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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Building and Fire Research Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2008 Disaster Resilient Structures and Communities (Fires) The primary core competency for the Strategic Priority Area of Disaster Resilient Structures and Communities (Fires) is fire protection and fire spread within buildings and communities. The areas of expertise within this Strategic Priority Area include fire protection engineering (suppression, detection, and smoke control); combustion chemistry and fire dynamics; fire service technologies; egress design; elevator technology; occupant behavior; and codes and standards—as well as sensitivity to longer-run human relocation activities in response to apparent reduction in risk, and the consequent societal impacts. The BFRL division active in this area is the Fire Research Division (FRD). Active division groups include the Integrated Performance Assessment, Analysis, and Prediction Group; the Fire Metrology Group; and the Fire Fighting Technologies Group. The primary BFRL goals in this strategic area are Innovative Fire Protection Technologies and Homeland Security and Disaster Resilience. The key programs are the Reduced Risk of Fire Spread in Buildings Program, the Advanced Fire Service Technologies Program, the Advanced Measurement and Predictive Methods Program, the Safety of Threatened Buildings Program, and Fires at the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) Program. TECHNICAL MERIT RELATIVE TO STATE OF THE ART The BFRL continues to have core competence with high technical merit in the fire area, particularly in the design and execution of experiments and the consistent coupling of experiments to validate predictive physics-based computational tools. The project reviews for the Fires strategic area clearly showed strengths in the area of physics. There is a historical strength at NIST in developing deep physics understanding of fire (a broad characterization including, for example, initiation and spread) and capturing the physics in both modeling and the validation of the models through well-designed and controlled experiments. The BFRL is making important contributions to the reduction of the risk of fire spread in buildings, to the safety of buildings and first responders, and the understanding of fire spread at the wildland-urban interface. The staff and facilities within the BFRL are a national resource for retrospective studies of fire accidents, which is superbly demonstrated in the studies of the fires at the World Trade Center and the Warwick, Rhode Island, Station nightclub. Lessons from fire investigations are aided by the ability to conduct tests, often at full scale in the Large Fire Laboratory (LFL), mainly for accidents, such as the nightclub fire. The LFL can also be used to obtain the heat-release rate (HRR) for furnishings to be used in the Fire Dynamics Simulator (FDS) of building fires with full allowance for furnishings, which are often the main source of fuel for the fire. The BFRL facilities for metrology are state of the art for providing unbiased performance assessment of products vital to the first responder such as respirators, smoke detectors, infrared cameras, and personal alert safety systems (PASS). Industry is not equipped to provide dependable assessment data for these products. The projects in this strategic area reviewed by the panel showed a clear commitment to developing physics-based, predictive, computational, and validated mathematical models. The BFRL has core competencies in fire modeling (the
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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Building and Fire Research Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2008 Consolidated Model of Fire and Smoke Transport [CFAST] and the Fire Dynamics Simulator), in which the laboratory has invested with outstanding results. The work is fundamental, has been peer-reviewed, has been leading in its field, and demonstrates unique capabilities. There are examples of new computational methodology being sought to address problems in fire protection (melt pool modeling). There are excellent programs in this strategic area to support progress in addressing the U.S. fire problem for risk reduction and the effective development of codes and standards. The work that was reviewed covered a wide range of topics in support of this mission, and the evaluation of these programs within the BFRL by the leadership appears to be very rigorous. The reviewed work in the areas of high-rise building fires, wind-driven fires, and positive-pressure ventilation coupled with work on thermal imaging can have immediate positive impact for the effectiveness and safety of the firefighter. The work on egress in tall buildings that is a follow-on to the WTC study was well formulated. This work needs to be expanded with more attention given to the makeup of the team. The fact that a workshop has been organized to consider rethinking egress is a very positive step toward the creation of technology roadmaps that can give multiyear direction to the research efforts and serve as a foundation for increased support to the BFRL. Work on wildland-urban interface fires is critically needed as construction develops at these interfaces; the program that was reviewed holds promise for strategically addressing this issue. Smoke alarm performance research is critical and may enable