The Fire Research Division (FRD) develops, verifies, and utilizes measurements and predictive methods to quantify the behavior of fire and advances techniques to reduce the impact of fire on people, property, and the environment. The FRD strives to provide leadership for advancing the theory and practice of fire safety engineering, firefighting, fire investigation, fire testing, fire data management, and wildland burning.
The FRD consists of five staff groups—Fire Fighting Technology, Engineered Fire Safety, Flammability Reduction, Wildland-Urban Interface Fire, and the National Fire Research Laboratory (NFRL). The groups work in two main program areas: fire risk reduction in communities (with thrusts in fire service activities and wildland-urban interface [WUI]) and fire risk reduction in buildings (with thrusts in residential fire safety, structure-fire interactions, and advanced modeling).
TECHNICAL MERIT OF THE PROGRAM
Homes are still where the majority of fires and fire deaths occur. According to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA),1 the death rate per 1,000 reported home fires in 2014–2017 was more than twice as high in fires that began with the ignition of either upholstered furniture or mattresses and bedding as it was in 1980–1984. In the period 1980-1984, 44 in 1,000 deaths began with upholstered furniture fires; the number rose to 88 in 1,000 in the period 2013-2017. In the period 1980-1984, 15 in 1,000 deaths began with mattress or bedding fires; the number rose to 38 in 1,000 in the period 2013-2017.
During the 5 years of 2014–2018, cooking was the leading cause of home fires and home fire injuries, while smoking was the leading cause of home fire deaths. This shows the need to solve the home fire problem. At NIST, this is being addressed with programs on upholstered furniture flammability and residential fire safety innovation, such as advanced home fire alarms, cooking fire hazard reduction, and reduced ignition–propensity cigarettes. The research focus on the WUI is also related to this effort, because there is increasing residential fire death and property loss in those areas in such fires.
The fire performance test for mattresses, developed by NIST, was successfully implemented in the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) regulation in 2007 for furniture flammability. According to a recently published study by NIST,2 this regulation has reduced the number of deaths caused by flaming ignition of mattresses by close to 80 percent since its implementation in 2007.
1 M. Ahrens and R. Maheshwari, 2020, Home Structure Fires, National Fire Protection Association, November, https://www.nfpa.org/News-and-Research/Data-research-and-tools/Building-and-Life-Safety/Home-Structure-Fires.
Adding to the complexities of reducing home fire deaths is the increasing focus on the environmental impact of chemical flame retardants. Flame retardants had previously been the go-to solution for reducing the flammability of residential upholstered furniture (RUF) at NIST and elsewhere. However, this approach is no longer desirable and is even banned in many jurisdictions. To avoid the use of flame retardants, NIST has focused on developing barrier technologies to prevent the flaming ignition of RUF. This change in focus from fire retardants to barrier methods, made after consultation with stakeholders, shows NIST’s ability to refocus research based on stakeholders’ needs. The work has successfully developed two different barrier technologies, one patented in 2017 and the other with patent pending. NIST’s work is laying the foundation for implementing needed regulation of upholstered furniture.
Providing accurate fire performance metrics enables the reduction of the burning hazard of RUF. The testing program focuses first on fire performance in real scale and then on providing a bench-scale test method that replicates the performance in real scale. This takes great advantage of NIST experience with large-scale testing as well as making good use of existing test equipment, such as the cone calorimeter. Results confirm that the cube test as part of the cone calorimeter provides the parameters needed to predict fire performance in real scale.
In addition to flaming tests for RUF, NIST is also addressing the hazard of smoldering ignition of RUF from cigarettes. NIST SRM 1196/a cigarettes are required by ASTM 1352/1353, NFPA 260/261, CPSC 16 CFR 1632, BHGS TB 117-2013, and many European standards and regulations for assessing the flammability of soft furnishings. It was encouraging to hear that work toward a 10-year supply of this Standard Reference Material (SRM) will be done in fiscal year (FY) 2021–2022 Previous work on the mechanism of smoldering behavior in RUF has led to improvements in the bench-scale smoldering test, ensuring better alignment of the test method with smoldering behavior in real scale.
