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Burning buildings: Why fire science matters

As critical as the research is on how modern furnishings burn, the real importance lies in what we do with the results

I was reading J. Malcolm Bird's Einstein's Theories of Relativity and Gravitation last night before bed. As strange as it may seem, his discussion made me think of the fire service. It is an illness I hope to overcome someday.

To borrow from a sign alleged to have hung in professor Einstein's office, "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."

There is the concrete and the theoretical. There is the knowledge I have acquired stretching hoses down burning corridors and there is research.

What I saw in those hallways both forms my knowledge base and limits my knowledge base. It is so easy to project from a finite experience to the universe how fires should be fought. The thinking goes, because something happened here at this time, it will happen everywhere, every time.

But this is as dangerous as it is easy. My experience has limitations.

Order out of chaos
In the introductory remarks to his book, Bird wrote, "The laws of nature are man's imperfect attempts to explain natural phenomena; they are not inherent in matter and the universe, not an iron bat of necessity running through worlds, systems, and suns."

Research is applicable to the real world even though the end result of research is a set of theoretical ideas. Sure they are based on validated scientific observations, but we should not treat them as absolute truths. The findings of the researcher may be objective but they are still limited.

As I type this, at least 100 people are supporting scientists, engineers, and technicians who have spent thousands of dollars to install precision instruments in many buildings. They did all this so that they could set the buildings on fire in the hopes of learning more about how fires burn.

I count many of these researchers among my friends and stand a strong supporter of their work. It is not their work that I question, because their work is necessary. I question what will happen after all the work is done, all the papers are written and all the knowledge that they develop is "pushed out."

What happens then?
The research was conducted over six days on New York's Governor's Island. There, experts from FDNY, Underwriters Laboratories and the National Institute of Standards and Technology filled 20 abandoned row houses with plastic furnishings. Their aim was to monitor how fire behaved with these modern fuel loads, and ultimately come up with recommendations for more effective suppression.

Their work is important. It is important to read the work of scientists, engineers and technicians who have spent thousands of dollars to instrument many buildings. But it is important to not just consider the  recommendations, summaries and videos, but to read the whole report, to understand the limitations of the knowledge that they have developed.

It is from that knowledge that we must chart out new courses and new decisions, and we cannot know if the shoe fits us until we try it on. But we can never try it on lest we first recognize it as a shoe.

The new reality
After Einstein wrote down his theories of relativity and gravitation, our understanding of the world changed. It was still true that when we dropped a stone from a moving train that the stone fell to the earth by the same trajectory it followed before. It was our understanding and the words we used to describe the fall that changed.

After all the testing on Governor's Island is done we will have new knowledge available to us. We won't have immutable laws. We will have further confirmation that a compartment fire involving modern furnishings can become a raging inferno in a matter of seconds.

But we won't know how many seconds that will take at our fire. We won't know if it is our fire that gets added to the list of ones where we should have known.

After all the testing, we will still have to take the work that was done and turn it into real-life action. That involves some more mathematical trickery and some heuristics. That involves taking some guesses about whether it will be our ticket that gets punched at this fire or that fire.

Einstein said, "Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one."

And this indeed is our reality. It is our reality that after all their work is done in New York, there is still more work to do, work that requires an equal amount of effort. After all the thermo-couples are packed away and the final video is posted to the social media outlets, the real work begins.

This is, I think, where we answer the question, "What happens then?" The answer is that in most cases we will wave the "research has proven flag" while continuing to do the same old things the same old ways.

I can't be sure if this will be the case with this research, but as J. Malcolm Bird observed, "…we are putting the thing which the scientist calls the 'observed value' on a footing of vastly greater consequence than we should have been willing offhand to concede."

I suspect I am making the same error.

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