the safety community to address a crucial aspect of smoke detector reliability. The thermal imaging camera issue is one of great promise, once again for the effectiveness and safety of the firefighter. The thermal imaging camera may be the biggest advancement for firefighter safety since the development of the self-contained breathing apparatus. The program balance from the standpoint of a practical fire service is definitely on track. Programs in toxicity measurement to aid in escape from burning buildings, firefighter safety and effectiveness, and emergency escape management address crucial aspects of the fire problem today. The Reduced Risk of Fire Spread in Buildings Program addresses the important issue of the propagation of fires as it is influenced by different materials, a problem that is of major importance, as synthetic materials often have a higher energy-release rate than that of the natural materials that they replace. Good progress is being made in developing experimental and modeling capability for assessing the propagation of fires involving foams on real objects, which is a problem that is complicated by the formation of melts that flow and can form pool fires. Studies are also being conducted on reducing deaths resulting from fire propagation and the smoke that it generates. Technical merit in this area is rated excellent based on the following: The selection of problems based on good contacts with the customers in the fire community and on an appreciation of the mechanisms controlling fire spread and fire mitigation; Facilities that provide precise data on HRR ranging in scale from bench scale to 15 MW, which is a range that enables the FRD to translate fundamentals to industrial practice; Analytical capabilities that provide critical information on temperatures, velocity, distributions, soot, concentration of major combustion products, and
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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Building and Fire Research Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2008 toxic gases; and A dedicated and very qualified staff. The researchers reviewed did not always provide enough information to permit the panel to obtain a complete view of the assessment criteria presented in the charge to the panel from the Director of NIST. While a number of clear technological strengths were presented, a number of gaps apparently exist in the competencies that the BFRL is bringing to the overall problem set. From an academic perspective the research is well managed and productive, but it does not contain the industrial perspective of gates for moving to the next level or Stage Gates for arriving at decisions to accelerate (or terminate) specific projects. The researchers discussed systems in different ways: the need to look at coupling in experiments, the need to couple different computational approaches, the need to look at overall uncertainty effects. While the need is clear and to some degree was articulated well by the researchers to the panel, there was no systematic description of the construct of “systems” for projects or with respect to skill sets in the area of systems engineering. The industrial use of methodology and tools along the lines of Design for Six Sigma7 (a method for eliminating defects in processes) should be examined in the area of fire protection and appears to be appropriate for this environment (with obvious emphases and modifications as needed). There is a clear set of strengths in physics-based modeling and in simulation in the programs reviewed. There was no clear capability in the areas of analysis of the resulting models. In particular, a great deal of the work at the BFRL addresses systems and temporally evolving situations of interest; there is an apparent need for added competence in the area of dynamical systems that involves a qualitative and quantitative understanding of the dynamics in order to fully utilize modern methods of nonlinear dynamical systems for qualitative understanding and for designing appropriate algorithms and focusing the computational efforts. There was a great deal of discussion on uncertainty but almost no technical discussion or presentation on what is necessary to have competence in this area. Given the focus in numerous professional communities as well as ongoing projects in this area (e.g. ongoing efforts resourced by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA] to provide effective computational tools for the propagation of uncertainty in large-scale interconnected, dynamical systems), the lack of understanding of the state of the art in this area should be actively addressed. The President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) recently published findings8 that stress the need to develop technology for networked systems connected to the physical world or to fully develop the technology known as cyber-physical systems. Without doubt, one institution where this R&D agenda is relevant and should be developed with intensity is the BFRL. In the area of fire safety as well as that of energy efficiency, the use of new technologies, particularly information 7 K.N. Otto and K.L. Wood, 2001, Product Design, Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall. 8 President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), 2007, Leadership Under Challenge: Information Technology R&D in a Competitive World, Technical Report, August, Washington, D.C.: Executive Office of the President.
