The History and Evolution of Fire Science

Firefighter in full gear facing flames
Photo by Tim Olk

Until the early 1900s, the fundamentals of fire science were in their formative years. Between 1900 and 1950, the basic underlying sciences required were developed and a few fire phenomena were technically elucidated. Fire science is a relatively new discipline, and its scope will expand. This article highlights three fire scientists who have had the greatest impact on today’s fire science.

Howard Wilson Emmons

Howard Wilson Emmons was an American professor in Harvard University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.1 He has been called “the father of modern fire science” for his impact of understanding of flame propagation and fire dynamics.

Emmons’ article, “The Further History of Fire Science,”2 detailed the developments over the years as man sought to dominate fire to ensure that in any fire incident, the necessary precautions are in place to avert potential casualties. He notes that during the 20th century, studies on the fundamental understanding of the fire phenomenon were gaining momentum, partly due to the severity of the fire problem during that period. The ever-necessary practice of fire safety was the domain of the city’s fire department, which dictated what was to be done in such incidents. The use of flammables such as plastics in the making of furniture and household appliances compounded the fire problem. Although fire retardants were incorporated into plastics to ensure safety, their use eventually proved to have grave consequences; some were later found to be carcinogenic.


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Research into chemical kinetics was needed to fully understand the science of fire. It was realized that in large fires, radiation was the most dangerous form of heat transfer. The properties of flame were largely unknown in this field, as were other dangers, such as the toxicity of incomplete combustion, which accounts for a significant number of deaths during fires. Use of radiation heat transfer formulas in design was a step up in fire science. Toward the 21st century, the use of fire formulas in cities advanced fire safety. Emmons predicted that humanity would eventually rid itself of fire because of significant technological developments.

His predictions about the future of fire safety engineering were encouraging, although they may seem to be very optimistic. With recent technological developments, it is believed that no discovery will be beyond human beings. Considering the extent of technology adoption in the world and the numerous resources that individuals and governments are directing into research, it seems possible that Emmons’ predictions may be fulfilled sooner than expected.

Scientific advances in fire safety as envisioned by Emmons are realizable considering the specialization that is rife in science today. Hence, as computerization is applied to all sectors of life and material alternatives to petroleum are discovered, fire will eventually be less prominent in human life. The world now better understands the toxicity of gases; this will allow for greater fire science developments. Hence, it is safe to note that Emmons’ predictions, though seemingly unachievable, are in line with the various advances in technology.

Kunio Kawagoe

Professor Kunio Kawagoe was a prominent figure and pioneer in fire safety whose 30 years of research has provided the foundation for many future fire safety researchers. He was a professor at the University of Tokyo and held an important position as the chairman of the Japan Association for Fire Science and Engineering (JAFSE) and helped establish the International Association for Fire Safety Science (IAFSS),3 where he served as vice-chairman from 1985 to 1991.4 At the Japanese Building Research Institute, his work revolved around the analysis of compartment burning rates and its relation with opening sizes. Through experiments, he developed various equation models such as the rate of burning of wood fuel, given by the following:

m = 0.0092 Av√ Hv.

Furthermore, his work consisted of full- and small-scale compartment tests and thus Kawagoe developed the heat balance calculation for post-flashover fires under different circumstances (different ventilation conditions and wall linings), as seen below:

qC = qLqWqRqB

which considers the combustion heat release rate, the heat losses through convection outflow of hot gases, compartment boundaries, radiation, and rate of heat storage in gas volume.5

In relationship to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), his name appears in the listing of combustion researchers6; Kawagoe’s work paralleled that of NIST, such as the response of steel to fire, smoke in fire rooms, and the burning behavior of house materials and how to express it in mathematical fire models. The close relation of Kawagoe’s work and NIST is visible in the Engineering Laboratory’s Research Information Service, in which 37 of his papers can be found.7 After his passing in 1994, the International Association for Fire Safety Science instituted the Kunio Kawagoe Gold Medal for lifelong contributions and career achievements in fire science and engineering.8

Margaret Law

Margaret Law was a renowned expert in fire design, playing a crucial role in researching and developing model concepts concerning fire engineering. Law’s work was essential in that it related fire science concepts to building safety. At a time when the world was yet to benefit from the effectiveness of technology such as computers, Law was instrumental in ensuring that fire safety was not relegated to the periphery. She oversaw this as ever-larger building projects became the norm in building construction.

