2018 -19 NSERC and OGS Scholarship winners announced! And other news…

As we are about to begin the summer term at York University, we have a number of news items and scholarship announcements to share.


Carleton student Chloe Jeanneret visiting Imperial College and research team alumni and now ARUP Intern Arlin Otto were able to visit Grenfell Tower after the fire in July.

A lot will be said in the coming months, if not years regarding the fire seen at Grenfell. The few things Id say, is that cladding fires are not the only challenge we face in the community of fire engineering. Tunnels, Developing countries, Wild fires, New building materials, Risk based methodologies, etc., and I can go on, are all areas for the last decade we as a community have been stating require additional attention – many are receiving attention.

Our Human Behavior and Fires work continues to grow at PED16

Fire strategies and design must account for and incorporate this human behavior. Human behavior is complex and multi-faceted and requires a reduction in uncertainties. If the designed building can show a validated and verifiable fire strategy that takes into account a level of predictable human behavior, the possibilities for improved performance based fire design in structures and infrastructure is possible. Human behavior and the interactions between humans and their built environment is a critical concept that may be beneficial to incorporate into standard engineering curriculum. It would be a valuable asset for emerging engineers to have a more complete and considerate perspective when conceptualizing the building designs of the future.-

except from our paper “The Study of Human Behavior in Fire Safety Engineering using Experiential Learning” presented at the Canadian Engineering Education Conference last June.

For the last two years at Carleton, I have been growing a research and education programme which touches on the above engineering need under the direct guidance and collaboration of renowned experts in this field. To date I now have four students studying this topic ranging from aging populations, to considerations of heritage, and mass occupancy. We are developing unique software tools, and improving education of the topic in Canada.

It is great pleasure that one of our recent papers will be presented at the  8th International Conference on Pedestrian and Evacuation Dynamics (PED2016) in China. The work builds on MassMotion, a software utilized to help engineer structures plan and study for the behaviour of individuals, the paper and work can be found on Oaysis softwares’ blog here.

Utilizing Oasys MassMotion Software, through an NSERC Engage Grant with Arup Toronto, my research team with its collaborators have been studying aging populations. Our preliminary results are being presented this month  at the PED16 Conference in China.

The coming weeks will be very exciting to where this topic will go on the research team.

Growing Fire Engineering in Canada

There is no question when you travel through Toronto you look to the sky and imagine the possibilities for iconic structures and you do see first hand the structural revolution occurring there. And more so, if your aware, you ask what this means for Canadian fire engineering design. Buildings are becoming very complex.

Where old meets new in London. A centuries old church with the 40 storey Gherkin in the background.
Where old meets new in London. A centuries old church with the 40 storey Gherkin in the background.

In Toronto alone, there are now over 25 buildings that are 50 stories or higher. Nearly 15 are under construction and nearly 30 are approved and/or proposed. Even in Ottawa there are about five or so proposed.

The Walkie Talkie (or the death ray wind tunnel generating building as locals refer to it in the background.
The Walkie Talkie (or the death ray, wind tunnel generating building as locals refer to it) in the background.

So how do you convey and prepare university students what innovative and complex designs may be like? How might you inspire them beyond designing a ‘box’? There is the cheap route – take them down to Toronto and show them first hand the newly designed buildings there; or maybe the more elaborate route and show them designs abroad (not necessary tall per say, but significant nevertheless). In Canada we have begun to push the envelope in fire engineering design, but in the United Kingdom for example, there has been a lot of attention given to fire engineering – specifically to complex buildings.

Recently two research students and myself traveled to London UK (a third went to Cambridge, UK the week after for the Human Behaviour in Fire symposium – Ill talk on that later). This was in an effort to illustrate to how iconic and fire engineered structures are designed abroad and allow a bit of comparative thought to what we do in Canada. The students presented their current research to some of the world’s largest engineering firms and had the opportunity to speak one on one with designers (many whom inspired my own career) about the challenges being faced abroad; particularly in respect to structural fire engineering. 