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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Building and Fire Research Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2008 technology-based, was missing from the project reviews, the strategic objectives, and the overall discussions. ADEQUACY OF INFRASTRUCTURE The Large Fire Laboratory (LFL) is able to facilitate the study of fires with the precise measurement of the heat-release rate at three different scales for fires in the ranges of 10 kW to 750 kW, 100 kW to 3 MW, and 200 kW to 15 MW. The LFL is designed to evaluate large fires; this facility is different from the proposed Structural Fire Endurance Laboratory, which will involve the testing of the mechanical performance of structures subjected to fires and will necessarily involve both the fire and material research experts in the BFRL. The LFL has added greatly to the ability of NIST to carry out a broad range of experiments on the validation of models, the reconstruction of major accidental fires, and the quantitative evaluation of the HRR for fires burning a wide range of objects, including furnishings, trees, and entire enclosures. The distinguishing features of the LFL are the precision with which the HRR is measured and the availability of diagnostic tools for obtaining gas species composition and soot, temperature, and velocity profiles. Some of the problems that have been addressed using the LFL are the measurement of the HRR of furnishings to provide data inputs regarding building fires and the measurement of the HRR of large trees to provide inputs for computer simulation of WUI fires. The competency of the staff supporting this Strategic Priority Area is high, and the excitement for their work is palpable. The stimulation promoted by the WTC investigation program is still evident and is being amplified by new programs on WUI fires and hydrogen funded through the America COMPETES Act. With the retirement of some renowned staff members, it is important to mentor the younger staff to help them exploit the benefits of collaboration of other laboratories with NIST, to guide them to appropriate forums for technological exchanges and journals for their publications, and to help them manage their time. Restoring the funding of the University Grants Program to the level, corrected for inflation, that it had when it was transferred to NIST from the National Science Foundation would strengthen the national fire capabilities as well as increase the pool of potential employees for the fire program in the future. The following excerpt from a National Research Council report on fire safety9 provides the history of the grant program: In the early 1970s, the National Science Foundation (NSF) supported fire research at a level of approximately $2.2 million every year ($9.6 million in today’s dollars) through a program known as Research Applied to National Needs (RANN). The RANN program was terminated in 1977. Subsequently, a fire research grants program at the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) was funded at about $2 million annually ($8.7 million in today’s dollars). However, by 2002, the NIST fire research grants program had declined to only $1.4 million, a decrease of 85 percent from the 1973 level when adjusted for 9 National Research Council, 2003, Making the Nation Safe from Fire: A Path Forward in Research, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Building and Fire Research Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2008 inflation. As a consequence of the limited funding that has been made available, the scope and breadth of university fire research in the United States have declined dramatically over the past 30 years. Program balance from the standpoint of a practical fire service is on track. Programs in toxicity measurement for escape from burning buildings, firefighter safety and effectiveness, and emergency escape management address crucial aspects of the fire problem today. Both the Toxicity Laboratory and the LFL are impressive. The reasoning behind the expansion plans for the large-fire test facility, including the construction of the Structural Fire Endurance Laboratory, is sound. Research intent and commitment are excellent. Staffing appears to be well thought out in the fire service area. There is an excellent balance of researchers, and there are plans to fill two current vacancies in the Fire Research Division. The technical staff is the lifeblood of NIST. The staff members were articulate and, on the whole, knowledgeable of the technical areas. The staff appeared technically strong. However, the level of stature of the technical staff in the field was not clear. Publications alone do not indicate the leadership of the staff. Collaborations, which are occurring, also do not paint a complete picture. There were not clear indications that the staff are leading the field in some of the technical areas in which the BFRL participates, and staffing and staff development efforts should be undertaken to address the issue of leadership. Biographies of the staff were not available to the panel; hence the evaluation of the BFRL staff backgrounds was incomplete in terms of understanding the current staff profile and the changes that are occurring (beyond the number of Ph.D. and M.S. staff members in the laboratory). The