One of the key reasons why IMFSE is managing to maintain such a high quality are certainly all the people involved in making it happen – from professors and teaching assistants, to all the staff members and of course the students. Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Grunde Jomaas at the University of Edinburgh, and we talked about IMFSE, fire engineering world and many other interesting topics.
Me: Can you tell me a bit about your background, and how you entered the world of Fire Safety?
Grunde: I was always fascinated by fire, by building fires and bonfires and things like that.
I had gone to Math and Science in High School so a lot of my friends were studying engineering. One friend was actually studying in Haugesund, Norway, where they have a program in fire safety. It seemed like a great program, so I applied, started there, and from there on it really caught me.
Already during the 1st semester in Haugesund, I met lecturer Bjarne Christian Hagen. He was very inspiring, with lots of energy and always being funny and easily approachable. He had studied at University of Maryland, and some friends and I started to look into studying abroad.
Having heard about University of Maryland being mentioned in many chapters of the literature I read, and following Bjarne’s example, I decided to continue my studies at the University of Maryland, and that’s when it really excelled.
In the 1st semester I had Jose Torero for one of my Fire Classes. After the first, very inspiring semester, I started working with Jose, and ended up working with him for 2.5 years in the FETS (Fire Engineering and Thermal Sciences) Lab until I graduated! At UMD, I also took a class called Fire Risk Assessment Methods with Fred Mowrer. It was a lab class, where you conduct fire lab experiments and consequently write lab reports. Somewhere similar to the lab class IMFSE students have in Edinburgh. That’s when I really felt the “Oh I really love this” sensation. The feeling of being able to study things, and then apply and examine your theoretical knowledge and connect things was just great!
Me: How did you get involved with IMFSE?
Grunde: As I have known Jose for some time, I heard about the IMFSE already in the planning phase, and with time I met Patrick and Bart at conferences and through my job at DTU (Technical University of Denmark).
I have also recommended IMFSE to students. A student that I supervised for his BSc thesis at DTU, Rolff Leisted applied to and completed to program. It turns out that was a ‘good investment’ as Rolff came back to study for a PhD at DTU in Copenhagen. Then in 2016 I came to Edinburgh, and I became the local Program Director. I have really enjoyed getting more directly involved with the program and the IMFSE students.
Me: How was the IMFSE experience so far from your perspective and what do you expect from it in future?
Grunde: I’ve truly enjoyed spending time with the students. Currently, I do not teach in the program, but I have the privilege of being in charge of the welcome week. I meet the students, we have social activities. I am the personal tutor to all the students and I assist them with any issues they might have.
Another thing I really enjoyed was the interviews that we did, as it allowed me to interact with many of the very talented people that are applying to the program. And then graduation, I’ve been going to couple of graduations, where I also had the pleasure of giving the commencement speech. Thus, even though I haven’t been with all the cohorts seeing them trough, I have seen sort of both the beginning and the end already. Also, here in Edinburgh, we have PhD students from the program, we see that they succeed.
If you look at where the program is going, currently we are in the process of reapplying for the funding from the EU. We hope and think that there is space for growth in the program.
We have very good students and a very high graduation rate. So far students from approximately 60 countries have been in the program. So, it clearly shows that we attract talents from all over the World and that we’re truly a global program.
Hopefully we will continue to attract talent from all over the World, and we hope that many of the graduates go back to their home countries and contribute to improve and promote fire safety engineering there.
Me: Where is IMFSE as a program in comparison to the rest of the world? How competitive and ready are IMFSE graduates for fire safety engineering careers after obtaining their degrees?
Grunde: The classic answer to that, which is also the true is: we’re second to none. It means that we are not necessarily saying that we are for sure the best, but there is no program that is better. We can compete in quality with anybody at the Masters level.
Obviously, Lund and Edinburgh have very long traditions for Fire Safety, and they have bigger fire safety groups. But the quality that Ghent has with Bart and his colleagues is also impressive. And it is great that they have hired the incredibly talented Ruben van Coile recently.
Furthermore, the universities themselves are all very old and prestigious, with the latter being constantly confirmed in international rankings. It’s important to mention that we were labelled as a success story by the Erasmus program. And this is something that all of us have received recognition for from our respective universities. Of course, we work hard to make the program the quality it is, but we get the support from our respective universities because they believe it is very strong.
Given that the program is a top program, and being recognized as such, it is proven that most students have the job before, or very shortly after graduating. If you want to define a good quality program, you need to see how employable the program’s graduates are, because the students are the product, so that’s a real measure. And, IMFSE students get jobs, and the jobs are often secured before graduation.
Talking about jobs, after studying in 3 or 4 countries over 2 years and interacting with all these various people, you become more open minded and you are not so afraid to apply for a job in a new country – you have the world at your feet!
So, by nature of the program you see opportunities, you become explorers, you become confident in your abilities to manage new settings. And you seek opportunities that you might otherwise not have sought. Hence, it enables you to get a wider range, and quite possibly, more interesting jobs.