Nuisance alarms from smoke detectors are a common reason for these alarms to be taken out of service, thereby leaving people more vulnerable to fire. Solving the problem of nuisance alarms is a critical step in ensuring increased home fire safety. The work at NIST has led to smoke detector standards being modified based on NIST technical guidance. Current editions of ANSI/UL 217 and ANSI/UL 268 require new fire performance tests and a nuisance alarm resistance test for all smoke alarms and smoke detectors. New products are on the market now with a requirement that all alarms and detectors manufactured meet these new requirements by June 2021. This is another example of NIST’s basic research making its way into people’s lives.
Another critical issue to address in-home fire safety is the role of cooking fires. NIST’s work informed the technical basis for changes to the standard on household electrical ranges, UL858, to prevent cooktop ignition during unattended cooking. Additionally, recently published research from NIST emphasizes the significant hazards from unattended cooking, which is the leading cause of cooking fires.
The program is addressing the fact that fire targets of WUI fires, such as wood piles or decks, can then in turn become sources for fire spread into the built environment. The focus is on the complex relationships of fire spread of WUI fires from vegetation to site elements such as fences, or wood storage piles to exterior decks and then to structures. A structure on fire becomes the source of more ignitions downwind. Observations from forensic fire analysis and fire tests show great variations in fire performance of such seemingly simple systems like fences, depending on the direction of the wind in relation to the orientation of the fence.
The Emberometer is a unique measurement system under development at NIST that measures the ember flux in terms of size and numbers of embers. The Emberometer serves a real need to measure the generation and propagation of embers in laboratory tests and field fire conditions. The work is still in the early development stage and is another component of WUI data collection and modeling prediction that will require many years to realize its potential. It is intended to measure the actions of fire-generated particle showers (firebrands) that can be a mechanism of fire spread in WUI fires. As WUI modeling improves, test data and modeling data on such WUI fire components as embers and firebrands will be essential to improving the predictive capabilities of WUI fire models. Duplicating embers and measuring their properties adds to the understanding of the propagation of WUI fires by embers. This will, over time,
lead to better predictive modeling and will also lead to better building system designs to prevent or slow fire caused by embers.
The burn observation bubble (BOB) is a simple and creative implementation of commercially available gear to provide immersive visualization of severe fire environments that are otherwise unavailable due to the fire being observed destroying the observation equipment. The program makes innovative uses of blown glass bubbles to provide water-cooled glass enclosures for cameras to provide a fire-resistant environment for fire observation inside of a fire. The simplicity of the concept and its execution belies the great value of this invention. In addition to the BOB, the FRD is developing important data visualization methods that overlay technical data on the visual images obtained by the BOB system. This close integration of data and video provides a more comprehensive view of the fire than has been possible previously. The visualization methods are a teaching tool both for research and for public information.
The goal of the Emergency Response Robots program is to improve the safety and effectiveness of first responders by assessing and improving the capabilities of emergency response robots. This is of potentially great value in buildings as well as in the WUI environment of fast-moving fires in rough terrain where both fire risks and mobility make robots well suited for observation and firefighting tasks. The program has been recognized with many awards, most recently the Presidential Gears of Government Award (2020) for developing the first-ever comprehensive suite of emergency response robot test methods and data collection tools to evaluate and improve bomb-disposal robots and operators. These efforts led to enhanced testing and advanced robot capabilities that enable emergency responders to perform extremely hazardous missions from safer standoff distances for a wide range of emergency response scenarios. Firefighting robots have recently begun going into active service in local fire departments.
The research conducted in the NFRL facility in recent years has been of high quality and innovative. The commissioning of the new systems was meticulously undertaken in a manner that will serve the facility’s research over the coming years. The research on the fire response of composite steel-concrete floor systems has been highly productive and has fostered excellent international collaboration. The importance of fabrication details and connections yields major lessons and implications for structural design. The open archiving of data from these experiments will be a resource for modelers and other researchers for many years.