development of staff in terms of what is required at different levels and what is done in terms of assignments, training, or mentoring to enable staff to achieve higher levels of performance was unclear. The staff includes pockets of significant excellence, but insufficient staff background data prevented an assessment of the overall level of staff qualifications. The laboratory infrastructure—facilities and people—needs additional focus to be able to complete the mission and particularly to achieve the strategic goals set by the BFRL management. ACHIEVEMENT OF OBJECTIVES AND IMPACT The overarching Advanced Fire Service Technologies Program goes a long way toward balancing research for the built environment and research for firefighters who respond to fires in the built environment. Researchers in this area have a good understanding of the work going on in other laboratories, both in the United States and internationally. Overall, the BFRL has an excellent grasp of the fire problem in the United States. This work appears to be in support of America COMPETES Act of 2007. The work being done in both of the laboratories and in the programs across the board is extremely relevant to the needs that should be addressed for the fire problem in general. The BFRL develops an unbiased evaluation of fire detection to help in the formulation of codes and standards (now prescriptive, in the future, performance-based) that will place the United States in a leadership position with regard to sensors, building materials, and building technologies. The BFRL has been very successful in working
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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Building and Fire Research Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2008 with sensor manufacturers as well as with the fire service community in providing critical testing of the products that are manufactured and in use. The laboratory appears to have had less interaction with the building industry. At present, the industry relies on standard testing laboratories such as Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. (UL), which provide results on the performance of individual materials or components, but not on systems. The BFRL can, by testing systems, provide the data that the ultimate customer, the builder, needs. The proposed Structural Fire Resistance Laboratory will provide the ability to test the structural systems that are needed for the assessment of systems that involve multiple elements and joints. BFRL researchers are active participants in major committees relating to fire safety and the protection of first responders, and they currently play a major leadership role in standards and code-setting committees. The results of the research efforts are disseminated through the preparation of CDs of fire scenarios, test burns, and training manuals for first responders, universities, and the public; and the sponsoring of an Annual Fire Conference as well as topical workshops, and outreach provided by the Web site Fire.Gov. The widespread adoption of FDS—the code of choice for the fire community—has established a Web-based access to the user community. In the Fire Research Division, researchers have been recognized by multiple awards including a Gold, a Silver, and three Bronze Medals of the Department of Commerce during the 2005-2007 period. Publication in peer-reviewed publications should be encouraged and strengthened. This output of the research provides the widest dissemination of the FRD results and is important for the development of visibility, particularly for the younger members of the FRD staff. There is excellent balance in the work in this area between anticipatory, longer-term research and activities that respond to immediate customer needs. The WUI program provides an excellent example of longer-term research covering fires on multiple scales and at new interfaces. This work also tackles the complex problem of fire brands, which draw on the specialized facilities of the Large Fire Laboratory at NIST to determine fire brand generation by burning Douglas firs, and the large wind tunnel at the Building Research Institute in Japan to determine the impact of fire brands on a variety of common roof materials. The WTC and Rhode Island nightclub fire investigations are excellent examples of responsiveness of the BFRL to short-term needs through the use of multidisciplinary teams that enable both the understanding of the event and the systemic understanding of root cause that leads to changes in codes and standards. The determination of the adequacy of a variety of protection equipment (PASS, heat shields, radios, thermal imaging, and respiratory gear) for first responders is of enormous value to firefighters. There was clear articulation of the mission and of the strategic directions for the BFRL. However, this strategic vision was not always complemented by detailed roadmaps and associated metrics that could be used to evaluate progress. This lack of portfolio management exemplifies an area in which project management techniques used widely in industry should be adopted by the BFRL. There was clear use in the Fire strategic area of the “Heilmeier criteria”10 that 10 G. Heilmeier, 1992, “Some Reflections on Innovation and Invention,” The Bridge, Vol. 22 (No. 4): pp. 12-16.
