WPI research team to conduct tests aimed at better understanding post-earthquake fires

May 16, 2012

A team of researchers from the Department of Fire Protection Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) will conduct groundbreaking tests on May 23-25 aimed at better understanding the effects of earthquakes on building systems designed to suppress or prevent the spread of fires. The test are part of a major $5 million study, supported by a coalition of government agencies and industry partners, seeking to learn what needs to be done to ensure that high-value buildings, such as hospitals and data centers, can remain operational in the aftermath of earthquakes.

The study, which is being conducted on the nation's largest outdoor , at the Englekirk Structural Engineering Center at the University of California, San Diego, has already subjected a full-scale, five-story building, equipped with a working elevator, sprinkler systems, an , a surgery suite, and , to series of simulated earthquakes, some registering as high as 7.9 on the . During three weeks of seismic testing, engineers have monitored the building's performance through more than 500 channels of data from a wide range of sensors.

The fire testing, which began during the seismic experiments with regular observations of the effects of the shaking on installed systems, is being led by Brian Meacham, associate professor of fire protection engineering at WPI. The overall goal is to gather data that will help engineers better model the fire performance of earthquake damaged buildings. "Knowing how fire protection systems might fail in an earthquake, and how the fire and smoke might spread, will allow us to design more resilient systems and provide better protection to people, property, and mission," Meacham says.

After each phase of the seismic tests, which included shaking with and without a base isolation system—large cylindrical rubber bearings that isolated the 80-foot-tall building from most of the lateral motion it would normally experience during a temblor—the WPI researchers entered the building to inspect passive fire protection components, including doors, ceiling systems, partition walls, and firestop materials, to see how they fared. If these systems are compromised in an earthquake, they could allow flames and smoke to spread and air to enter a room to feed a fire. They also inspected the condition of active fire suppression systems, particularly sprinklers.

Next week, the WPI team will conduct a series of fire tests on the building's third floor. They will ignite pans of heptane, a liquid fuel that burns hot enough to simulate full burning within a compartment. Using temperature and smoke movement sensors, the researchers will assess how damage from the simulated earthquakes affect the ability of the active and passive fire protection systems to contain fires and prevent the spread of smoke.

Though post-earthquake fires are a well-known and serious hazard, very little is known about the performance of fire protection systems in earthquakes, Meacham says. The data gathered through this research could help inform more effective fire codes. In addition, this study will provide a unique opportunity to simultaneously observe the effects of shaking and fire on building systems, which could lead to new multi-hazard computer models that could help architects and engineers design safer buildings.

Explore further: Through 3D-printed prosthetic, Illinois students lending a hand in Ecuador

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

'Smart' Buildings to Guide Future First Responders

Nov 03, 2005

NIST researchers are studying how "intelligent" building systems can be used by firefighters, police and other first responders to accurately assess emergency conditions in real-time. One of the biggest problems faced by ...

Engineers test effects of fire on steel structures

Nov 16, 2010

Researchers at Purdue University are studying the effects of fire on steel structures, such as buildings and bridges, using a one-of-a-kind heating system and a specialized laboratory for testing large beams ...

Recommended for you

Study says upgrading infrastructure could reduce flood damage

Oct 29, 2014

The severe flooding that devastated a wide swath of Colorado last year might have been less destructive if the bridges, roads and other infrastructure had been upgraded or modernized, according to a new study from the University ...

Walk through buildings from your own device

Oct 29, 2014

Would you like to visit The Frick Collection art museum in New York City but can't find the time? No problem. You can take a 3-D virtual tour that will make you feel like you are there, thanks to Yasutaka ...

'Ambulance drone' prototype unveiled in Holland

Oct 28, 2014

A Dutch-based student on Tuesday unveiled a prototype of an "ambulance drone", a flying defibrillator able to reach heart attack victims within precious life-saving minutes.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.