Me: What do you think is important for the future career of a fire engineer – which skills and abilities?
Grunde: Rather than just skills, I would say competence is the key.
In undergraduate studies (BSc), the focus is often on knowledge and skills. Once you get on to MSc program, we still teach you some skills – technical skills and knowledge you did not have, but we want you to have confidence in your abilities to face new, open problems. That’s how you implement skills and knowledge into making a good engineering decision and making it work, and that’s how you become truly competent.
So, it’s obviously a need to have this broad foundation that you can understand the problem, and then you can make a competent answer. So, all of the skills and the knowledge makes that you can see a problem from different angles, and I think that’s the strength you gain.
Furthermore, inherently in the program, as you are going to Lund, Gent, Edinburgh, you get different views on things, different teaching styles, and different ways of approaching a problem. Additionally, throughout the program we try to connect you with industry so you really have a feel for how to implement what you learned.
More and more people try to define what competence is. Our program has been developed, both in collaboration with industry and other academics, to ensure that we have the base to provide the competence that will enable you to provide unique, safe solutions to real challenges in the built environment!
Me: What do you think about the fact that IMFSE accepts students with various different engineering and scientific backgrounds?
Grunde: That has to stop immediately!! 😉.
On a more serious note, I think – feeding back to the previous answer, it’s a strength. The way it works in my impression is that the students work very closely in the program. You get to see the view of others, you get to see how all different people think and approach problems.
Fire safety is really a field where you have to work with different stakeholders at all points. You’re not there as a standalone person. You have to work with all the other branches of engineering. I think that coming from different countries and different backgrounds increases the flavour and it ensures that things are not overlooked. If you become more and more narrow-minded, you see only what you see and you can become too focused on certain details, and that’s the easiest way to overlook something.
I think this mix of people enriches the program and makes us question things and repeat constantly one of the important questions, I saw it at board of the dean at DTU,
Could it be otherwise? That’s a good question to think about. My way is not all the time correct. Somebody else with slightly different background might have a better solution.
Me: What do you think about where Fire Safety Engineering is nowadays? How acknowledged is it in the world in general?
Grunde: We’re still fighting to get the appreciation, status and the position that we should have. I’ve heard that in some languages Fire Safety Engineering does not even exist. Some say: “In my home language that would be a made-up word. People wouldn’t even know what that is.” From a global perspective that gives you an insight.
The statistics (http://www.worldlifeexpectancy.com/cause-of-death/fires/by-country/) also show that there are countries, in different places in the world, that have a factor of 10-20 times (or even more) higher fatality rates than more developed countries. So, there is obviously a lot of work to be done.
Fire safety engineers are often seen as somebody that only adds cost and doesn’t add value. That could actually be seen as the definition of not getting the recognition. Many people don’t see the meaning of what we do until an accident happens.
However, if we weren’t doing our work, we would have accidents and huge fires happening much more often. Of course, some recent events have put a focus on fire safety as a field and that there is a lack of competence. It is our job to inform politicians and all stakeholders in the built environment that we have competence and we can supply competence. As such, we need to get recognition as the ones who provide the competence in Fire Safety Engineering. And that should be done through education at universities. And, as mentioned we provide a first-rate fire safety engineering education.
Me: Is Fire Engineering being developed and researched as much as it should be? What about the less developed world where fire engineering is on quite a low level. How could we impact that?
Grunde: The program is obviously trying to impact that, and any educated person has a responsibility to share his or her knowledge. Some of the knowledge we see as basic is not available in many countries. For example, the severity of fires in the textile industry in Bangladesh and in Informal settlement can be significantly reduced with existing knowledge. In fact, we have a project entitled “Improving the Fire Resilience of Informal Settlements to Fire” (IRIS-Fire) at the University of Edinburgh (https://www.iris-fire.com/). That’s a way to contribute. Actually, one of the PhD students in that project is an IMFSE alumnus, Mohamed Beshir. In general, when we are in education we pledge to share our knowledge. We should share it with the whole world, and research wise we should try to follow up. There is simple or basic knowledge that could go far in a lot of countries.
Me: Any message for the current and the future IMFSE students?
Grunde: Keep being the good ambassadors. Keep talking to people and mention the program. You also have the role to spread it to the world. Some of you are maybe the one of very few in your country doing fire safety. So, keep spreading the word about the quality that program has.
But also, do well and keep doing well. The program is approaching its 10 years anniversary; thus we’re getting to the point where some of the early graduates will assume leadership positions. Once you moved up in the rank, remember also where you came from, and that the IMFSE program probably played a small part in your success. Keep recommending the program to people because that’s how we build up the pyramid. We need numbers. We need more students and more graduates. Because there is plenty of fire safety engineering challenges in the world that is in need of competent fire safety engineers like the IMFSE graduates!
Me: Tell me 3 first words that come to your mind when you think of IMFSE
Grunde: Bart Merci, Jose Torero, and international quality education!