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3 Findings and Recommendations In accordance with its statement of task, the committee has developed a number of findings and recommendations. It should be noted that these findings and recommendations are based on the knowledge and experience of the committee members and discussions facilitated by the workshop held on April 15-16, 2002. Although the participation of the workshop attendees was invaluable for the preparation of this report, the findings and recommendations represent the opinions of the NRC committee that was appointed for this purpose. The responsibility for the final content of the report rests entirely with this committee and the National Research Council. FINDINGS The High Cost of Fire. Unwanted and preventable fire in the United States continues to exact an unacceptably high cost in terms of human suffering and economic losses. The threat to people, property, and economic activity is neither well understood nor fully appreciated by policy makers and the public at large. Benefits of Performance-Based Practices. Performance-based building codes, which are now available in the United States for adoption by state and local governments, offer real promise for regulators and public officials to institute regulations that reflect a better understanding of risks and improved safety performance for buildings in their communities. However, performance- based codes depend on the ability of engineers to predict how buildings will perform under fire conditions. There are significant gaps in the data and knowledge base needed to support performance-based codes, engineering tools, predictive models, and risk assessment. Insufficient Funding. The current funding levels and organizational infrastructure for fire research in the United States are inadequate to address even the most fundamental research needs that were raised at the workshop and subsequently discussed by the committee. The documented costs of unwanted fire, in both human and economic terms, justify substantial investment in fire safety research and the development and deployment of the products of that research. The public at large, businesses, institutions, and government agencies can all benefit from better safety at less cost. Coordination and Cooperation. Improving fire safety in the United States depends on the combined efforts of a range of disciplines and communities, from fire researchers and academics to the fire services, public officials, codes and standards groups, private industry, government agencies, and professional societies. There is a need for better communication, cooperation, and integration of national fire safety efforts.
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Important Role for Universities. University-based fire research has all but evaporated in the United States over the past three decades. In addition to choking off new scientific discovery, this turn of events has all but eliminated the production of young scholars with a career commitment to inquiry and teaching in the fire safety sciences. Role of the National Science Foundation. The NSF has traditionally served as an incubator for coordinated, interdisciplinary research programs for hazard reduction that involve the university research community, government agencies, and the private sector. As compared with more mission-oriented agencies, an NSF commitment can be particularly beneficial in areas of basic research that will improve our understanding of the nature of fire; its detection, suppression, and control; technology applications (e.g., next-generation residential smoke detectors, material coatings, and intrinsically safe home appliances); human behavior; and interdisciplinary studies to better inform building codes, design, and regulatory/public policy processes. The National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program Model. Through NEHRP, the U.S. government has aggressively pursued such an integrated approach for addressing the earthquake hazard. Its approach has resulted in greatly improved building performance and reduced levels of injury and death. RECOMMENDATIONS The committee’s recommendations are not intended to address all areas of fire safety or even all areas of fire research. They are targeted specifically to those areas where the committee believes the National Science Foundation could have a significant positive impact on the state of fire research that would enhance fire safety in the United States and are intended to suggest a path forward for NSF. 1. NSF should reestablish and fund a program in basic fire research and interdisciplinary fire studies. Funding of approximately $10 million per year is recommended to begin this effort. This initial funding level would restore the NSF investment in fire research to its 1973 level (in today’s dollars). It should be reconsidered once a robust research infrastructure is in place. The level of fire research at U.S. universities has declined greatly since the RANN program was terminated at NSF. Given NSF’s charter to support basic research and education, the committee believes that NSF is the appropriate agency for administering a reinvigorated and robust university grants program in fire research. Funding of university principal investigators and graduate students needs to be emphasized, both to accomplish research goals and to invest in the nation’s next generation of investigators and teachers—the human capital so necessary for continuous improvement in fire safety. There are many on-going initiatives and programs within NSF (e.g., nanotechnology, sensors, high-performance materials, surface chemistry, human and social factors in hazard mitigation, structural system performance) that could provide a logical nexus (not to speak of existing funding) for reestablishing a comprehensive and interdisciplinary focus on fire safety within NSF.
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This report makes no attempt to suggest a national research agenda or to identify fire research priorities for the nation. Such prescription was beyond the scope of this effort. The committee believes that work previously done by others, such as the SFPE Research Agenda 2000, the United States Fire Administration (USFA), and the Joint Fire Science Project (JFSP), along with the discussion of topical areas found in this report, will serve as a valuable resource for evaluating initial research proposals. In the short term, NSF can make use of this report and recent work by others to evaluate research proposals. The committee believes that the recommended funding level of $10 million annually would be an appropriate starting point for supporting multiple investigators in the physical, social, and behavioral sciences and engineering, with an emphasis on fostering interdisciplinary activities. In the longer term, NSF should coordinate its efforts with other agencies to build an integrated and robust research infrastructure for fire safety. Once such an infrastructure is in place, higher funding levels (such as those recommended in America Burning—approximately $113 million in today’s dollars) should be considered. The committee would note that significant resources are already available through the multiplicity of mission-directed fire safety activities currently under way in federal agencies. Better coordination of existing fire safety planning, research, and implementation and their integration under a renewed initiative by NSF could create significant opportunities to leverage research dollars, increase technology transfer, and speed deployment of new methods and products. 2. A coordinated national attack to increase fire research and improve fire safety practices should be launched. The committee recommends that NSF support exploratory activities to determine if a model such as NEHRP or any other model that combines integration, cooperation, stakeholder involvement, and collaboration in research could hasten the development and deployment of improved fire safety practices through more coordinated, better targeted, and significantly increased levels of fire research in the United States. Many workshop participants emphasized that, in addition to addressing the paucity of basic research, there also needed to be better coordination, cooperation, and communication among the stakeholders in national fire safety. The United States lacks an adequately funded and well-coordinated national fire research program such as that for earthquake engineering embodied in the NEHRP. Most federally funded fire research is mission-focused and conducted by user agencies, which show little interest in leveraging the research investment, supporting graduate students, or transferring technology. Given the emergence of performance-based design and regulatory practices, the fire safety field is desperately in need of integrated research findings targeted to the priority needs of practice. A number of possible national strategies for achieving this goal were discussed at the workshop. The committee believes that a national attack on the U.S. fire problem requires interdisciplinary communication, cooperation, and coordination supported by adequate funding. The earthquake safety movement, which began in the 1970s and has evolved into the successful NEHRP is an excellent model for the fire safety community to consider. An effort modeled on the NEHRP could engage all federal agencies currently involved with fire safety and, at a minimum, should link a reinvigorated NSF university grants program with the valuable efforts currently under way at other agencies, such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Fire Administration.
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