Fire studies alarm call

November 29, 1996

THE RECENT tragic fire in Hong Kong and near disastrous incident in the Channel Tunnel are stark reminders of the devastating power of fire and the toll it can reap on those inadequately protected against its threat. In the United Kingdom alone, fire causes about 800 deaths and Pounds 1 billion of property damage each year.

With such a devastating toll, it may come as a surprise to learn of the great difficulty research departments have in securing funds to support research into fire. For example, the built environment panel of the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council - one of the main funding bodies for university fire research - has a poor track record in this area.

Charged with funding high-quality basic, strategic and applied research which leads to the enhancement of UK economic competitiveness and quality of life, fire research should fit neatly into its remit, However, in practice, figures published in a recent EPSRC report, Built Environment Programme, Projects Received 1995, suggest that out of a total of 182 EPSRC-supported projects costing Pounds 17 million, a mere nine were fire related, receiving only Pounds 781,306 of research funds.

My own research group, which is the largest university-based fire modelling research group in the world, has no research projects supported by the EPSRC. A recent project, (which included pledges of financial support from the Home Office, Essex Fire Brigade, Ove Arup and letters of support from the Loss Preventation Council and the Metropolitan Fire Brigades Board of Melbourne Australia) has been submitted to the EPSRC Built Environment panel three times and has failed to attract funding. Each time we were told that while the project was worthy of funding, there were insufficient funds to support it and that it would be reconsidered in the next round.

We have now been invited to re-submit this project for a fourth time. This wasteful and demotivating process is symptomatic of the low priority of fire research in the Built Environment Programme, Will it require disaster on UK soil before funds are spent on fire research?

Edwin Galea

Director, fire safety research group, University of Greenwich

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