Challenges and Opportunities
While NIST’s effort in the area of flammability has had an important impact, the combination of its efforts on mattresses and cigarettes has yet to address fully the risks inherent in bed fires. Much progress is needed in upholstered furniture fire performance.
The evaluation of the toxic effluents produced during a fire is a gap in the work on home fire safety research. Reducing RUF or other products’ fire hazard should not disregard the biggest killer in fire—smoke. While it can be argued that lowering the heat release will also lower the smoke production, the unintended consequence can be the production of more toxic effluents, affecting people close to the fire’s origin. This was addressed when the impact of flame retardants was assessed years ago. But with the focus solely on reducing flammability, the issue of toxic effluents during fire has seemingly dropped. NIST had been on the forefront of research into the toxic effluents from fires, so it is surprising that this field of research is no longer pursued. There is increasing interest globally in the role of toxic effluents during fire, as evidenced by a recent research on fire smoke and toxicity by the European Union’s study to evaluate the need to regulate within the Framework of Regulation (EU) 305/2011 on the toxicity of smoke produced by construction products in fires, and the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government procurement pipeline requirements, such as CPD/004/121/050, “Research - Fire Safety: Smoke & Toxicity.”
Recent years have seen rapid growth in the number of people living in the WUI, and this move has led to new classes of fire incidents being addressed by NIST. The WUI data collection program is designed to extend the fire incident investigation, reporting, and analysis system into the WUI zones where there has been a large increase in fire incidents all over the United States in recent years. This data gathering is based on forensic analysis of actual events to determine the mechanisms for their start and spread. The program is based on case studies to identify vulnerabilities, drive research, and develop hazard mitigation solutions. The program is seeking to widen the base of its knowledge beyond single-building fire performance to the inter-relationships between structures and the other elements in the WUI zone, such as fences and adjacent vegetation. This is designed to provide an analytical base for the wider NIST drive to increase knowledge and predictive capabilities about WUI zone fires and how to mitigate them on a community-wide basis.
The WUI Parcel Vulnerability Program is a coordinated effort using targeted laboratory and field experiments, post-WUI fire data collection and analysis, and a range of models, including vegetation and structure fire models to understand WUI exposures. The program provides measurement science–based tools for the development of WUI fire-resistant test methods, standards, and codes. The goal of accurate modeling for WUI fires, especially at a parcel or community scale, is worthwhile and timely. The number of complexities involved in outdoor fires involving open boundary conditions and varying terrain, and vegetation mixes inherent in WUI fire modeling, go beyond the framework of modeling structure. Usable and accurate WUI fire models have not yet been fully developed, but the demonstrated need for WUI fire prediction and mitigation makes the goal well worth pursuing.
Ongoing development has demonstrated the ability to use the Fire Dynamics Simulator (FDS) to interpret experiments and predict future experiments and other fires in the laboratory and in natural environments. This modeling capability has a considerable development history, with origins dating to the 1970s and 1980s, with new features shown in a demonstration of a simulation of a large outdoor fire with a spatial domain of 1 square kilometer with a resolution of 1 meter. This prototype does not yet represent an especially powerful capability, but it indicates the ongoing direction of this modeling effort. There are questions pertaining to the level of commitment to this simulation component of the program, considering its stated funding allocation of $1.2 million for FY 2020 and an extended list of intended tasks. These codes are open source, so changes and improvements can be contributed from a wide variety of people from other institutions and companies, but these codes are supervised by NIST. More information concerning the level of commitment and expectations for productivity from their code development efforts would be very helpful in evaluating this part of the program. It is very likely that the use of complex models for analyses of natural fires can be expected to be enlightening and instructive, but they are still likely to be limited to qualitative information rather than detailed accurate pictures of real-life natural fires. Increased collaborations with other organizations, particularly those supported by the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, which have significant programs in high-performance computing and extensive experience in massively parallel computing, would be very beneficial. An advantage for NIST would be the unclassified nature of its major codes, which would play into those programs that are focused on classified work and whose staff might welcome unclassified publication opportunities to broaden their own simulation experiences and contribute to their reputations.
