Prime Mover Magazine

Education is critical for tunnel fire safety: Study

Global risk management experts are calling for fire education initiatives to be included in driver safety programs.

The call follows a new research study where researchers from the University of South Australia (UniSA) and the National Technical University of Athens assessed fire safety mechanisms of road tunnels, finding that risks to human life could be reduced through greater awareness and education.

Using a newly-developed evacuation model, researchers were able to simulate the behaviours of trapped commuters and their movements to estimate potential outcomes and fatalities following a fire in a road tunnel.

According to UniSA Adjunct Associate Professor Konstantinos Kirytopoulos, being able to forecast human behaviour in a fire risk scenario provides critical information for safety analysts and tunnel managers.

“To mitigate potential fire accidents and disastrous consequences in road tunnels, safety analysts not only have to fulfil standard regulatory requirements, but also need to conduct a complex risk assessment which includes defining the issues, identifying hazards, calculating and prioritising risks, and doing so for different environments,” said Kirytopoulos.

“An evacuation simulation model such as ours is particularly valuable because it lets analysts thoroughly inspect all parameters within an emergency.

“Uniquely, it also simulates human behaviour and movement in conjunction with the use of safety mechanisms, letting us project the likelihood of successful evacuations under different combinations of human behaviour, safety procedures implementation and safety infrastructure employed, which provide an extremely useful tool for tunnel safety analysts.

“Safety levels are dictated by the operation of the whole system – including organisation, technical and human elements – so anything we can do to increase the success rates of these individual factors can have a massive impact on the whole scenario.

“Having a familiarity with emergency protocols in a confined or enclosed space such as a road tunnel can help trapped commuters to respond appropriately, and this, we believe, will improve successful evacuations,” he said.

According to Kirytopoulos, commuters are the most variable factor in the event of a tunnel fire because they are the first to confront the consequences of the fire and in most cases are inadequately trained for such circumstances.

“When the tunnel operator calls for an emergency evacuation over public address systems – radio rebroadcast or electronic tunnel message signs – it’s essential that people respond immediately and evacuate, without any delay,” said Kirytopoulos.

“Fires are a very complex phenomena, and when in an enclosed tunnel environment, they’re characterised by turbulence, combustion irregularity and high radiation.

“Tunnel fires are also known to have an incredibly intense heat release rate – up to four times the intensity of fires in an open environment – as well as producing large amounts of toxic fumes and smoke.

“In an emergency, time is crucial. The evacuation of the tunnel should be as quick and efficient as the evacuation of an airplane after crash landing," he said. "Educating drivers on what they should do as well as making them aware of the evacuation systems which are in place are the best means for mitigating risk and ensuring a safe outcome."

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