Factors That Figure Big in Fire’s 5-Year Future

Published: January 27, 2014

I am writing this article at around 39,000 feet as I travel from San Francisco to Boston to attend a meeting of the Research Advisory Committee (RAC) for the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF). The purpose is to discuss and lay out the strategic research plan for the next five years. While some of the topics will not have a direct influence on the design, installation and supervision of fire and life-safety systems, others will. Preparing for the meeting allowed me to think about how our industry will change during the latter half of this decade.

This is my 40th year in the industry, and I have also recently celebrated my 60th birthday. I marvel at how much has changed from a technology standpoint during these years. The first television we had was black-and-white and had 12 channels, six of which were active. The telephone had no dial, instead connecting you to the PBX at the local central office. When the operator picked up you would give her the number you wished to be connected to. We were 279. In the early 1960s, we advanced to a dial phone on a party line.

We now have almost unlimited TV channels to select from, with color and high definition. Dial phones are gone, and soon the public switch telephone network (PSTN) will follow. The main means of telecommunications is via smartphone, but there is also Skype, FaceTime and many other voice, data and texting options.

So what will the next few years bring? Prior to the RAC meeting, FPRF held a two-day symposium, called “The Next Five Years in Fire Protection and Electrical Safety,” which was held in Washington, D.C. A number of speakers, many of whom were not from the fire protection industry, presented their thoughts on where the next half-decade will lead. Two areas of particular note were the changing urban landscape and smart buildings.

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How Urban Settings Are Evolving

Antony Wood from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat made the following observations:

  • Buildings are getting taller
  • The number of these buildings is increasing
  • There is a change in function
  • There is a change in building materials

While this may not have an immediate effect within suburbia, the types of high-rise buildings being built within urban centers are changing in function. No longer are they commercial office buildings, but rather they are mixed-use occupancies that have both commercial and residential floors. Over time and as the population gets older, some floors may be for assisted living and even skilled nursing. The “typical” system that used to be installed within a tall building will change. At present, structures are being constructed in which elevators are to be used for evacuation from fire.

Building materials are also changing, and this is not just in tall buildings. Where steel, brick and concrete had been the most common materials, there has been a shift toward the use of composite and mixed materials. These are lighter materials, and they are now being used in single-family dwellings as well as commercial occupancies. The time from a fire starting to flashover is decreasing. Faster detection and suppression methods will have to be developed and used as we move into the future.

Communities are also being constructed within suburban areas that would not have been considered for development 20, 10 or even five years ago. As the population grows, we must either move up or out. Carl D. Wren, P.E., from the Austin Fire Department added the following trends:

  • Reduced street widths
  • Podium or pedestal construction
  • Further away from the central urban core
  • Increased density of development in the Wildland-Urban Interface

This will make it more difficult for first responders to reach an event. If the event is a fire, then quicker detection and suppression

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Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series