modeling is something which is often found tobe mysterious by attorneys.Yet,
understanding what it is, what it can do, and what it cannot do can be
vital to successful development of some types of fire cases. The purpose
of this note is to present the basic ideas so that they are understandable
by the non-scientist. Thus, the information should be of value also to
fire investigators, claims adjusters, and other individuals involved with
fire losses. Most of them are not aware of either the strengths or the
limitations of the fire modeling. Thus, in this note the objective is
to explain the process in simple terms, so that a clear picture will emerge
how fire modeling can and cannot be used.
can discuss fire models, we must explain what a scientist means by 'model.'
The meaning of this crucial term is essential to understand. A model of
anything is, simply, a systematic representation of that thing. Thus,
for example, we can have
models (or conceptual models)
above three examples are probably the main 'representation' which are
used by scientists. A thought model is simply a proposed schema explaining
how something works. Scale models are often used in structural engineering,
fluid dynamics, and have occasionally been used in fire science. Model
trains are familiar to all. A scale model in scientific work is simply
a reduced-size object on which certain measurements will be made. The
category which we want to discuss in this Note is the last type, the mathematical
model. In general, a mathematical model will be a series of equations
which describe a certain process. If the equations are simple enough,
they can be solved on the hand calculator. More commonly, the equations
are not so simple. Consequently, a computer is required for their solution.
Thus, in the fire field, we would speak of "computer fire models."
Nowadays, when one speaks of a "fire model," it is usually understood
that one is referring to a "computer fire model." This is unnecessarily
restrictive, however, and other types of models (such as scale models)
remain legitimate scientific forms of model.
"computer fire model" is normally realized as a computer
program. This again, is most common, but not necessarily always true.
A computer fire model, for example, could be realized as only a flowchart.
From the above, one can understand why fire modeling is often taken to
mean "use of computer programs for predicting fire," although
this would be too restrictive a definition.
do fire models do?
now, fire modeling has been in use for more than two decades. This author's
computer program COMPF was released in 1975  and was the first computer
program for predicting room fires to be developed in the U.S. Research
in several other countries, however, goes back further. During the subsequent
two decades, tremendous progress was made in the field. Today, many persons
who have only a limited knowledge of fire science have already had a slight
exposure to fire modeling. From this, they are apt to conclude that fire
modeling is something which allows scientists/engineers to 'wave a magic
wand' and to calculate the history of a fire just by working at their
computer. On rare occasions, this can be true. But normally, the situation
is not so straightforward.
function of COMPF was to predict the fire history within a single room.
The history was represented only after the time of 'flashover' within
the room. Flashover is the point in a fire (it does not occur in
all fires) when the room "fills with flames." The hazard greatly
increases from that point on. Nowadays, various other types of computer
fire models are also available to the scientist. What kind of fire characteristics,
then, can a fire model predict? The list is limited only by the ingenuity
of scientists, but we can cite characteristics which are already routinely
- gas and
- flow rates
of gas through openings
- heat fluxes
impinging on surfaces
of certain toxic gas species
reduction and structural failure of building elements
times for sprinklers and detectors
can be noted that this list is weighted towards fluid mechanics and related
themes. This is not surprising, since a majority of the researchers creating
fire models have been fluid mechanics specialists. Models also exist for
certain human behavior aspects (e.g., exiting through corridors and stairs)
although these have so far been very little used for practical problem
solving; thus their validity is generally unknown.
should be noted that certain characteristics are usually not being computed.
- the ignitability
of objects from small flames
- the spread
of fire over surfaces
- the actual
'size' of the fire, that is, its heat
list of other fire characteristics that we cannot yet routinely predict
has recently been publicized . The three characteristics above are
three exceedingly important aspects of fire, indeed heat release rate
(HRR) has been referred to as the single most important variable in describing
fire hazard . Likewise, there will not be a fire without ignition and,
in most cases, flame spread is also an essential trait of fire. The way
that today's fire models normally solve a problem is by being given the
HRR as input. The flame spread aspects are usually not made explicit.
The most important role of flame spread is to progressively involve greater
areas in burning, that is, to cause a growth of HRR. Thus, if we have
a HRR versus time curve, the flame spread issue has already been solved.