To achieve long spans, cellular beam composite structures are the norm in London.
To achieve long spans, cellular beam composite structures are the norm in London.

Beyond this ‘city’ class room, the students attended the Steel in Fire Forum, where one of them presented her research to a captive audience (you can see her presentation slides here). The Steel in Fire forum is merging with the Concrete in fire forum, and this was the ‘last’ session. I find it fitting that a student gave the last presentation as I believe fire safety engineering’s biggest challenges are in education, particularly in Canada (but that is discussion for another day). Above all it was fantastic that so many people took so much time to accommodate the students and myself to teach about what structural design is like in the United Kingdom, one of the world’s best examples for iconic structure construction. The trip will certainly provoke the students into thought on what they see today and possibly will see tommorrow in design.

Learning at the Golden Gate

There is no more perfect North American example to learn about fire science history and earthquakes than at the city of San Francisco. Even a centennial after the 1906 quake and fire, the effects still resonate within the city in both its new infrastructure and the character of its constructions.

Coit Tower overlooking San Francisco. The structure was built
Coit Tower overlooking San Francisco at sunrise. The depression era structure was built using funds from the bequest estate of Lillie Hitchcock Coit in the early 1930s. Lillie, a wealthy socialite, was a fire chaser in the late 1800s. She was known to even had participated in fighting fires. Arguably she could be considered one of the first women fire-fighters (though most certainly held in high regard with San Francisco’s fire-fighters). Her will left a third of her estate to beautify the city – this was used to construct this tower. Today the structure helps make a very tranquil walk as the sun rises over the bay in the morning.

I had a wonderful opportunity to visit San Francisco this week for the Fire and Materials conference. There I presented results of optical strain measurements of fibre reinforced polymers at high temperature. That paper possesses a long winded title but a very interesting and curious high temperature behavior to discuss. The conference like its predecessors was well run, and as always, the experts attracted (students, scientists practitioners, educators, consultants, code writers, fire-fighters etc.) were jewels to chat and debate with about today’s relevant fire themes and advances. Even several Edinburgh crew of my alumni were there for our usual Tom Foolery and science chats (be sure to check their blog entries of the recent Czech building fire tests).

However the city’s character does call to the engineer to explore. This is today’s blog focus – which despite the location and atmosphere actually isn’t a fire blog per say but more of a civil engineering one.

Venturing under the bridge
Venturing under the bridge…

Prior to the conference I wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge – I’ve never had time when I was there last . Naturally the easiest way to see the bridge is to bus it, or even bike it. Neither appealed to me as I like a good walk. I started my journey at Pier 39 (I had wanted to see the extent of its sprinkler systems there on the board). I decided to walk along the shore line afterwards. A feature of that walk is the gorgeous splendor of the dunes which precede the bridge.

A seismic isolator on the bridge
A seismic connection

Before urbanization of San Francisco the whole area was this natural vegetative wet land. A tiny sliver of that is preserved today. It attracts hundreds to the area though. When you get up to the bridge you have an option of just cutting to the top and crossing. However there is a very interesting path to follow (meant actually for bikes). You can go under the bridge (towards the west) which provides you a lesson in structure vibration just hearing the roar of the traffic above. Walking further you encounter a curious plateau with two objects: a buckled steel column, and a seismic isolator (pad). With these are descriptors (pictured below).

Much of what you need to know about the seismic features of the Golden gate bridge can be learnt just next to the bridge. While difficult to identify from this photo, you can see three seismic pads just under the bridge deck and on the supports
Much of what you need to know about the seismic features of the Golden Gate Bridge can be learnt just next to the bridge on the south side.

For the architect and engineer the marvelous thing is that it explains how the new beam and truss members were designed for seismic conditions, while still preserving the heritage appearance of the original member. If you are clever you can spot the new and old members on the bridge after reading the descriptor. Viewing the illustrative seismic pad, then allows you to see how the bridge has been retrofitted. The goal of the pad is to allow a degree of movement in the event of an earthquake. Of course the standard high tension ropes (which everyone knows I love to study) can be seen everywhere. The whole expedition from walking there, looking around and getting back to Pier 39 took about 4 hours.