PORTFOLIO OF SCIENTIFIC EXPERTISE
The Reduced Flammability Group includes scientists with an extensive portfolio of high-quality publications and promising upcoming researchers. The list of peer-reviewed publications, as well as awards, is impressive.
Staff working on WUI parcel vulnerability demonstrated cross-disciplinary relationships and a good match for the program’s goals and staffing. The program is staffed by fire science and fire modeling
experts, integrated with the other WUI teams engaged in data gathering, structure fire modeling, and resistance improvement. There are experimental collaborations with other parts of NIST and outreach to the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) laboratory and the Building Research Institute of Japan (BRI) open wind tunnel.
The researchers developing the Emberometer are leaders in this newly developed field. It appears that they are essentially inventing this aspect of WUI fire analysis in terms of going beyond fire observation. This is emerging technology, and the researchers have the technical expertise to develop the actual machinery for generating actual firebrands and measuring their action in fire tests and field tests.
The BOB researchers seem to be a good blend of technical and material experts ranging from a master glass blower to virtual reality specialists in the visualization of data. The data overlay comes from close collaboration with instrument data superimposed on the visual images captured using the BOB.
The Emergency Response Robot project staff has wide-ranging capabilities that are weighted to the disciplines driving robotic development—mechanical engineering and computer science. There is high-level academic expertise in those disciplines, but also emergency response experience to help develop relevant test methods and criteria. There is a high degree of collaboration with the Fire Research Laboratory and with WUI efforts for specific fire and materials testing of robots under actual fire conditions. The group also leverages external personnel from collaborating organizations both for outreach for information dissemination and for obtaining necessary expertise.
The NFRL scientific staff bring a wide range of in-depth expertise in large-scale testing. They bring a rigorous and innovative approach to the research. This innovation includes instrumentation, video documentation, and data presentation.
Challenges and Opportunities
It is concerning that some areas addressed by the Reduced Flammability Group, such as smoke toxicity, seem to be phased out with the retirement of the staff who used to spearhead it. Other areas, such as cooking fire safety, could potentially suffer the same fate. Succession planning based not just on individual replacement but program longevity needs to be considered to ensure that areas of expertise are not lost within NIST. Relying on retirees coming back for limited hours as associates cannot by itself be effective.
An impediment to progress on the work with the Emberometer seems to be the ongoing need for refining the ember-generation capabilities of new iterations of the device to match the observed behaviors of such embers in actual fires. As with other aspects of WUI, the ability to model the data captured by the device is not as well developed as the observation and measurement techniques for assessing actual embers. This is in part due to the difficulty of measuring ember production in the dangerous environment of actual WUI fires. This is where innovations in observation like the BOB help cross-connect NIST programs. This is coupled to the need to validate and refine the performance of each iteration of these devices as more data is gathered about how they function in relation to how actual WUI fires work.
There appears to be limited interaction across divisions at NIST. This is concerning when work in one division can result in recommendations that are counterproductive to what other divisions are trying to achieve. A specific example is that the work on energy efficiency in the Energy and Environment Division only interacts with the FRD on indoor air quality but not in the area of product flammability. Considering that the fire performance of buildings can be significantly impacted by technologies used to improve energy efficiency, knowledge exchange between the two divisions needs to be strongly encouraged. On the other hand, there are extensive interactions between the FRD and the Materials and Structural Systems Division with regard to fire-structural interactions.
Cooperation with the Office of Applied Economics makes it possible for the FRD to provide detailed studies of the impact of their work, such as NIST TN2092 on the impact of the mattress flammability standard. This cooperation needs to be continued.
There was little data regarding the composition or the technical expertise of the teams working on WUI data collection. However, the overall characteristics of this work dovetail with that of the overall WUI effort. Field data collection is done by 4-6 member teams drawn from the basic laboratory staff for this effort, with additional members drawn from NIST staff with relevant expertise. The teams also do data collection from other agencies and information sources for weather station and atmospheric condition data. The notion of drawing forensic staff from the laboratory raises the question of whether the forensic efforts are in competition with other laboratory programs for scarce staffing resources.
