Understanding the difference between Engineering and Fire Engineering

30thMarch 2021
Understanding the difference between Engineering and Fire Engineering

When people refer to fire engineering, they sometimes shorten it to just engineering, but the reality is the two terms are not interchangeable. Engineering is such a broad term (think structural, aeronautical, computer, façade), summarised as the use of science and math to design or make something, whereas fire engineering refers to the specific science of designing buildings that are safe from fire. In this article, we will tackle the definition of fire engineering, the associated tasks, and how relying on one when it comes to designing fire compliant will greatly benefit you in building your structure.

What is engineering?

According to the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary of the Cambridge University Press, engineering is “… the study of using scientific principles to design and build machines, structures, and other things, including bridges, roads, vehicles, and buildings.” Derived from the Latin term ingenium, which means genius or talent, engineering is a complex profession that entails the use of applied mathematics and applied sciences plus creativity and artistic judgment in order to design the construction of things that will benefit society and move the economy forward.

Engineering is composed of several disciplines, the most common of which are civil engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, and computer engineering. It also includes other sub-disciplines where fire engineering belongs to.

What is fire engineering?

Fire engineering also known as fire safety engineering, according to the International Standards Organization, is:

“The application of engineering principles, rules and expert judgement based on a scientific appreciation of the fire phenomena, of the effects of fire, and the reaction and behaviour of people, in order to save life, protect property and preserve the environment and heritage; quantify the hazards and risk of fire and its effects; and evaluate analytically the optimum protective and preventative measures necessary to limit, within prescribed levels, the consequences of fire.”

In Australia, fire engineering is governed by the Australian Building Codes Board or the ABCB, an agency that provides guidelines for use in the fire engineering design and approval of buildings and  structures with enclosed spaces such as ships and tunnels.

So yes, How different is fire engineering from engineering per se?

Fire engineering is a subset of the broad engineering spectrum. Yes, it uses concepts of mathematics, the sciences, and the arts but these are specifically applied to instigate measures and solutions to facilitate the correct design of fire systems to help save lives and property in the event of fire.

While engineering has established standards, fire engineering is in its infancy and many regulations and codified guidelines regarding approaching and solving fire-related issues of buildings and structures are still being drafted. To date, the ABCB develops recommendations and procedures they find suitable based on the circumstances and technologies available. The guidelines continue to evolve but are based on understanding the aspects of structural fire such as:

  • the manner in which a fire starts;
  • the factors affecting the ignition of different materials through the fire dynamics theory;
  • the toxic effects modelling or the science behind the spreading of toxins and smoke in  combustion;
  • the reaction of buildings and other structures to fire; and most importantly,
  • the  human behaviour or people’s in the occurrence of fire.

Why is fire engineering important?

If you’re in the construction, strata management, and property business, you will greatly benefit from incorporating fire engineering in the planning and maintenance stages of your venture. Because the ABCB’s fire protection engineering measures are specific to the building, occupants, and site, you can have increased confidence that the structural integrity and longevity of your structure are in order. Here are other reasons to consider a fire engineer.

Fundamental in planning fire safety strategy
From selecting the right passive fire protection method to having input on the steel sections required to achieve maximum compliance at a low cost, techniques used in fire engineering are essential in ensuring the utmost safety of the structure, assets, and the occupants of the building.
Likewise, an expertise in fire engineering can input into the creation of a sound and effective emergency and evacuation plan, which includes risk assessment, fire hazard analysis, evacuation procedure, and escape route design, among others.

Limits damage of structure, equipment, and building contents
One of the aspects of fire engineering is the identification of methods and systems that constrain the possible controlling and mitigating the possible impacts that an unwanted fire can bring.
Since fire engineers understand how fires originate and spread, they can anticipate when a fire can happen based on the design of the building as well as on the materials and machines present in the vicinity. With this knowledge, they help building owners detect possible combustion sources before the accident can destroy their assets.

Secures the safety of building occupants
One of the most valuable benefits of fire engineering is the protection of human life. By participating in the design process, fire engineers use their judgment and expertise to help develop a fast and least dangerous route that people can take in case a fire breaks in the building they are occupying.

Protects heritage in older or significant buildings
Fire engineering is not only relevant in the protection of new buildings and structures. Its practices are also applied in the maintenance and fortification of heritage buildings. Fire engineers can evaluate the prevailing fire safety plans of existing structures and examine if those measures still serve a purpose in prolonging the structural integrity and the overall safety of subject buildings. If such are found insubstantial, the specialists can always recommend a new system with the help of newer technologies and developments.

The future of fire engineering

Fire engineering continues to evolve as a sub-discipline of engineering. On top of engineering judgment, the steady development of new tools and technologies will aid regulatory agencies like the ABCB in predicting the future of fire safety. So next time you are designing a building and are unsure what is needed, or how to minimise costs, perhaps you should call one of our team and ask for some assistance.


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