Interview – Rory Hadden

Teaching two courses to IMFSE students, and being involved in different ways in IMFSE from the very beginning, Rory Hadden was a perfect person for a fire engineering related interview! Enjoy reading it:

Me: Can you tell me a bit about your career path, from enrolling the university to entering the world of fire?

Rory: I did my undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering at the University of Edinburgh. As we were coming to the end of the program, my PhD advisor Guillermo Rein, who is now at Imperial College London, sent an email to all final year students in Edinburgh and said – if you’re interested in a PhD in fire safety than come along and have a chat. At that time, I had taken a course thought by Prof. Dougal Drysdale in Fire science and Fire Dynamics. It was a great course and a topic that seemed very interesting and a great match for the skills of a Chemical Engineer.

Then of course I met Guillermo, and he was very enthusiastic about the research topics. He was a great young academic full of enthusiasm. I struggled between deciding to take a job with an oil company that I was offered, or to do a PhD. So, I did some inner soul searching and decided that the PhD was a way forward. Looking back, it was kind of a career aim… When I left high school. I told my chemistry teacher that my dream job would be blowing things up in James Bond films. I’ve not yet done that (yet?), but I think that being able to set things on fire as a job is almost as good.

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Me: What is the hi(story) of you and IMFSE?

Rory: I can’t remember when I first got involved with the IMFSE. I knew it existed from my time in Edinburgh as a PhD student. I then spent some time doing a postdoc in Canada and London, so I was away for a while, but when I came to Edinburgh as a lecturer, Albert Simeone was the Chair at that time and I was very happy to support him in running the IMFSE and teaching the classes so that’s when I actually formally got involved. I helped supervise some thesis projects in the beginning. I supervised project of Simon Santamaria (now a PhD student at Edinburgh), and from there I just become more and more involved – from teaching the lab classes originally, to now also teaching the fire investigation class which hopefully brings new kind of interesting dimension to material. So, IMFSE has always been present for me and it has been the part of the identity of what Edinburgh does in terms of fire.

Me: How was the IMFSE experience so far from your perspective and where is IMFSE going in future?

Rory: So far, my impression of the IMFSE is that it is an extremely interesting program from so many levels. First of all, for me, the students are the best bit of it. Such varied backgrounds, personalities, approaches, understandings, and knowledge they come to the course with makes each cohort completely unique. I also think the interaction in the cohort, and who moves to which place, that kind of forms these different bonds in terms its always evolving through the whole two years. It’s also great from teaching point of view, from the academic side to be involved with Lund and Gent and the staff over there. Bart, Patrick and everyone who is working with those guys over there are fantastic people to work with. So, from my point of view that’s really good.

I actually really enjoy the teaching because it is challenging to teach but in a positive way. As a teacher you are challenged by the students. I think that’s how university level education should be. It shouldn’t just be a one-way system. The IMFSE is very good at promoting the discourse in two directions.

Where is it going in future?

It has got a great future ahead. I think the program itself and the structure of the program will continue to evolve – with new classes, each of the institutions increasing the breath and the depth of topics that are studied. Fire engineering is always evolving and there is always new risks, new complications and new things. New areas and different applications of fire engineering might be studied. Maybe moving out from fires in buildings more to the impact of fires on buildings. Wildfires would be a nice example of that.

Me: What are the main qualities of IMFSE? How competitive and ready IMFSE graduates are for fire engineering careers after obtaining their degrees?

Rory: There are a number of very unique things to the IMFSE, I think there is a massive value in mobility and understanding how fire safety engineering works in different parts of the world. I think that’s a very big positive thing. Because a regular graduate sees very much British (local) way of doing things and maybe a little bit of the European way, but the IMFSE kind of forces you to explore systems that are fundamentally quite similar, but the implementation of which can be quite different. But as a fire engineer in a real world, you’re never building just in your own backyard. Projects are global, so you need to be able to switch between regulatory systems efficiently but at the same time IMFSE gives you the fundamental science and knowledge to underpin those regulations. It doesn’t matter which jurisdiction you work in, the science is the same – the laws of physics don’t change.