ADEQUACY OF RESOURCES
The capability to do real-scale as well as bench-scale testing is essential to achieve the FRD’s objectives within the fire programs. The facilities to do real-scale testing appear appropriate for the purpose, with the existence of numerous oxygen consumption calorimeters in sizes from 0.5 MW up to 20 MW. The list of bench-scale tests available to researchers is comprehensive.
The budget for the WUI Parcel Vulnerability Program is $1.255 million. The program is part of the well-integrated WUI effort for data collection, fire testing, and modeling improvement. Exterior fire modeling depends on interaction with other laboratories in Japan and the United States. The facilities at the NFRL are geared toward building fire testing. The outdoor fire models are also dependent on data gathered in WUI fires. There are strong ties to the groups working with the Emberometer and the BOB camera system and the fire modeling groups at NIST.
The BOB water-cooled globes allow the use of underwater cameras with pan and zoom features. The assembly techniques of the prototype models of the camera were very simple and relatively inexpensive. The simple techniques have been made a deliberate piece of equipment development to make the equipment widely available.
The budget for the Emergency Response Robot Program is $770,000 from NIST and $1.325 million from the Department of Homeland Security. This program is still quite active, although the urban search-and-rescue robot program has ended. The Emergency Response Robot Program has an existing off-campus 8,200 sf test facility that will be migrated back to the main NIST campus and expanded to have 10,000 sf of interior space and 10,000 sf of exterior space on the surrounding site.
Challenges and Opportunities
While the list of equipment did include Fourier Transform Infrared equipment for toxic gases, it appears this was only linked to a couple of the bench-scale tests. Specific test equipment to measure the toxic smoke production from products such as the Steady State Tube Furnace, the vitiated Cone Calorimeter, or the NBS smokebox was absent from the list of test equipment presented.
The research programs are comprehensive and ambitious, but with the significant workload of solving big problems, the staff appears to be stretched thin. There is limited expertise within the social science field as well as within the area of smoke toxicity.
The $1 million budget for WUI data collection appears scaled to relate to just the data collection efforts, not to any utilization of the data for best practices development or for modeling. The data collection efforts have evolved over time to have various detail levels and scales, from WUI 0 to WUI 2 data collection protocols. These efforts range from $10,000 per week for small teams at Level 0 and small fires to $1 million for 2-years efforts for Level 2 teams on large WUI fires. Reconstruction of Camp Fire is funded at about $750,000 per year and is now in its third year. Much of the discussion about data gathering also touched on testing and validation, which could be seen as other segments of the overall
WUI efforts for building fire modeling, prediction and protection, and community-level modeling, prediction, and protection. Those are outside of the stated budget.
The WUI fire program lacks a clear mission and objectives, making it difficult to assess the resources needed to support it. It would be worthwhile for the Engineering Laboratory (EL) to undertake a review of the WUI program’s mission, objectives, stakeholders, and resources, and potentially more extensive collaboration with other EL and NIST programs.
The Emberometer equipment is in its third iteration. The discussion of this equipment was presented as a virtual tour of the equipment during the full panel portion of the discussion. There was not a detailed review of the program for the fire research subpanel. As with many of the programs the subpanel reviewed, the budgets for projects at the individual level were not presented. The tour discussion had no data on the size or scope of the Emberometer project, either for staffing or budget. To be useful for measuring embers under controlled conditions, the device needs to be tied to a wind tunnel for actual testing other than when it is used for field deployment in actual fires. The only laboratory suitable for such testing is located in Japan. There is a smaller-scale test facility at the IBHS wind tunnel in the United States, but that is a closed system that is not well-suited to ember fire testing work. The lack of an open-system wind tunnel at NIST is an impediment to progress in laboratory studies of WUI fire phenomena.
As excellent as the NFRL facilities and equipment are, the facilities limit the productivity of the research. The throughput of fire-structural interaction research is strongly limited by sample cure times and the limited storage capacity. The addition of more sample curing space would economically enhance the productivity of the facility.
