Cycles of Knowledge

Penny Morgan (

December 2008

I have long suspected that there is a fifteen-year cycle in the terms of the lifetime of topics in the fire research field. That's long enough to adopt the results and translate them into standards and regulations. It's also long enough to lose sight of who did the work and why. My favourite story illustrating this came from a colleague who was taking part in a PhD viva in a prestigious university and found that the student in front of him had re-invented a wheel that he'd worked on many years before. When asked what background research he'd done, replied 'I did a web search' but had not contacted any organisations dedicated to fire research. The candidate failed.

There is a similar life cycle to some operational techniques in the fire service.

In both researching fire problems and actually fighting fires there is a well-recognised need for information that will promote life safety of anyone involved in a fire.

So how do you make sure that information is not lost and is easily available to those who come after the work was first done or the technique developed? Simple - you pop all the details onto the internet and make sure it is freely downloadable. But the net has only been used in this way for a very few years - what about the older material? Simple, go to the library and look it up.

What library? The one at the Fire Service College is excellent but now so very much smaller and cannot cater for everyone who might need the information.

There are other libraries - aren't there?

Not any more - the FPA library mostly moved to BRE and then along with the FRS library was largely put into skips. BRE surely holds electronic versions of research results and papers? Almost certainly, yes. But the format may not be one that can be read on the current machines so the material is effectively lost as surely as popping some papers into a skip.

Brigades hold libraries - don't they? Some do but many have discarded the space consuming paper copies for electronic only as old as five years. But then there's the Information Desk in the Fire Service Inspectorate....? Not any more, that's long gone.

Consultancies hold material. Yes they do for the exclusive use of their staff and not any potential competitor.

As a member of Fire Information Group UK, I am enormously concerned that we have squandered the results of research and techniques for reducing the loss to life from fire. We need to have a central well-funded resource that can provide information to all who need it.

I accept that most people who have anything to do with the design and use of buildings never experience a fire. I would add that is mostly because we have developed effective standards and regulations that have reduced that probability to a very low level. What I dread is the possibility of complacency setting in and a loss of understanding of why we have particular approaches to fire safety.

Do you remember the days when every fire fighter was trained at the College and there was great consistency throughout the country? Once realistic pricing came in, it was too expensive for everyone to go to Moreton and training facilities were set up in many of the brigades. The consistency is being eroded. The learning curve following fire fighter deaths is no longer because of rare and unusual circumstances it is because we have lost the shared approach to training.

We can do something about written material. We can as part of the fire industry seek to lobby for funding and a location for a central library that will hold all the existing fire-related material and will be well-manned so that inquirers can get a rapid response. Some of us could even be sponsors.

The rewards - even fewer fire deaths in the community and none in the fire service - reduction in property losses so there is no 'business interruption' be it commercial or say in schools. Now there's a thought!

PS from the Editor

There is of course FIREINF online service that continually captures new fire and fire related information - full text and bibliographic. Currently contains over 525,000 records that goes back about 80 years or more!