One thing that makes IMFSE particularly strong is the cohort – these people who you are in classes with at the minute, you graduate with them. They are not only your friends, but probably your colleagues. You will see them in meetings or in different companies as you move around throughout your career. IMFSE is reaching the critical mass, as it has been running for long enough, having enough graduates working in all sorts of jobs, some related to fire, some not, but there is that one common bond.

It’s probably among the top fire programs in the world. It’s not only the technical knowledge you have, but the soft skills as well. Throwing bunch of people together who are from different cultures, backgrounds, nationalities and kind of stirring the pot. That forces people to engage on all levels with everyone and to learn how to communicate effectively. That’s pretty good and that’s a really important part of what employers are looking for.

Anyone getting a degree from Edinburgh, Lund or Gent would be assumed to have the appropriate technical skills and abilities, so it’s the other things that the IMFSE brings that I think are the differentiator.

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Me: What do you think is important for the future career of a fire engineer?

Rory: Being openminded is the biggest thing for a fire engineer. Fire risks are always changing and evolving. It is important that fire engineers keep their eyes open to some things that appear very simple in many respects but actually can be very complicated from the fire safety point of view. Especially with the arrival of new materials, new applications of materials. I think keeping a very open mind and being challenging to these things. Trying to make sure you’re not only applying the regulations but you are applying your knowledge of fire safety and fire science. I think that’s the most important skill – keep that at the forefront of what you do.

Me: What are the “hottest topics” in fire industry at the moment and what will they be in future?

Rory: Hot topics given the events in the UK this summer, we can see where the focus is moving right now, but I think it’s important that focus doesn’t detract from other things that are happening in built environment.

We have things like buildings being made out of timber as structural elements. What does that do in a fire strategy? How do you account for having your structure made of something that can burn? How does a fire engineer address that in a sensible, rational and complete way? That’s a really big question. Let’s be honest, the fire engineers’ job is not to prevent evolution in design and materials happening. It’s to enable things where it’s safe to do so. So, developing rational and scientific based reasons for these sorts of technologies is something that is pretty exciting. That’s a fundamental change.

Related to that we have things related to modular constructions which is a big thing right now. So, you build much of a structure in a factory, off site, that arrives to the building site and you peace it together like a giant Lego set. That also brings in a lot of advantages because you certainly have much more of control over the construction process. So, in theory some of the traditional issues of fire engineering like: detailing, ceiling or penetrations etc could potentially be better addressed. But it introduces new risks like how do you ensure that you have a good compartmentation between these sorts of elements. That’s another very interesting topic with many challenges for fire engineers.

And from my own little interests I guess there is applying things in fire investigation – getting better skills and education in that kind of disciplines that aren’t just the design. I think that’s very important as we move forward and need to understand better what are the risks in the built environment and how do we learn from disasters.

But also, wildfires I think is a big one too. Given the changes in weather across the globe, this will become a bigger and bigger challenge – perhaps soon we will see explicit consideration of this in design guides in the future? Different organisations and agencies are interested in wildfire risk, but the fire engineer certainly has a role there to protect communities and people from these effects and to work with other agencies land managers, forest service, whoever might be involved to try to solve this problem because it doesn’t belong to one person and fire engineer certainly has a role in doing that.
So, I think those are the four areas!

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Me: What do you think about the fact that IMFSE accepts students with various different engineering and scientific backgrounds?

Rory: I think that’s a real strength.  There is no template for a fire engineer. It’s questionable whether there should be one or not. Fire engineering as a discipline has got multiple specialisms and sub specialisms within it – so there is space for everyone from different backgrounds and different interests.
The key thing that IMFSE does is that it takes all those various backgrounds and builds on that knowledge to create people who are competent in fire engineering. I think that’s one of the strengths of the IMFSE – being able to accept so broad arrange of people in the front door, help them get the knowledge that you need in order to be a fire engineer, and then send them out to real world, again into a broad range of careers. So, I think it’s a huge strength. It’s a model that, perhaps could be more widely applied.

Me: How would you compare education/students at the time you were a student and nowadays? Are there any major differences?