Shown hear is a engineered beam constrcuted for seismic, while still keeping true to the original appearance of the bridge.
Shown here is a engineered beam constructed for seismic, while still keeping true to the original ‘truss’ like appearance of the bridge.

Incredibly fun, but probably not for the same reasons as visiting the bridge. In San Francisco you can also see the Coit Tower (descriptor above), which some allege resembles a San Francisco Fire hydrant shooting to the sky. Though quick inspection does show it to be depression era. The views and paintings being fantastic to take in. And of course the downtown core growing ever so quickly with urbanization – so if you want to see examples of tall structures in seismic zones they are there. The city is a treat to the engineer and architect. Though I do have an raised eyebrow about the ‘next one’.

Necking of steel


One of the great things of testing materials with image correlation technologies at ambient and high temperatures is developing educational movies about engineering. Last summer Tom Parker and myself compiled thousands of images from my digital image correlation experiments into these videos. I’ve posted one example above which is to help teach the principles behind necking of steel for students. Ill post back later with an expanded blog entry with more videos but for now enjoy!

Hauntings and the Denver Equitable Building

The Denver fire tests can be considered first attempt at ‘organised’ floor tests in North America, however; their modern legacy are for the building they supported and the ghost stories it tells today
The Denver fire tests can be considered first attempt at ‘organised’ floor tests in North America, however; their modern legacy is also for the building they supported and the ghost stories it tells today.

The Denver Fire tests of 1890 were revolutionary to the practice of fire safety engineering. The tests were performed under direction of architectural firm, Andrews, Jaques and Rantoul. The objective was to compare three allegedly ‘fire-proof’ flooring arch systems which had been proposed for the Denver Equitable Building through a competitive bid process. For the building contract, the Pioneer fire proof construction company had the lowest bid. The Wight Fire proof company bid slightly more. These companies proposed similar structural systems of floor arches of dense fire-clay. Thomas Lee, who bid the highest for the building contract, proposed an arched system of  porous terra-cotta structural system (see the below floor configurations). Lee realized he out bid

Three competing floor arch systems for the Denver Equitable Building
Three competing floor arch systems for the Denver Equitable Building. Lees system differed to the other proposed systems. These differences included: the orientation of the arch; the choice of material; and the configuration of the the tile itself.

his competitors, but also feeling his product much more superior in fire he asked the architects to consider comparative testing of all three proposed flooring systems. The architects and building owner agreed on the provision that all three companies were willing to participate. The three companies agreed to the terms and the architectural firm drafted a testing schedule of: A still load test- increasing until failure of the arch system; shock (impact) loading repeating until failure; Fire and water test alternating until failure; and continuous heating of “high heat” until failure. After testing, the architects came to the conclusion, that although Thomas Lee out bid his competitors his flooring system had out performed those of his competitors in this test series.

Today, we consider these tests revolutionary in the advancement of our fire science field by motivating progress towards organized fire testing of building materials. The building that inspired these tests, the Denver Equitable Building was built shortly after that test series and still stands today.  The building even survived a major fire in the 1930s. However, the occupants of the building have different stories to tell. Stories of a more ‘spookish’ nature. Fittingly for Halloween it is appropriate to share these.

The Denver tests were photographed. In this photo you can see the ghostly camera effect of the man in the black suit. Because images needed time to develop, he inspects the first beam then proceeds to the next; the picture is not done processing so it appears like a ghost is captured in the photo
The Denver tests were photographed. In this photo you can see the ghostly camera effect of the man in the black suit. Photography in the 1800s needed time to develop images. The photo shows the man inspecting the first floor then in the same image you can see he proceeds to the next. The picture though appears like a ghost is captured in the photo.

