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Article: Computational fluid dynamics and fire risk assessment

How often have risk engineers surveyed the same site for underwriters or brokers and produced significantly different fire scenarios? Surely the laws of physics governing fires are constant, so could this be improved by a more scientific approach?

Those that have worked within risk engineering know the importance of being able to predict how a fire will behave, how it will grow and spread and the damage it will potentially inflict. These predictions can drive a multitude of key decisions around risk placement and loss reduction recommendations.

The behaviour of a fire is largely governed by the composition of the structure where inception occurs and the fuel available. As Risk Engineers, we use surveys to gain an understanding of not only control measures, but construction type as well as assessing combustible loading. The next step is then a prediction of any potential fire behaviour based on risk engineering knowledge and experience, assisted by tools and standards.

Experience shows that two Risk Engineers can be sent to the same site on the same day and two different fire scenarios and impacts will be produced. The obvious question is, how does that happen?

Judgement call This is understandable when you consider the variability in the tools and standards and the application of engineering judgement.

The separation distances required to prevent fire spread will, for example, vary greatly depending on which underwriting standard or fire protection standard is referred to. The same can be said for expected damage to a structure. The tables that are referred to often give only simplistic construction and occupancy generalisations, which require a significant amount of engineering experience and judgement to apply to the real-life complexities of the built environment and occupancies.

Could a more scientific approach be utilised to drive a more accurate and consist result. Could this be achieved by making more use of computational fluid dynamics modelling within the property insurance industry?

What is CFD? Computational fluid dynamics (CFD) is a branch of science which uses computer modelling to produce quantative predictions of how a fluid will behave in various scenarios.

The models use the science behind fluid mechanics’ conservation laws (conservation of mass, momentum, and energy) governing fluid motion to calculate the behaviour of a fluid under the influence of differing parameters. As computers have become more powerful and capable of processing a vast number of calculations in quicker times, CFD software has developed to provide an increasing degree of accuracy in predicting the behaviour of fluid flow.

This development has led to CFD modelling becoming and very powerful tool within a multitude of industries. The one use of CFD which is extremely pertinent to the property insurance market is fire and combustion engineering.

Broader use? CFD is used to simulate fire development, heat transfer and the travel of smoke within building fire safety design. So, should we be using this tool more within the realm of property insurance?

In complex risks where the prediction of fire behaviour would be challenging even to an experienced Risk Engineer, I believe CFD would be useful in not only providing an accurate prediction of a fire scenario, but also a more consistent assessment of potential loss.

We are already seeing CFD modelling techniques being increasingly used within the insurance industry. CFD modelling has been adopted to support terrorism risk assessment and it is starting to be developed be access potential wind damage for complex structures. So, why should CFD not be more prevalent within property insurance for the assessment of fire risk?

Let me know your thoughts on our Linkedin page here around CFD, as well as any other tools you think could be useful when it comes to risk engineering and fire safety.

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