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The Concepts of Safety Level and Safety Margin: Framework for Fire Safety Design of Novel Buildings


This article discusses how the concepts of safety level and safety margin have been approached in recognized peer-reviewed journals within the field of fire safety science. The aim is to explore the scientific efforts that have been made to advocate principles for dimensioning fire safety arrangements in buildings. We restrict our discussion to novel buildings in the sense of lack of similar constructions with relevant long term experience. Due to increasing complexity in buildings, infrastructures, technical systems and society in general, we argue that traditional fire safety science based on natural science principles alone is severely limited. We argue that fire safety and safety margins are emergent properties of socio-technical systems that need to be managed rather than verified. The search for objectivity and mechanistic decision criteria is futile and diverts attention from the main purpose of engineering: to guide decisions during the whole design process and thus enable safe operation. An adapted framework for fire safety engineering is proposed, built around traditional fire safety engineering principles, and founded on constructivist systems theory. The focus is observable quantities and how these quantities can be managed during design and operation of a building project. The framework eases the involvement of stakeholders who are required to consider the safety aspects of the building design. The end goal of fire safety design in our framework is the development of a fire safety control structure that must be enforced to keep systems in a safe state, in which safety margins are deemed sufficient.

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The review process has been very interesting. It has revealed very divided international views on fire safety management. We have extensive research and professional experience from the Norwegian health sector, oil and gas industry as well as the building industry. These have to varying degrees adopted performance based safety management principles. Divided views on safety management are appreciated because they encourage reflections and better quality in the development of safety management approaches. Further it is claimed that a substantial part of the scientific literature on fire safety science is published outside peer-reviewed journals, by organizations such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Building Research Establishment (BRE) in the UK, the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) and the Inter-Jurisdictional Regulatory Collaboration Committee (IRCC). We find that these contributions are important for the fire safety engineering community. On that basis, other researchers might provide input, comments and discussion to our suggested approach. This was our goal with this article and we greatly appreciate all the comments from the five anonymous reviewers to earlier versions. Part of the work is funded by the University Fund in Rogaland, Norway. We are very grateful for the financial support.

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Correspondence to Henrik Bjelland.

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Bjelland, H., Njå, O., Heskestad, A.W. et al. The Concepts of Safety Level and Safety Margin: Framework for Fire Safety Design of Novel Buildings. Fire Technol 51, 409–441 (2015).

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  • Safety level
  • Safety margin
  • Scientific foundation
  • System thinking