and how they are improving and developing.

Also, get out there and do construction monitoring. Nothing develops fire engineering expertise more than seeing how the fruits of your analysis and design are actually being implemented on site.

Paul: Communicate, communicate, communicate! Fire engineering strategies impact on so many facets of the design, construction and operation that it is very important to communicate with with the wider design team, the client and regulatory stakeholders such that the design is compliant, properly coordinated and constructed correctly. The trick is also to get in early with the high level concepts as surprising late changes to the strategy are generally not well received.

About the Author

Paul Williams

Technical Director - Fire

Paul is the National Fire Discipline Lead for Beca in New Zealand and provides leadership on many of Beca’s fire engineering projects. With his global experience and strong local knowledge, he aligns international best practice and innovative fire engineering solutions with the specific needs of major New Zealand projects.

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