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A President's Message From SEAOC President Rafael Sabelli

Sunday, December 1, 2019  

By Rafael Sabelli, SE, SEAOC President 2019-2020

Last month this column discussed being prepared for disruption due to extreme events, focusing on earthquakes as our primary hazard in California, but in the context of our recent, wide-spread fire-related power outages. This month I would like to ask you to think about fire as another hazard worthy of our attention.

Design for fire has become a hot topic in recent years, both because of the relatively primitive science that is the state of the practice in fire resistance, and because of the increased frequency of large-scale wildfires in California (which are expected to increase due to both hotter temperatures and more intense winds due to climate change). This hazard has generally been addressed by a combination of limitation of construction “type,” prescriptive exiting requirements for architectural design, protective measures (such as spray-on fire proofing and sprinklers, both specified by architects), and rapid-response (that is, firefighters).

Structural design has had the luxury, largely, of ignoring the hazard. As society puts more emphasis on resilience and on reducing waste (both waste in construction itself, and waste in having to replace buildings incapable of surviving an extreme event), engineering of fire systems has gained attention as an area where thoughtful design coupled with realistic analysis can lead to better outcomes for society. As in seismic design, the use of performance-based design can create opportunities to have meaningful discussions with stakeholders about expectations (and the costs of meeting those expectations).

Acceptable building performance in a fire event must include acceptable structural performance. Our experience in seismic design, in understanding the response of structures pushed beyond typical design ranges, in working collaboratively to promulgate best practices, and in critically assess emerging analysis and design methods can be a model in this area. (In fact, some familiar names in seismic research have expanded into fire analysis.) It is time that we begin asking ourselves what role we play, as practitioners, as members of design teams, and as licensed engineers in upholding the public trust and ensuring this aspect of the safety of our structures.