KERR… we wanted to ensure that our region played its part in terms of fire safety issues and policy development

Fire research group launched at The UWI

A multidisciplinary group, engaged in studying the science of fires, has been launched in the Physics Department at The UWI, Mona.

Called the Mona Fire Research Group (MFRG), and headed by Dr Tanya Kerr, Lecturer in Physics at Mona, the group was launched in October 2016. Its members have been exploring fundamental concepts of compartment fire dynamics and modelling, material behaviour/characterisation in fire compartments, fire and firefighter safety, and fire debris analysis.

The six-member group is backed by six contributors – Dr Victor Douse, Dr Kert Edward, Dr Jose Gonzalez-Rodriquez (University of Lincoln, UK), Dr Andre Coy, Dr Omar Thomas and Dr Keith Duncan. Its members and contributors are skilled in a range of areas including analytical chemistry, electronics, materials science, forensic science, optics, computing, occupational health and safety, and civil engineering.

The formation of the group was Kerr’s brainchild, aided by Dr Keith Duncan, former lecturer in Materials Science in the Department of Physics at Mona. Her idea to form the MFRG has filled a void that existed in the Caribbean in terms of fire research and fire protection engineering. “Nothing was happening in the Caribbean in fire research and we wanted to ensure that our region played its part in terms of fire safety issues and policy development. There are a lot of research groups worldwide in Fire Safety and Fire Investigation doing research in understanding compartment fire dynamics, fire mitigation strategies, modelling, egress strategies based on people culture, and we are doing similar research, with some specific to our region,” Kerr said.

The group has embarked on various projects including Materials Identification and Compartment Profiling, a continuation of Kerr’s PhD research on Post-fire Material Identification. From this, the group has created a Post-fire Materials Identification Library. It is a data library based on the Raman and Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectrum of material before and after fire exposure. This is the largest collection of this type of data and significantly increases the global data set on post-fire material identification, particularly using spectroscopy techniques. “The library is unique, it contains spectral data which can be used to identify the actual materials after thermal decomposition, using digital representations of various types of burnt materials, and is very easy to use,” Kerr said.

Kerr’s PhD was done in a lab setting, but this project will be done in real fire compartments. “We will set up reduced scale structure with furniture; we will then burn it down while monitoring the compartment temperatures, then retrieve data from areas based on fire pattern analysis to continue our library development. We decided on this method so that the data library can be representative and real to a fire investigator to utilise,” Kerr said. Material identification allows for more accurate scene reconstruction and validation of fire origin and cause. This project will be carried out on the Mona Campus by an MSc student enrolled at the University of Lincoln, UK, funded by the European Union Erasmus Mundus+ Programme.

The group has also been concerned with another project – “Assessing the Toxic Persistence in Post-fire Compartments”. This project entails investigating the length of time that toxic compounds remain in a building after it burns down. “During a fire, many toxic gases and particulate matter are released into the environment. This results from buildings having a variety of furniture types, some of which are toxic when burnt. For example, the polyurethane foam in a sofa can release toxic compounds when burnt. We will study the environment where the fire took place and monitor it for a number of days later to determine the degree to which the compartment remains toxic over the period. We will also determine the factors that affect toxic persistence, for example, ventilation, and determine the most likely chemicals that will persist,” Kerr said. This project will be carried out by an MSc student in the Occupational, Environmental, Safety and Health programme in the Department of Chemistry at Mona.

A major project being undertaken by the group is “Remote Post-fire Characterisation/Measurement of Concrete Structures”, funded by the Principal’s New Initiative Grant and run in collaboration with the University of Lincoln, UK. The project is concerned with developing a tool that allows for characterisation and measurement of temperatures to which concrete walls are exposed during a fire as well as remote measurement of concrete compressive strength. “What we want to be able to measure is the compressive strength of a concrete member – that will tell us the structural integrity of the building after the fire. At the end of the day, we need to know if the building has been too damaged and should be demolished, or it has been compromised, but not excessively so, and can be rehabilitated,” Kerr said. “We want to be able to provide this information without actually going into the building,” she added.

A fourth project being pursued by the group is ‘The Identification of Ignitable Liquids on a Fire Scene’. Using portable Raman spectroscopy, the group identifies ignitable liquids, such as gasoline, kerosene and diesel, from fire debris.
The group is also seeking to add an outreach component to its activities. Currently, it is collaborating with Eastern Kentucky University in the US to deliver a Fire Investigation Training Course to local police officers and forensic scientists. “We would like to have strong collaboration with the Institute of Forensic Science and Legal Medicine in terms of training and research,” Kerr said. The MFRG has also been engaged in dialogue with the Jamaica Fire Brigade regarding collaborations.

Becoming a member of the MFRG is simple. The group welcomes all members involved in science and technology as well as members of industry. Fire research requires several disciplines and research is significant when it is able to impact society. The group meets on Thursdays at 4:00 pm and will be meeting in a new location in 2017 – the Fire Research Lab in the Physics Department.