Law believed that the outcome of research into fires should form an essential part of the construction process. As such, she was at the forefront in promoting fire safety engineering as a necessary addition to other expertise needed for the adoption of professional designs as a vital component of fire safety to ensure that buildings could cope with any fire disasters that might occur.

Law also supported including flexibility in fire design. Her main reason was that modern developments in construction were not always compatible with rules that were set traditionally—thus, the need for flexibility to accommodate the two.

Law was also vocal in advocating for the importance of building codes as a safety measure against fire. She believed that standard test conditions had a role to play in ensuring that designers manage to enhance the safety of their construction projects. As such, Law is an important figure in the fire design industry, and her contributions have formed a basis for many of the safety measures in place today.

During the initial years of structural fire engineering, stakeholders realized that it was essential to focus primarily on the limited available technical skills. In 1983, Law explicitly emphasized that that it was necessary to raise awareness about the discipline’s potential.9 In addition, she said that it was crucial to add credibility to the tools used in the discipline during some of her discussions with relevant approval authorities. As a result, Law played a significant role in developing engineering solutions, which revolutionized the discipline by emphasizing the use of design methods, tools, and knowledge in maintaining credibility and accuracy in the discipline.9

In 1983, Law developed three basic questions with significant implications for fire engineering. First, under what circumstances should structural fire protection be offered if safety was guaranteed by other measures? Second, could the degree of structural fire protection be reduced if measures were implemented to reduce the probability of large fires occurring? Finally, which measures could provide the maximum return on investment in property and life protection?9

Law taught at the University of Edinburgh, where she continued with several studies to develop systems and tools for improving the safety of firefighters and occupants.10 She was a physicist in the Division of Fire at the university. In addition, the Margaret Law Award for Excellence in Fire Engineering was originated to recognize and appreciate emerging technologies and innovative ideas in structural fire engineering. Law also participated in many structural fire engineering simulations in different universities in the United States and Europe.

Fire has been a substantial factor in the evolution of ecosystems from the beginning of life on earth and has been dominant in shaping the physical and natural world as we experience it today. It is widely accepted that a better, more comprehensive, and more quantifiable understanding of fire phenomena will lead ultimately to a safer environment. Fire science will keep on evolving, and more scientists will contribute to decreasing the number of fire events and mitigating the consequences.


1. “Howard W. Emmons, Authority on Fire Safety, Dies at 86.” Harvard University Gazette, Dec. 3, 1998.

2. “The Further History of Fire Science.” Combustion Science and Technology, 40, 1984. Reprinted in Fire Technology, 21(3), 1985.

3. International Association for Fire Safety Science (IAFSS).

4. Quintiere, James G. Fundamentals of Fire Phenomena. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2006.

5. ASCE Library. Appendix C, “Fundamental Heat Balance Equations for a Compartment Fire.”

6. NASA Technical Reports Server. Directory of Workers in the Fire Field.

7. National Institute of Standards and Technology. “Research Information Service.”

8. International Association for Fire Safety Science (IAFSS).

9. Bisby, L. (2012). “Structural fire engineering: who cares, and why bother.” 9th International conference on performance-based codes and fire safety design methods, Hong Kong.

10. Almand, H. (2012). Structural Fire Resistance Experimental Research. New York: Cengage Learning.

Hossam Shalabi is a fire protection specialist for the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and a registered professional engineer in Ontario. He has two master’s degrees in engineering and a Ph.D. in fire safety engineering. He has more than 12 years of experience in applying fire engineering principles in the nuclear, manufacturing, oil and gas, defense, and consulting industries. Shalabi has more than 16 publications and serves on several National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) technical committees, including those for the NFPA 801, 804, 805, and 806 standards.

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