After publishing earlier on this topic on the Edinburgh Fire Research Blog in 2012, I was alerted to the writings of Kathleen Barlow on the Denver Equitable Building. Kathleen’s article, Spirits and Scandals tells of several ghost stories related to the Denver Equitable Building. She writes of two crimes of passion conducted by two jealous husbands on two separate occasions at the building site. Also recounted are tales how an individual died in the building shortly after constructed, and how a janitor, Andrew Anderson, fell to his death washing windows from the ninth floor. These aren’t the ghost stories though they may explain them. Today, she reports the occupiers of the building occasionally report the smell of aftershave in areas of the building. A person could be sitting there move a few metres and the smell would disappear. Some claim the smell to be from the deceased janitor of the building. Others report that when they speak ill things of the building strange events happen to them and their possessions. And the most spooky of all, stories of figures that resemble people that vanish. Usually when asked who they were and what they were doing in the building, they disappear. Yet one figure did not; a women who entered the building early one morning saw a man in very classical overall garments cleaning the halls. The man looked at her and spoke “you shouldn’t be here so early. Don’t you know the building is haunted.” When she contacted the company responsible for cleaning, they informed her that they had no one working there that morning, and certainly no one fitting the description she provided….

These old buildings have history to tell. Some scientific, some not so. But still interestingly enough for a scare on Halloween.

Westmount Arena Fire in 1918 and the National Hockey League

Westmount Arena before the fire as adapted from Arthur Farrell - Hockey: Canada's Royal Winter Game
Westmount Arena before the fire as published in  Arthur Farrell – Hockey: Canada’s Royal Winter Game

Sports fans are eagerly anticipating the start of the new National Hockey League (NHL) season beginning next month.

I have always loved ice hockey especially its history. Growing up I was fascinated by the statistics, and the growth of ice hockey as a sport. I remember reading about the Westmount Arena, the home of the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens and Montreal Wanderers. I read vague passages of how a fire destroyed the arena and how the aftermath of the fire nearly collapsed the NHL in its first season. Life moved on for me, science began to preoccupy my passion, and following ice hockey slowly became less of a pressing concern for me.  However, when I began to study fire sciences around 2008, I realized there was a synthesis there. I started to realize why (or at least hypothesize why) the Westmount Arena was destroyed by fire. Naturally I wanted to write about it; history, sports and fire science- bringing all three subjects together – Awesome. So I devoured newspaper articles, old images, old books. As I did this though, I started to learn important skills on how to find information. How to do proper analysis of primary sources, and how to dig deeper into literature. One result was  this paper I wrote here (shared online courtesy of the Society of International Hockey Research) published in 2011.

Excerpt from "The Westmount Arena Fire"
Excerpt from “The Westmount Arena Fire

That paper is not directly meant for a  scientific audience, but it has a few things of interest for the fire safety scientist. The paper is mainly written for the sports lover – with little subtle touches of fire science sprinkled in. Today I find the paper a great lesson of synthesizing different subjects together for study and contributing something intended for a broad audience. If your curious about the origins of the National Hockey League, the fire of Westmount Arena, then this paper is a great piece to read to get some background on early professional sports.

Though if i were to write it again with what i know now ………

An excerpt is shown above which provides  some old photos of the fire’s aftermath to Westmount arena.

How I play with Lego grown up

Research Institute by Lego
Research Institute by Lego

Last month the company Lego released their Research Institute set (conceived by geoscientist Ellen Kooijman to promote science careers for women). The set features a woman chemist, a woman astronomer, and a woman archaeologist. The set sold out on the first day (online and in-store).  I managed to pick up a set though to support the message of promoting women in sciences. The set is challenging and fun. However, I wish they would have included a woman fire engineer in the set (they did propose to include an electrical engineer in the concept stage of the set and arguably the chemist could be considered a chemical engineer). However,  I can modify and create. Maybe I will re-create a scene where one of my favorite engineers of all time, Margaret Law, performs fire experiments as she did in the 1960s at the Fire Research Station (future blog entry).