EFFECTIVENESS OF DISSEMINATION OF OUTPUTS
The residential fire safety work of NIST is effectively disseminated to the research, engineering, and standards communities through conference presentations, peer-reviewed articles, technical notes, and participation in national and international standards committees. Successes include the following: smoke detector standards are being modified based on NIST technical guidance; work by FRD provided the technical basis for changes to the standard on household electrical ranges, UL858, to prevent cooktop ignition during unattended cooking; development of two different barrier technologies for residential upholstered furniture, one already patented in 2017 the other with patent pending; NIST SRM 1196/a cigarettes are required by ASTM 1352/1353, NFPA 260/261, CPSC 16 CFR 1632, BHGS TB 117-2013, and many European standards/regulations for accessing flammability of soft furnishings; and a cube test for RUF is under development as a voluntary standard, ASTM-WK65005.
The WUI Data Collection program has good outreach to many diverse groups with extensive WUI field experience, such as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the U.S. Forest Service. They also have strong ties to WUI fire-modeling efforts in other NIST programs and seem intent on tailoring their data collection efforts toward increased model capabilities and development of best practices in WUI zones based on observed WUI fire conditions. Several NIST WUI case studies are currently being used for firefighter training and fire protection engineers’ education.
The WUI Parcel Vulnerability Program has strong ties to many stakeholder groups—homeowners; federal, state, and local authorities having jurisdiction (e.g., CAL FIRE); codes and standards organizations (California Ch 7A, NFPA, ICC); first responders (incident commanders, firefighters, police such as Western Fire Chiefs); insurance companies, through the Insurance Institute for Home and Business Safety; trade organizations (AWC, construction, real estate); and the National Fire Protection Association Firewise program and education outreach.
The WUI Parcel Vulnerability Group participates in the Technology Maturation Accelerator Program (TMAP). The group’s entry in the TMAP competition was for a screen enclosure designed in
collaboration with a manufacturer, to be used for mitigation of fire spread by firebrands both to and from woodpiles. It finished in the top 10 of dozens of submittals for two review cycles. The TMAP program seems broadly applicable to all NIST activities.
The simplicity of the BOB assembly techniques makes this a system that can readily be implemented for use under both laboratory and field conditions. This is a great low-tech expansion of laboratory outreach. Some of the prototype assemblies were built from simple off-the-shelf elements for under $500. The partnerships that the fire laboratory has with field organizations like NFPA, firefighter organizations like CAL FIRE, and the U.S. Forest Service make the information widely available. The ties to data collection and modeling available through other data collection programs make possible the presentation of visual data on the newly available fire views. This is useful to researchers while being accessible to the general public. The power of feeling as though one is inside a fire with information about temperatures, combustion products, and fluid dynamics events presented as a single integrated image is made possible by this relatively simple but very powerful device.
One of the goals of the Emergency Response Robots program is to disseminate the outcomes to promote innovation, increase U.S. competitiveness, and improve the safety and effectiveness of emergency responders performing extremely hazardous tasks. This research group pioneered the use of robot competitions to validate and disseminate standards for robots in general and for the emergency response robots that are the focus of current efforts. The group participates in worldwide robot competitions to gather data on robot performance. This participation also raises the profile of NIST in both the robot technical development community and with the public. The leader of this effort is the chair of an ASTM committee developing ASTM International Standards Committee on Homeland Security Applications Response Robot (E54.09), which will ultimately be responsible for developing more than 60 detailed standards for robotic activities ranging across logistics, sensing, ground maneuvering, mobility, dexterity, situational awareness, and communications.
Challenges and Opportunities
The international fire-structural interaction research community is aware of the program outputs from the fire-structure interactions work. Some results are moving to the structural codes and standards community. The fire protection engineering community, the fire service, the building community, and the general public are much less aware than they might be. When you have a gem, you need to show it off.
Combinations of numerical simulations and photography of phenomena such as flame acceleration in realistic geometries and other illustrations of unfamiliar WUI-specific fire hazards could be very effective ways to illustrate the immediate value of NIST research in these rapidly growing communities.
