During graduate school, Nicholas Dembsey developed a keen interest in polymer fire characteristics. He went on to get a PhD in Civil Engineering (Fire Safety Engineering Science) from UC Berkeley. He now works at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts as a professor of Fire Protection Engineering.
Does the composites industry fully understand how important fire safety is?
In my experience, the composites industry has come a long way in last 10 years in terms of having a much better understanding of the importance of fire safety. There is still a long way to go, but we have made some important first steps to get FRP written into the building code. I think that has helped members of the industry more clearly understand the requirements they have to meet and go about meeting those requirements.
Why do composite manufactures need to be concerned about fire performance?
For better or for worse (and it’s not really fair) FRP is lumped in with polymers. Polymers developed a bad reputation in the 1970s, but the industry recognized that and moved to develop and implement appropriate test procedures to cut down on what were significant fire problems. FRP gets dragged into that as a newer-type product, so there is a reputational element as well. We need to show we can make a product that meets the codes. Even though it costs to do this, it is important for the industry to establish credibility because there are a lot of opportunities as architects learn about the moldability of composites.
How important is fire testing in the building industry?
In terms of having a safe product in a building, it’s very important. In principle, there are a set of requirements in the building code, which are ultimately a local enforcement issue. However, if you are following the code, you will find there are significant requirements within the code to demonstrate that your material, product or assembly in a building or on the exterior has certain characteristics that are considered safe.
What fire safety requirements should composites aim for?
The more challenging requirements exist on the exterior of the building. They are requirements that are within reach of existing technology. I think there are technologies out there that will help manufacturers meet exterior requirements; they just might not be as well known as others. It’s a balance between using things that are newer or not as common with upgrading more common approaches to get that done.