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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Building and Fire Research Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2008 have been adopted from DARPA11 for project selection (investment criterion). However, these criteria are not implemented as rigorously as they have been by DARPA. The areas of WUI fires and the World Trade Center investigation were presented to the panel in detail. These areas have had a clear and very positive focusing effect on the BFRL, and the response of the entire BFRL organization has been admirable during these investigations. The strengths of the diversity of expertise and the collaborative teaming among the contributors at the BFRL and elsewhere are evident in these investigations. It is not apparent, however, that clear lessons learned are being derived from these investigations and that upstream research is being developed systematically to address issues that arise from the studies on episodic events. These issues include the use of adequately sized and multidisciplinary teams. Smaller research efforts, especially without the use of technology roadmaps, can have a diffusing effect on research. A role for NIST is the development of technology to enable performance-based codes. This leadership role was communicated to the panel by most presentations in a consistent manner. However, the leadership did not clearly show transition or impact on stakeholders to increase innovation or to increase performance in the building stock. The measurement of transitions to industrial use or to codes and standards, part of the R&D process, is not clearly being tracked at the BFRL. Making use of technology maturation metrics such as technology readiness levels (TRLs) should be present, but in the projects reviewed there was no discernable process for understanding and measuring the state of technology readiness, particularly in the technology areas that underlie the Strategic Priority Areas. NASA, the Department of Defense, and others have adopted TRLs that quantify the maturity level but also give indications of what the gates are for moving to the next level. Without some sort of maturity index at the BFRL, it is not clear how the investments are being used to increase the levels or to get to transitions and impact. In addition to but different from using TRLs would be the use of project management strategies such as the Stage-Gate methodology, but there is no clear use of such an approach at the BFRL. There is a clear sense of the objective and milestones of the projects under review, but the methodology and criteria for arriving at a decision to accelerate (or to terminate) specific projects are not present. The projects that were selected to be reviewed appear to fall into several areas, but the choice was not explicit. There were projects that were long-standing (CFAST and FDS), projects that were driven by events or crises (WUI post-fire analysis, WTC investigation), and some newly emerging areas (egress, hydrogen fire safety). These could be put into a clearer project management format and the investments over the portfolio clarified if such processes were adopted. CONCLUSIONS The BFRL continues to demonstrate a core competence in the Fire Strategic Priority Area, particularly in the design and execution of experiments and the consistent coupling of experiments to validate predictive, physics-based computational tools. The work on the World Trade Center investigation is a very strong indicator of the 11 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, 2007, Strategic Plan: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Technical Report, Washington, D.C.
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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Building and Fire Research Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2008 fundamental quality that the BFRL has and the value of the laboratory to the United States. The BFRL has begun to outline strategic areas in which to focus R&D efforts and to make investments, and it is beginning to employ some tools to characterize the investments in the programs that make up the research portfolio. The general area of project execution requires some focus beyond the work done to date. The staff has pockets of excellence, but insufficient data were presented to permit an assessment of overall staff qualifications. The laboratory infrastructure—the facilities and people—need additional focus to complete the mission and particularly to achieve the strategic goals set by the BFRL management. The key recommendations are made relative to the strengthening of the core mission of developing measurement science. In the area of technology, the skill sets need to be both augmented and strengthened to execute against what are increasingly systems issues—there is little application in the teams for the projects reviewed of systems engineering, dynamical systems, and more broadly the much deeper use of information technology. Improved processes and metrics to characterize the research portfolio and to track project execution should be applied. The output of NIST is critically dependent on the staff. Recruiting and staff development need much stronger focus to ensure that the NIST mission can continue to be applied to new areas. Specific recommendations in the area of technology include the following: increasing skill sets in systems engineering and dynamics, making explicit the ability to quantify uncertainty, and maintaining the core competence in fire systems that is founded on developing advanced experimentation capability coupled to validated computational tools. Investments should continue to be made in the experimental facilities as well as in making use of the facilities for the validation of mathematical models. The construction of a Structural Fire Endurance Laboratory is very desirable. The BFRL should prepare detailed schematic designs and obtain cost estimates for the proposed new large-scale fire test facility. The BFRL should also contact end users of the BFRL research as partners in developing the facility. One recommendation in the area of the R&D process is for the adoption of project management tools (e.g., the Stage-Gate processes and some form of technology readiness levels) to quantify the technology maturity and to identify the overall investments in the R&D portfolio. Another recommendation is for the creation of roadmaps for the strategic areas that identify the sequencing of technology development and the timing that is needed for the identified stakeholders. In future reviews, the BRFL should make explicit the biographical background of the current staff, the strategic hiring plans for competency levels, and individual staff development plans. Considerable motivation and focusing evolved from the work on fire problems with clear objectives, specifically, the WUI and WTC investigations. The BFRL should derive from these focusing-event investigations clear lessons learned and processes to use both in deriving research programs and in developing project planning methods that can be used in situations that do not have such clarity in the objectives.