The Emberometer papers published for the development of the device are thorough and convincing as first steps toward measurement and prediction of ember and firebrand development and movement as part of WUI fires. NIST has noted that these efforts are first steps. The ties of the Fire Laboratory to the existing Japanese and U.S. wind tunnels require dissemination. Dissemination of mechanical construction details to allow widespread construction and use of the devices appears to be taking place. The increase in the level of information available on information platforms that operate like social media makes information dissemination simpler and more detailed. Real-time observations and data exchange can take place in remote locations. Social distancing requirements during the pandemic needs to continue.
There are no direct communications to end users of NIST research, such as the policymakers or even the public. Work on cooking fire safety is an example of a work area where the results could benefit public education. While cooperation with stakeholders such as the NFPA can serve as a funnel for NIST work into public education material, it appears to be a missed opportunity for NIST to be able to brand themselves to the end users of their research.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Technical Merit of the Program
NIST has a long and distinguished record of technological leadership, innovation, and experience in providing analysis and solutions to large and small problems dealing with fire safety in many practical and often challenging environments. Its past reports are cited by industry, government, academia, and others who need to obtain guidance and information on difficult problems.
The laboratory programs show an evolution over the past few years, which indicates a positive attitude toward adaptation to evolving needs. Research focus is changing to the increased need for such things as WUI fire knowledge, with the ultimate goal of WUI modeling at a parcel or even a community level. There is also a movement toward science-based structural fire protection to allow for better-informed design. There have also been changes in focus in reduced flammability of interior furnishings as there is a move towards fire barrier technology to replace chemical flame retardants. This changing research shows adaptiveness.
There is a need for enhanced long-term goal setting with tangible milestones. WUI, like other research areas, requires a balance of laboratory, field, and computational components. The balance needs to be reassessed and defined through a long-range plan.
There are good communications with technical peers, codes and standards groups, and the public fire service. At the same time, the level of peer-reviewed papers is less than one paper per technical staff member. It is important that technical staff publish in the peer-reviewed literature every year, and an average of more than one paper per year would be healthy.
RECOMMENDATION: The Fire Research Division should create goals for the rate of annual publication of various types for the division, the sections, and technical staff.
Adequacy of Resources
There are facilities issues that limit the productivity and effectiveness of the laboratory operations. Increasing the materials storage and curing space for NFRL could enhance the throughput of structure-fire interactions research. The lack of a wind tunnel severely limits the ability of NIST to do the needed research on WUI fires.
RECOMMENDATION: The Fire Research Division should add National Fire Research Laboratory facilities for curing structural samples and add a wind tunnel suitable for use in wildland-urban interface fire research.
The Other Agency (O.A.) and forensic investigations are important ways for NIST to understand real-world problems to guide basic research. As currently implemented, these activities drain resources from basic research. There is a need for more staff to maintain core research while doing forensic and O.A. work. There needs to be a balance and continuity to the research. Forensic investigations provide a particular challenge in planning since the staff skills and level of effort are largely unpredictable. Direct funding of forensic investigations would put the investigation and research into better balance and would foster a complementary rather than competitive footing.
The resources at the FRD seem to be stretched very thin. The number of researchers and the size of budgets have been reduced while some areas of research are expanding, such as WUI research. There also do not seem to be enough resources devoted to maintaining the high-quality data processing systems originally initiated and now managed by NIST, such as the Fire Dynamics Simulator (FDS), to continue to evolve and improve those open-source programs. Technical and scientific staff should be increased such that the forensic, O.A., and basic research can reasonably progress in a timely manner. The advanced
modeling research group needs to be expanded commensurate with their expanded scope into WUI modeling and the overall challenge of their work. Advancements in science are clearly limited by the number of technical staff. To promote this goal, the focus should be on recruiting young researchers who will mature to replace the many near-retirement age staff.
RECOMMENDATION: The Fire Research Division should consider balancing the funding level needed with the ambitious programs in progress specifically in relation to
- Establishing direct funding for forensic investigation as well as additional staff separate from the funding and staffing of core research activities.
- Investing in the in-house data processing systems needed to maintain and further develop existing modeling tools.