Rory: There are some differences. You always look back. Maybe not in students, students are students and I don’t think they have changed very much, they have the same kind of aspirations and expectations and I think that’s great, that should stay how it is. I think what changes is the other side – it’s the universities, certainly here in Edinburgh. I think the learning environment is much better than it was compared to even just 10 or 15 years ago when I was a student – now the facilities are better, the access to resources is fantastic, the access to the staff is very good (it was also good in my day as well to be fair). The environment is very collegiate. Everyone is helping everyone else out – working together for common goals. And I think that’s one of the key things that I have noticed in the fire group at Edinburgh.  Everyone is pushing for the same thing. It is a community. And that for me is one of the things its very noticeable between the institutions of the IMFSE.

Me: How acknowledged is fire safety nowadays in World in general?

Rory: This is a complicated question. I think, who are the custodians (people in charge) of Fire Safety is a very tricky question to answer. I think as a discipline we are not very visible to be honest. Not many people know that fire engineering is a degree or discipline that has a career path and progression. I wish that more people did know that. I think it’s a very interesting career, very interesting challenges, awesome projects you can work on in the real world. Unfortunately, I think it’s not very visible. How do we fix that problem? Well I think things like the IMFSE where we produce many graduates that work globally – that’s certainly a huge help. Working globally across different industry sectors. That is also a huge help. Changing the perceptions of fire engineering as an enabling rather than prescriptive discipline is a bigger challenge. I think we need to put the science at the heart of the discipline again and train fire engineers to apply this knowledge to create truly innovative fire safety solutions.

Me: Is Fire Engineering it being developed and researched as much as it should be? What about the developing World where fire engineering is on quite a low level. How could we impact that?

Rory: Of course, I can say that there is not enough research going on, that is my job 😊. But, I think also, we see whether it’s the increase of the number of wildfires, or whether it’s a fact that when you’re looking at fire data that a number of fires is reducing, but the cost of these fires is increasing. There is a need to better understand this problem. I think there is a slight kind of perception bias here which you picked up nicely in the question. The people who live in the developed world, it’s very unlikely statistically that they will be affected by fire. They have probably good control of furnishings in their home, the offices where they work, fire regulations are applied and fire protection works quite well. We don’t see this as the problem. It’s not happening to the decision makers or the policy makers every day – it’s not on their radar.
But if you go to developing world. We have a project in Edinburgh that David Rush is leading, on fires in informal settlements. These are some enormous fires in some places where mostly by definition there is no regulations because they are informal settlements. How do you solve problems like that? Technological solutions that we normally rely on: sprinklers, smoke detectors etc just won’t work in that situation. So, how do we as fire engineers actually solve those problems, because that’s where fundamentally people are dying in fires. Very few deaths happen in the structures that are very heavily fire engineered. Because those buildings well, they are managed, the activities within them are quite safe, in general. But when you have an unregulated series of dwellings, how can we help those people who are losing their lives, losing all of their possessions very quickly? So, there is a good argument for more research in that area. And I come to wildfires as well, that’s a problem that is directly affecting the people who I just said don’t ever see fire. There are relatively wealthy people in the USA and Europe having problems with wildfires and that becomes very visible because of where it is. Of course, there are a whole load of political factors. So, these topics I think do need more research from the fire science point of view in close collaboration with other disciplines.

Me: Any message for the current and the future IMFSE students?

Rory: I think for the current students, you’ve being given a really good opportunity! I do genuinely believe It’s one of the best educational programs in fire engineering. You now have the responsibility to take that knowledge that you’ve gained and experiences that you have to improve the field of fire safety engineering in the real world. Don’t let the real world beat that out of you. Keep the motivation and enthusiasm and the thirst for learning.  Keep that very much at the forefront of what you do, and you will succeed.

For the potential applicants. IMFSE is something that students on the course enjoy. The experience is very unique, from the educational point of view and it’s a chance to really take a solid undergraduate degree and specialise in something that is very current. It’s quite an exciting time to be a fire engineer. A lot of innovation, lots of cool projects to work on, and I think it’s an interesting and very good career, so my advice would be APPLY to the IMFSE and give it a go.

Me: Tell me 3 first words that come to your mind when you think of IMFSE

Rory: Fun, Fiery, Challenging

 

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