Vintage fire hall by Lego
Vintage fire hall by Lego

I find there are a lot of engineers and architects I come across (men and women) who are embracing Lego sets these days. Quite often when I go into offices, I always see the  Lego Architecture sets displayed on the book shelf’s of my colleagues.  These sets are great for stress relief after a hectic day. They are great to ponder things over. And they are visibly pleasing in the corner of an office. These sets are no longer merely childern’s toys, but something educational for all ages. I take things further though. Recently I purchased the 2200 plus piece vintage fire hall set (naturally – vintage and fire) and began assembling it (pictured) . As a scientist, I question;  ‘What makes my Lego fit together so well?’ So a while back I decided to investigate just that using a Scanning Electron Microscope.  You may remember this from a previous blog where I challenged the reader to identify several materials (concrete, a steel and a plastic- the ‘plastic’ being lego) as mystery Scanning Electron Microscope images. For the Lego, I wanted to measure out the precision of a Lego piece to the micro-metre and get an idea just how snug they connect (pictured below) and what was going on at the microscopic level of these tiny interlocking bricks.

Mystery #2
Lego at 800 x
Lego at 57x. The gray scale is typical of unprocessed SEM imaging
Lego at 57 x

The lettering was most interesting (the letter E is blown up and pictured left). But in general the indents on the piece were precise to the micro-metre. I have been told that the tolerance of Lego is actually up to 2 microns.

Now things I wonder next. Could having too many Lego in a home be a fuel load hazard for a fire?  Giving that Lego is said to be made of Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (anything with sytrene can be nasty toxicity wise when heated) I think I would rather avoid doing any high temperature tests for now. Instead, I could look into the compressive strength of Lego answering how tall can I make lego….but that has been done.

I guess some toys we never grow out of….

National Personnel Records Center Fire of 1973 – Why its news today

 (Photo courtesy ourtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Preservation Programs at Saint Louis.)
National Personnel Records Center fire of 1973 (Photo courtesy courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Preservation Programs at Saint Louis.)

In 1956, a National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) building was constructed in St Louis to hold military personnel records. The upper floor of this building caught fire on July 12th 1973. After a 22 hour fire the roof of the structure (made of prestressed concrete) suffered a 30% collapse. Ultimately the upper floor was removed post-fire. Today the building stands but remains vacant while its future fate is decided. To meet storage standards, the NPRC has since moved to a new building in 2011. While this presents an interesting historical case study from a structural fire point of view, from a purely forensics point of view there is an equally interesting case study that is still on going over 41 years to this day.

During the fire approximately 1/3rd of the over 50 million records stored were destroyed. However, some records (though badly damaged from fire and water) were salvaged (about 6.5 million).  Because these records have importance for federal entitlements (for example medical and education) as well as genealogy and historical research, there is a clear need to salvage information from them. To date the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Preservation lab (Saint Louis Preservation Division) works to recover information from these burnt records . And I find their forensic efforts a fascinating use of available technology.

Record recovery (Photo courtesy courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Preservation Programs at Saint Louis.)
Record recovery. Members of NARA have been kind to provide photos of some of the work they do  (Photo courtesy courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Preservation Programs at Saint Louis.)

The Preservation Lab, currently experiments with infrared filters on cameras. The burnt ink shows up differently against a burnt paper backdrop because ink burns differently than paper does. Infra-red filters are used to create a contrast between the ink and paper, and with simple graphics software like Photoshop the image can be manipulated to help show what the naked eye can not. Of course the lab investigates other methods of information recovery such as new technologies (ie. sub-fibre scanning) or more detective style recovery (tracing requested records through other means). They also deal with methods for restoring the damaged documents and digitization.  You can find more information on their efforts here.

This forensic effort reminds us of yet another case study of a fire where  effects are not just realized immediately after, but even decades later.  I encourage all readers to look into the efforts by this group when they have the time, its quite interesting work they are doing.