Refocusing On The Way Forward While Building On Our Roots

Publication Type:

Conference Paper


Jake L Pauls


Fifth International Symposium on Human Behaviour in Fire (2012)


The Symposium theme, “Building on a Strong Foundation,” (or, as referred to here, “building on our roots”*) is not merely a cliché; it reflects a substantial foundation of over 250 papers and panels presented in four prior symposia between 1998 and 2009. Moreover the proceedings have been published in an expeditious manner so that the latest information and informed opinions were/are readily available for others to build upon, for example in applications plus further research. Thus, although our field has lost several of its leaders and pioneers, there remain (in addition to their publications, ideas and our memories of their passion and friendship) the many people influenced by them and their work. With our strong roots, the life of our field survives with others continuing, for example, as the presenters or facilitators of keynotes, research papers and panels in this Symposium plus future ones. These opening remarks will, I hope, suggest—or remind us of—some of the directions we can build upon. As convener of the closing panel in the previous Symposium in 2009, the one focused on Situation Awareness, I intend to build on that part of our foundation today along with another that has, perhaps, been mostly forgotten. That is the role of the fire services. In recent years, some fire services in Canada and the USA have become increasingly concerned about their “situational awareness” (the term they use) of—plus their response to—the more-rapid growth of fires in domestic settings due to changing fire characteristics of furnishings as well as building construction. Much of that concern has centered on implications for how firefighters carry out their work and maintain their own safety. But now we should be addressing not only the firefighters’ insights and concerns, but also those of ordinary building occupants who need improved situation awareness of how more-rapid fire growth affects the consequences of their delays or pre-evacuation behaviour. As we heard from one member of the 2009 panel on Situation Awareness, even relatively experienced experts on fire growth need to reassess the available response time in wildland fires, especially in a time of widespread climate change. So, relative to Situation Awareness, we have new challenges to address as soon as possible, at both building and regional scales. Recent experiences of thousands of families in the Western US have brought these issues home in a most searing fashion, literally. Aside from the heat, what light has been generated from these fires? One of the hot or popular topic areas in our field is egress calculation. Indeed many of the papers accepted for the Symposium focus on this; the closing day of the Symposium features a panel on this topic; and a special pre-Symposium workshop on this topic is also planned. One of the questions we should be asking is what should be the role of future Symposia as a forum for this topic, especially if it crowds out (no pun intended) consideration of other issues more directly relevant to human behaviour in fire? A related question (one I have raised before) is: should we label our field as, for example, “human factors in fire response?” So, as we go into this 5th International Symposium on Human Behaviour in Fires, we are being pulled in two, perhaps conflicting directions, i.e., toward more-restricted focus— returning to our roots in fire-related issues—and toward expanded scope, even though the latter increases our overlap with other conferences (e.g., among others, those on Pedestrian and Evacuation Dynamics, PED, and the Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board, TRB, specially its Evacuation Task Force) held with comparable, or more extensive, frequency and extent of participation. However, more important than the overlap is who can best guide growth in this topic area, especially to improve the quality of the work. Here lies controversy. Refocusing on what will light our way forward, and what path(s) is/are pursued, is a constant challenge. This is especially difficult with reduced economic resources as well as with the departures, both anticipated and unexpected, of key people who have helped to light our way forward and helped build our foundations or grow our roots. We must not ignore them.