Embracing technology in fire and life safety

WSP consultant for fire and life safety Sopheaktra Chhim examines how technology can help developers reach new standards for safety.

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Integrating BIM in to projects is not just an accessory but a significant technological trend that WSP is moving towards as the construction industry continues to embrace digitalisation.
Integrating BIM in to projects is not just an accessory but a significant technological trend that WSP is moving towards as the construction industry continues to embrace digitalisation.

Fire and life safety engineering addresses the need to provide a safe built environment to mitigate injury and preserve life in the event of a fire.

There is a plethora of tools utilised to achieve these goals, which range from statutory code and standard requirements, to best practice design concepts.

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Whilst available tools address important aspects of life safety, as a building design industry we face a major challenge when bringing life safety requirements together during the design, construction, handover, operation and life cycle of a project.

That challenge is now becoming more manageable thanks, of course, to technology. The technology ecosystem has grown exponentially, yet in the life safety industry we find ourselves at the infancy of fully implementing these technologies; how can we integrate rapidly changing technology with the requirements of traditional codes and standards?

The fire codes and standards are one of the main drivers in this industry, and the existing 2D fire and life safety design deliverables have been sufficient to meet the statutory requirements so far.

However, the deliverables contain only a single layer of information, such as fire rating, but do not provide further information, such as material type and authority approval requirements.

To deliver a fire and life safety strategy from design to construction, a series of documents must be cross referenced. Therefore, the ability to visualise a project in 3D and access all information and parameters of any component from a central online model, in real time, would facilitate simple spatial co-ordination and collaboration with all stakeholders.

This ability is realised with the use of building information modelling (BIM).

READ: Sounding the alarm on fire and life safety

Whilst BIM has been around in the construction industry for a few decades it is still being developed and implemented within the fire and life safety industry.

Using BIM to incorporate fire safety features from the beginning can save time and resources as well as provide effective co-ordination between all relevant disciplines.

BIM is generally categorised into three levels – BIM Level 1, 2 and 3. BIM Level 1 is a traditional 2D CAD drawing that, for example, displays generic fire and life safety requirements, such as fire compartmentation and travel distances.

BIM Level 2 is an iterative process in which designers provide more detailed fire protection and fire and life safety related information in a decentralised 3D model.

BIM Level 3, however, is a collaborative information workflow where all disciplines in a project upload their BIM Level 2 information into a central, cloud-based model.

With fire and life safety being one of the key disciplines that helps drive the architecture of a project, it is essential that information is more readily available to the entire project team; wider utilisation of BIM level 3 within the fire and life safety discipline will foster complete transparency of information and facilitate effective communication throughout the project life cycle. 

For example, where compartmentation is achieved by fire curtains, the use of BIM allows structural engineers and architects to assess the feasibility of fire curtain installation with respect to the structural elements, building services, material properties, approved suppliers, and other critical design information.

Moreover, all information can be easily transferred from designers to installers, to building operators and owners without any loss of data or knowledge.

Integrating BIM in to projects is not just an accessory but a significant technological trend that we are moving towards; building on the BIM experience of other disciplines and consequently adding value to project delivery.

This will enhance our ability to smoothly visualise, co-ordinate and deliver a project in a single package which allows us to better explain the requirements of fire and life safety to all stakeholders.

With the pace of technological change that we are experiencing and the construction industry’s eagerness to adopt new technologies, such as augmented reality and artificial intelligence, it is not only essential that we continue to integrate fire and life safety design in to BIM, but we must also begin to explore how new and future technologies can enhance the experience of all stakeholders in the project life cycle.

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Sopheaktra Chhim is a fire and life safety consultant for WSP.

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