Fighting fire with fire in Strathclyde

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Drawing inspiration from a pioneering 1980s video game, Scotland’s Strathclyde Fire and Rescue service is saving lives in high-risk buildings with its building plan system.

If you are about to burst through a door and enter a burning building, you would ideally want to know what is behind that door — the layout of the building, the location of stairs and passageways, and anything inside that could cause a danger to you, or other people.

But, as anyone that has seen Ron Howard’s 1991 action thriller Backdraft will know, that is a luxury unavailable to traditional fire and rescue teams. Until now.

Access Points on a section of the River Clyde

Inspired by the classic 3D video game Doom by id software, Strathclyde Fire and Rescue (SFR) has pioneered a high-risk building plan system, Fire Appliance. Like Doom, fire crews can visualise a building’s layout before entering potentially fatal situations.

Building Information Modelling

Much of the early work used in Fire Appliance involved surface-based CAD software to create simple 3D architectural models of buildings from 2D plans supplied by the Fire and Safety Department.

But this technology was found to be too cumbersome and SFR swapped to Graphisoft ArchiCAD, which eliminated the need for multiple CAD software. Graphisoft introduced Building Information Modelling (BIM) capabilities, which provide accurate and co-ordinated data to increase clarity on SFR’s touch screen Vehicle Mounted Data System.

The BIM models that SFR produce are regularly updated, and stored on hard disk on each of 200 fire appliances. To date this includes 7,800 buildings and 26,000 plans.

Called out to a fire, a Mobilisation Summary triggers each operation in the fire vehicle, enabling the crew to upload the appropriate building views and plans. If the crew see an item which might prove dangerous to the operation — a symbol, perhaps, showing a specific chemical storage container — they can bring up detailed operating procedures for dealing with the hazard.


A colour scheme was developed to enhance visualisation — red, purple and green — which has proved to be visible and clear under the street light conditions that crews often work in. The team has emphasised increasing the level of symbols attached to the models, highlighting hazards, and producing consolidated models that include the civil infrastructure and surrounding buildings.

Under the leadership of John McNicol, the SFR CAD team is now looking at other ways of displaying the models, such as incorporating them into 3D PDFs, or enabling them to be viewed, in real time, with Graphisoft BIMx, a virtual building explorer.

BIMx is used to train firefighters and enable crews to familiarise themselves with sports stadia, for example, prior to major events.

The system is also being used to support accident enquiries, providing government and legal inquests with information from the model. Typically, accompanied by photos, fire service investigators are able to show what damage has been done and how this was likely to have been caused.

SFR has continued to add symbols and colour coding, has enhanced building plans and model definitions, and has added materials such as glass and timber where appropriate. Buildings can also be split into sections, roofs removed, and unnecessary detail obscured to ensure fire crews can focus easily on important information.

Riverside project

The River Clyde dominates Glasgow’s topography and, following hundreds of years of shipbuilding and international trade, has many large structures along its banks. To improve access to the area, SFR has modelled 30 major structures and access points along four km of the river, including ladders to the river and moorings. This was done using Ordnance Survey maps and SFR information, with buildings mass-modelled using ArchiCAD and made available for general viewing with BIMx.

In contrast, more sensitive buildings such as HM Prison at Barlinnie, which is not covered by VDMS, can be classified as ‘restricted viewing’ with detailed maps accessible only on arrival at site.

Faster and friendlier

Asked why SFR uses ArchiCAD exclusively for the development of Fire Appliance, John McNicol said: “ArchiCAD offered higher resolution capabilities, better building tools, and was easier to use to manipulate the images we wanted. We were also able to discard a number of different software and keep the model within just one CAD application.”

Mr McNicol said having access to BIM models of much of Glasgow will enable SFR to be much more proactive — predicting the spread of fire, using computational fluid dynamics and other tools, or to develop fire fighting tactics using software like Cinema 4D linked to models.


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