R2.9m grant for postgraduate programme in fire engineering

A controlled burn done to further research into fire behaviour.

Stellenbosch University’s Fire Engineering Research Unit (FireSUN) has received a financial injection of R2.9 million that will be used to develop Africa’s first-ever postgraduate programme in fire engineering – ultimately providing the expertise needed to keep the African continent safe in the case of fire.

The risk of deadly fires, especially in informal settlements, remains a constant in South Africa due to the close proximity of housing structures, open fires and the use of paraffin for cooking and staying warm during the winter months.

Devastating blazes – such as the fires in Imizamo Yethu near Hout Bay and in Knysna in 2017 – also regularly make the headlines.

The FireSUN unit was established in 2017 and aims to reduce the impact of fire by undertaking research and building the capacity and expertise of fire and structural engineers. The team, located within the department of civil engineering, is the first university research group focused on fire safety in Africa.

The R2.9 million grant was received from the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, a charity with a mandate to protect life and property, support education, engineering-related research and public engagement. These funds mean the FireSUN team can now expand their work by offering postgraduate degrees (MEng and PhD) in fire safety engineering (FSE) and structural fire engineering (SFE). “This represents an exciting development for fire safety engineering in South Africa, and Africa as a whole,” says Dr Richard Walls, who heads up SU’s FireSUN team.

“Research shows that South Africa has one of the highest fire-related death rates per capita worldwide, many of which occur in informal settlements,” says Dr Walls. 

“With the growth of the African population and the local mining, manufacturing and resource processing industries the associated fire risks of the continent are rapidly increasing, along with the need for fire engineering professionals. To this end a masters in engineering (MEng) and PhD degrees in fire engineering will develop the engineering capacity the continent needs,” he explains.

Dr Tim Slingsby, director of skills and education at Lloyd’s Register Foundation, says they are delighted to support Dr Walls and SU in the development of Africa’s first ever fire engineering postgraduate programme. “We look forward to seeing the outcomes and impact of this work spread to other institutions and to workforces, providing the continent with a much needed, highly technical capability and capacity to improve safety.”  

Two taught modules in FSE, namely fire dynamics, and structural design for fire safety will be created. These modules will be rolled out in 2019 and 2020, and will be available to students and industry practitioners. Existing modules within the department of civil or mechanical engineering will also be used. As the research team grows and more funding is obtained, additional taught modules, such as performance-based fire design, will be developed.

“The formal fire engineering programmes will have a significant impact on providing the expertise needed to keep the African continent safe in the case of fire, be it for the residential, mining, industrial or transport sectors,” Dr Walls says.

“To improve the safety of those living in informal settlements, there is a desperate need to develop a thorough understanding of how fires behave in those environments, and what products will (or won’t) be suitable.

“As our populations rapidly expands, and the number of people living in informal settlements doubles in the coming decades, it is inevitable that better fire safety solutions will help save lives.

“Already the roll-out of smoke alarms by the Western Cape Disaster Management Fire and Rescue Services – and facilitated by Patrica Zweig and Dr Robyn Pharoah of the Research Alliance for Disaster and Risk Reduction (RADAR) at SU – has saved lives in areas such as Wallacedene,” he adds.

“As any good fire engineer will tell you – fire engineering is an incredibly broad field with a large variety of specialist topics such as fire dynamics, suppression system design, evacuation, structural fire design, emergency response, detection and much more,” says Dr Walls.

The FireSUN team has already undertaken various research projects in areas such as informal settlement fire safety, structural fire design, industrial structural design and petrochemical facility fire safety. These projects include a current investigation, sponsored by Santam, looking at the 1000 homes that were burnt down during the Knysna fire disaster in 2017, as well as working alongside the Western Cape Disaster Management, Fire and Rescue services to investigate how smoke alarms can be used in informal settlements.

Dr Walls says that funding to do their life-saving work is essential. “The development of fire engineering research and education is expensive, but essential for our country.

“It would not have been possible to launch our postgraduate programme next year without the assistance of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation. Also, previous funding received from the Global Challenges Research Fund has allowed us to establish our current fire research team, and fire testing competency, which will now be built upon.”