The initial ignition is, simply, assumed to have taken place, so no computation
is made there either.
make a computation using one of our state-of-the-art models, such as HAZARD
, then requires that the modeler supply a HRR curve as input. In some
cases, the HRR curve may already have been published in the literature
for a 'similar' burning object. Compendia of data are available which
present some useful, non-proprietary data . However, the variety of
items which can burn is essentially infinite, while the amount of publicly
available data is quite tiny.
situation is even more complicated when one realizes that more than one
item can burn. Methods have been suggested for estimating second-item
involvement . However, under most conditions, such procedures entail
a great deal of uncertainty. This can be due to: (a) irregular geometry
of the item in question; (b) not well enough studied ignition response
of the item; (c) inadequately detailed knowledge of local heat fluxes,
etc. When one contemplates the uncertainties then associated with estimating
the ignition for the third, fourth, etc. item, it becomes clear that the
ignition sequence of a roomful of diverse items cannot be predicted with
a reasonable degree of confidence.
solution to the above difficulty is actually straightforward: when data
are not available, run a fire test. Model development is a difficult,
specialist task. Thus, one cannot expect to say "improve the models,"
since progress could hardly be made on a time schedule to suit fire litigation
needs, even if the resources were available. What is possible to do on
relatively short notice is to organize fire tests.
tests have their limitations, too. The largest fire that can be conducted
indoors in a laboratory, under controlled and instrumented conditions
is about 20 megawatts. Physically, this corresponds to one room or a couple
of smallish rooms joined together. Fire models are much less restricted
in that respect. They are available for computing multi-story, multi-room
arrangements, and the rooms do not have to be small enough to fit under
a laboratory's exhaust hood.
the practical solution is to combine fire modeling with fire testing.
the objects, walls, etc. associated with ignition and early fire growth
are directly reconstructed in the laboratory by procuring exemplars and
creating what is normally termed a sectional full-scale mockup.
Full-scale denotes that real appliances are used, real wall thicknesses
are employed, etc. Sectional denotes that only a slice out of the building
is constructed in the laboratory and not the whole fire environment.
presumed or alleged ignition sequence is then started in the laboratory
test and measurements are taken of HRR, smoke production, temperatures,
heat fluxes, and other fire variables. Fire modeling is then used to take
the laboratory data of the initial fire stages as an input and to compute
the subsequent stages of fire development. Thus, fire modeling can be
viewed as a direct extension of fire testing, or vice versa.
confidence in the results produced by the fire model is normally greater
for the intermediate stages of the fire than for the late stages. During
the late stages of fire, a number of additional events can happen. These
include burn-through of partitions, collapse of beams, collapse of occupant
goods (e.g., rack storage) and similar. Also, it may be expected that
firefighting will make some difference on the outcome of the fire, and
this may not be reasonable to try to predict mathematically. Models do
exist which can allow the prediction of the collapse of structural members,
but these require input data which may often be unavailable.
is important to distinguish between a field demonstration and a large-scale
laboratory test. Both involve setting up of an environment intended to
recreate the scene of the fire origin. Both can be used to produce videos
for jury viewing. However, a field demonstration does not collect HRR
nor other fire data which could usefully serve as input to a fire model.
Thus, demonstrations can only be used for video purposes.
advantage of a demonstration is that it can be conducted in every town
and city. A laboratory test, by contrast, requires use of a fire testing
laboratory, and there are only a handful of such facilities in the country.
costs, however, are not necessarily much lower for a demonstration.
The bulk of the cost is normally associated with procuring exemplars,
constructing the mockup, setting up video and other documentation, and
witnessing of the test. Since a fire test laboratory already has the HRR
and other instrumentation necessary, the marginal cost is small for setting
up the instrumentation and collecting the necessary data. The actual laboratory
test procedures  are, by now, quite well worked out, and time does
not need to be allocated to research in this area.
modeling can normally be considered as the prediction of fire characteristics
by the use of a mathematical method which is expressed as a computer program.
needs of fire litigation from fire modeling are specialized. Usually,
there is a great deal of specificity about the sequence of fire ignition
and the materials involved in the process. This commonly precludes the
use of handbook data as input to fire models. Instead, it will usually
be necessary to conduct a sectional full-scale mockup to obtain appropriate
data describing the initial part of the fire. This information then serves
as input to a fire model, using which the later fire development can be
Babrauskas, V., COMPF: A Program for Calculating Post-flashover Fire Temperatures
(UCB FRG 75-2). Fire Research Group, University of California, Berkeley
Babrauskas, V., Fire Modeling Tools for Fire Safety Engineering: Are They
Good Enough? J. Fire Protection Engineering 8, 87-95 (1996).
Babrauskas, V., and Peacock, R. D., Heat Release Rate: The Single Most
Important Variable in Fire Hazard, Fire Safety J. 18, 255-272
Bukowski, R. W., Peacock, R. D., Jones, W. W., and Forney, C. L., HAZARD
I Fire Hazard Assessment Method (NIST Handbook 146). [U.S.] Natl. Inst.
Stand. Tech., Gaithersburg, MD.
Babrauskas, V., Burning Rates (Section 3/Chapter 1), pp. 3-1 to 3-15 in
The SFPE Handbook of Fire Protection Engineering, Second Edition,
National Fire Protection Association, Quincy MA (1995).
Babrauskas, V., Will the Second Item Ignite? Fire Safety J. 4,
Babrauskas, V., and Grayson, S. J., eds., Heat Release in Fires,
E. & F. N. Spon, London (1992).