Professionals who keep HK safe
Tough regulations governing building designs and increasing concerns over safety issues give rise to job opportunities in a career that protects the community
An uncontrolled fire can be deadly, particularly in Hong Kong where the risk of fire is exacerbated by the mixed-use of high-rise commercial and residential properties.
Fire engineering is assuming a role of greater importance as Hongkongers increasingly become more health and safety conscious.
Business, industry, government and academics are recognising the need for improved fire protection and fire safety systems development.
They are also recognising the importance and need for properly trained fire engineers who play a pivotal role in ensuring protection and taking the necessary precautions against fires in a professional manner.
Anthony Lam Chun-man, chairman of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers (HKIE) Fire Disciplinary Advisory Panel, said over the years, through the efforts of many engineering disciplines, including fire engineers, Hong Kong's buildings had been made safer.
'Compared with other major developed cities, the Hong Kong community enjoys a high level of fire safety,' said Mr Lam, a former director at the Fire Services Department.
About 400 members of the public were injured by fire each year between 2001 and 2005. However, fatalities from fires were on the decline. Mr Lam said regulations had been put in place to tighten control of new building designs and upgrade the fire safety systems in older ones. This has led to better escape facilities, use of fire resistant or retardant construction materials, and systems that become active in the event of a fire.
'Fire engineering involves all aspects of fire prevention and human safety. This can involve building designs and facilities for life safety and property protection. There is also the application of scientific and engineering principles, based on an understanding of the effects of fire and the reaction and behaviour of people, property and the environment, as well as the impact of fire protection systems including detection, alarm and sprinkler systems,' Mr Lam said.
On the academic and professional training front, Mr Lam said in addition to locally provided graduate and postgraduate engineering programmes since the early 1990s, a part-time fire engineering higher diploma programme had been networked with a university in Britain. In a further move that puts the spotlight on the fire engineering profession, a government initiative recommended that the scope of independent qualified fire engineers be upgraded to a certifying role. The Fire Services Department is responsible for the majority of certification and regulation.
In recognition of the distinct needs of the fire engineering profession, in 2005 the HKIE established a Fire Services Discipline to focus on the core domains of fire engineering. These include risk assessment and management across a wide range of applications, fire dynamics, smoke behaviour, laws, regulations and standards, and passive fire applications such as the installation and maintenance of fire escape systems.
Previously the fire engineering profession came under the banner of building services engineering.
Candidates applying to become members of the HKIE through its
Scheme A must satisfy several requirements, including a recognised fire engineering degree, two years of working in fire engineering and another two years' experience with projects. Another route to membership for those without Scheme A training requires six years of relevant working experience in fire engineering.
Charles Chu Man-chun, a member of the HKIE Fire Disciplinary Advisory Panel, said fire engineering offered the opportunity to build a career and achieve positions of leadership in a dynamically changing field. He said fire engineering assessment made on performance-based criteria, already common in Europe and Singapore, instead of assessment using existing building codes, could create demand for even more fire engineers. 'Fire engineering job opportunities are available in just about every type of business, industry and government operation. By its very nature, fire protection engineering provides a broad variety of jobs to suit the interest of most individuals,' said Mr Chu, a former chief fire officer with the government Fire Services Department.
He said some fire engineers performed research on the behaviour and control of fire. Others were involved in the process of risk assessment and management across a wide range of industrial applications.
To tap into global experience and best practices, Hong Kong fire engineers, academics and professional bodies play an active role through collaborating with organisations, including the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFireE) which has more than 30 branches in 20 countries.
'Fire engineering is becoming an increasingly important engineering profession because of its growing role in saving life and property,' said Mr Chu, who is IFireE international president. He said demand for trained fire engineers would continue to grow as extensive building developments in Macau and the mainland continue to fuel demand.
Yung Hok-kow, a member of the HKIE's Fire Disciplinary Advisory Panel and a director of engineering consultancy J. Roger Preston, said new building designs and buildings with special features were creating rewarding challenges for fire engineers.
'The priority is always life safety. However, by using a performance-based approach focusing on best practice, fire engineers are able to help their clients submit feasible building and function enhancing solutions that meet stringent regulatory requirements,' Mr Yung said.
'Fire engineers are also in demand to play a checking role to inspect work carried out by building contactors.'
This is part of a series on engineering trends and developments produced in association with The Hong Kong Institution of Engineers (HKIE). It is published on the last Saturday of every month.
Available safe egress time (ASET)
Time gap between the ignition of a fire and the onset of untenable conditions.
Required safe egress time (RSET)
Amount of time needed, after the ignition, for all the occupants to leave the fire scene and reach a place of safety.
Margin of safety
Time difference between the ASET and RSET.
Maximum exposure to hazards from a fire that can be tolerated without violating safety goals.
Part of a building constructed to prevent the spread of fire to or from another part of the same building or adjoining building.
Building services engineer