- Ensuring longevity of programs through succession planning to ensure areas of expertise are not lost within NIST.
The area of human behavior (e.g., occupant response and egress behaviors) in residential settings in fire is being addressed by NIST but does not appear to have the same attention as more technical programs (fewer publications). All NIST fire safety research programs, but especially the programs on home fire safety, could benefit from having additional input from the social sciences. This is also true for areas related to external threats such as in WUI fires. Many fatalities in those fires are related to people not knowing when and how to leave a fire area.
RECOMMENDATION: The Fire Research Division should add social scientists to the technical staff for both building and wildland-urban interface fire research.
NIST-wide mentoring of young staff is a relatively recent development, having started in 2018. The focus of that effort seems proper, on recruiting and growing young technical staff. There were several programs that, while discussed in specific research project discussions, appear to be laboratory-wide, such as “Women in STEM” and forums focused on underrepresented groups such as Asian and Pacific Islander research staff. It appeared from discussions that such groups are encouraged and supported by laboratory management.
RECOMMENDATION: The Fire Research Division should continue to promote and support groups that encourage cross-division engagements and mentoring.
Effectiveness of Dissemination of Outputs
The FRD has formed good working relationships with many stakeholders from the government and the private sector. The Technology Maturation Accelerator Program (TMAP), as used in the WUI research, provides an example of a public–private partnership that represents an innovative way to further the impact of NIST in the eyes of the public as well as making use of the advanced technical skills possessed by NIST such as the fire laboratory and open-source fire modeling software.
At the same time, there appears to be limited interaction across divisions at NIST. This is concerning when work in one division can result in recommendations that are counterproductive to what other divisions are trying to achieve. A specific example is that the work on energy efficiency in the Energy and Environment Division only interacts with the FRD on indoor air quality but not in product flammability. Considering that the fire performance of buildings can be significantly impacted by technologies used to improve energy efficiency, knowledge exchange between the two divisions is encouraged. Another example is that passive solar design may increase the amount of glazing that could become an avenue for fire spread through radiant energy in WUI zones.
RECOMMENDATION: The Fire Research Division should enhance its interactions with the Energy and Environment Division and the Community Resilience Program with the purpose of reviewing ongoing projects and their impact on work in the two divisions.
Overall, the NIST FRD is doing important work in more areas than many stakeholders know and certainly more than the general public appreciates. There is a need for NIST to present its results to stakeholders and the general public. There are no direct communications to end users, such as the policymakers or even the public. Work on cooking fire safety is an example of a work area where the results could benefit public education. The combination of fire visualization and data presentation could have significant value for producing public information documents for things like WUI fire safety measures. While cooperation with stakeholders such as NFPA can serve as a funnel for NIST work into public education material, it seems like a missed opportunity for NIST to brand themselves to the end users of their research. The collective websites of the FRD are not well used for communicating with stakeholders and the general public. There seems to be little focus on maintaining current websites, and there seems little attention to creating content that serves the technical community and the general public. The communications with these two diverse interest groups are comingled and confused. While the division has been innovative in the visual communication of data, there are unexplored opportunities online. Increasing the visibility and impact of the laboratory in the eyes of the public and political decision makers will be greatly enhanced by the communications tools now being used and refined to continue the work of the laboratory even from diverse remote locations. These Internet collaboration tools can also integrate well with the goal of developing and maintaining open access to laboratory research.
RECOMMENDATION: The Fire Research Division should promote the work of the division through direct communications and better use of the public affairs office. This should include
- Updating and expanding the division’s websites to better communicate with the technical community and the general public.
- Building on the public outreach and interactions created by the COVID-19-driven necessity for remote work to maintain and encourage continued outside agency and public participation with NIST. Even when in-person meetings are again possible, broadcasts of meetings on web services should be continued and should promote application of the lessons learned about collaboration in separate venues with goal of aiding efforts for fire research in widely scattered sites around the world.
RECOMMENDATION: The Fire Research Division should use NIST staff to train field observers from outside organizations that are familiar with fire forensics, with the goal of solidifying the connections and information exchange with first responders and disaster service workers.