Fighting fire with fire

When a fire starts to burn, there’s a lesson you must learn... particularly if you’re a fire safety engineer!

Rory Hadden investigates how fires ignite, spread and how they can be extinguished.

This research is then used to save lives by creating safer buildings for us to live and work in.

Rory describes his job as “engineering on the edge!” and Tomorrow’s Engineers visited Rory’s lab at Edinburgh University to find out why he enjoys the variety and challenge in engineering.

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Name: Rory Hadden
Job: Fire Safety Engineer (Rushbrook Lecturer in Fire Investigation) at the University of Edinburgh
Scottish Highers: in Chemistry, English, Geography, Maths, Music and Physics
Advanced Scottish Highers: Chemistry, Maths and Physics.
Degree: MEng, Chemical Engineering, University of Edinburgh
Postgraduate study: PhD Fire Safety Engineering, University of Edinburgh (2011)

You’re a fire safety engineer - that sounds interesting - what do you do?
I‘m a fire safety engineer and basically that means I burn things for a living. Fire safety engineering is the application of science and engineering to understand how fires behave. What we try to do is to understand how fires are ignited, how they can grow, how they’ll spread through a building and how they can be extinguished. Then we will be able to design the safest possible buildings.

At Edinburgh University’s state-of-the-art BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering we conduct experiments and use computer simulations to test these things. We also work together with engineers and architects, the fire brigade and people like that to really improve the safety of buildings. My job also involves research and teaching at Edinburgh University.

How does what you do affect people’s lives?
Fire safety impacts almost every area of your life. The size of windows, the width of doors and the length of corridors are all dictated by fire safety rules and regulations. Some of these rules were designed for buildings many years ago and we’ve changed a lot since then.

Buildings have become taller, more advanced and materials have changed and a lot of these rules are no longer relevant. So what we’re doing is using fundamental science – things like chemistry and physics – in the real world to provide a really good solution to designing new buildings and improving safety.

I think it’s not an overstatement to say fire safety engineers save lives by making safer buildings with materials that have been designed to resist fires a lot better. We’ve also given people more time to escape and potentially protected the structure from collapse, so we really do have an impact on everyday life.

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Can you give us an example of a project you’ve been working on recently?
One of the projects we have today is improving fire safety on airplanes and we’re working on how we can detect fires before they happen. It sounds a little like science fiction but if you understand how the fire is ignited and grows there are some things you can do to detect it before you see a very large flame.

What inspired you to become an engineer?
When I was in school I really enjoyed chemistry, physics and maths and I really wanted to do a career that applied all of these. Engineering was the perfect tool for this as it encompassed all these subjects and let me continue working with them for the rest of my life.

How important are science and maths for a career in engineering?
Science and maths are really important in my job. I use them every single day to understand and solve problems as well. My work involves different academic disciplines with projects involving Earth Science, Geoscience, Environmental and Mechanical Engineering, so having a broad understanding of the fundamentals of chemistry, physics and maths is really important.

You studied for a PhD after your degree - what did you enjoy about that?
Academic research is a brilliant place to explore engineering - there is freedom to study new ideas and investigate curious phenomena but always knowing that society will ultimately benefit. It’s engineering on the edge.

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Is engineering a creative subject?
Engineering, by its very nature, is creative because the problems faced by society today have never been solved before, because if they had, they would no longer be problems. So the creativity comes from being able to understand the science and maths and being able to use those subjects in new ways to solve problems, so it’s creativity using the tools of science and engineering.

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What do you enjoy most about your job?
I enjoy working with people from a whole range of different backgrounds, which is important in fire safety engineering. We speak to architects, the fire service, other engineers and people who design world-leading buildings. Every time you meet these people it’s interesting because they think differently and have different approaches to solving problems. This is really what makes it interesting for me.

I’m a lecturer so I also get to teach too. Working with students keeps everything fresh. They’re new to the subject and have great new ideas, lots of enthusiasm, and want to go out there and improve things for people.

Why would you recommend a career in engineering?
A career in engineering is very rewarding on many levels. Financially it’s rewarding and I think the job satisfaction you can get from a career in engineering is massive. Engineering is a global industry and there are opportunities available for travel, seeing new places and meeting new people.

But the main thing is that it’s fun. We’re faced with many big challenges in society today which engineers will have to address. That means we’re working at the very edge of science all the time and that makes it tough but the rewards you get from that are big. I really love working with the chemistry, the physics and the maths every single day to solve these problems.

What personal qualities are important to be an engineer?
A natural curiosity is important, so you would be interested in how things work, why things work, taking things apart and seeing how they can be improved.

You need good problem solving skills I think it’s useful to be interested in the approach that other people take to solving problems, because engineers need to work effectively in teams with different people.

You have to be good at communicating with people, good at listening and interested in other people’s approach to problem solving. Engineering is working with a team with a different range of specialities to come up with a solution.

If you could go back in time and invent anything, what would it be?
If I could go back in time and invent anything it would probably be the candle. It doesn’t sound like a ground-breaking invention but it really did enable people to exploit another part of the day, letting them work, eat, play and enjoy themselves in the darkness as well, so it really changed the way society worked.

What do you do when you’re not at work?

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My hobbies include running, swimming, cycling, and going to listen to music as well.


More links
Edinburgh University School of Engineering
Fire Safety Engineering at Edinburgh University