NIST’s Fire Lab uses research and technology to improve safety for all Americans

Within the federal IT community, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is well known for its cybersecurity standards, which play a major role in the IT security posture of federal agencies. However, NIST does much more than offer cybersecurity frameworks.

The agency, which has existed since 1901, is also renowned for its research laboratories, who conduct cutting-edge research in communications technology, semiconductors, engineering and more. Few have had a more direct impact on the lives of Americans than NIST’s National Fire Research Laboratory, dedicated to understanding the behavior of fire and its impact on structures.

Research conducted by the fire lab has led to the development of less flammable cigarettes, better fire exits in offices, better smoke detectors, and increased use of sprinklers in homes.

“A lot of the work that’s been done historically, people would notice pretty much everywhere they look,” says Matt Bundy, operations manager at the fire lab. “There is a barrier fabric in the mattresses, and they comply with a federal regulation, a standard developed in our lab, that if an external flame is applied to the mattress, the flame does not spread and grow. “

Since this regulation took effect in 2007, more than a thousand lives have been saved, according to Bundy.

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How NIST uses technology to research fire

Although the dynamics and physics of fire have been well understood for over a century, the NIST Fire Laboratory focuses on the research needed to develop new standards, improve safety codes, and improve understanding of fire, says Bundy.

The fire lab facility, located on the NIST campus in Gaithersburg, Maryland, opened in 1974 and was renovated in 2015 to add structural fire testing capabilities. NIST uses the lab to create, disassemble, and reconfigure experimental setups.

Artur Chernovsky, an electronics engineer at NIST who works in the fire lab, notes that lab configurations are constantly changing. “You have to keep in mind that you will always add new technologies later,” he says.

Experiments range from simulating a fire starting on a stove to simulating multi-room and multi-story fires.

Bundy says the lab likes to use off-the-shelf commercial technology as much as possible because it “makes our lives easier.” However, the lab often needs to design and build custom equipment, including enclosures, water cooling and shielding, and other items that allow the lab to place 360-degree cameras in close proximity and protect them. fires.

Chernovsky notes that the video capture revolution, from film to digital video format, has helped the lab immensely. Bundy adds that the lab uses IP-based cameras, automation and servers to store all fire footage captured by the cameras.

The lab has “dozens of terabytes of storage that are actively managed and are really integral to our data collection systems,” Bundy says. The lab has three dedicated servers with mostly devices ready to use and connected to the network, according to Chernovsky.

Over the past year, Chernovsky has invested considerable energy developing the lab’s new video data acquisition systems, which will enable the use of mobile devices such as iPhones and iPads to monitor test environments.

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NIST Fire Lab is making a real impact

NIST’s fire investigations have had real impacts. For example, his research on the World Trade Center collapse “resulted in more than 40 major and far-reaching changes to U.S. building and fire codes to improve the safety of buildings, their occupants, and disaster responders. emergency,” according to a NIST. blog post.

“Different needs arise as technology evolves,” says Bundy. “There are often new fire issues that come along with that.”

“We want our research to be broad and generally applicable,” he adds. “But we do have instances where a federal fire investigation is necessary, and NIST will be involved in those.” Examples of this include the 2003 fire at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island and the Camp Fire that devastated the town of Paradise, California in 2018.

The Camp Fire investigation, for example, made it possible to reconstruct the chronology of the fire. “The information we have collected on the timeline is extremely powerful on its own, not only for Paradise but for other similar communities, to help them understand what they may encounter and better prepare themselves, whether at a community level or at a first responder level,” Alexander Maranghides, a NIST fire protection engineer who led the timeline reconstruction, said in a blog post.

“We ask the question, ‘What is the impact on society?’ Bundy said. “That’s one of the measures we use. Many of our researchers are passionate about impact. I think so. For me, it’s very exciting to see when there are changes in the real world.

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