WPI students research fire simulation models

WPI students research fire simulation models

Computer fire simulation models are beneficial to support an opinion but should not form the sole basis of the opinion, say professionals, including attorneys, who participated in a Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) student research project. The study, which attempted to assess the efficacy of such models in courtrooms, was part of the students` Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP).

The students surveyed 200 modern fire protection firms to measure their experience with fire simulation models and questioned lawyers about disability cases, model accuracy, and the possible uses of models in court. “Professional interviews revealed a general distrust of the use of current models, coupled with a respect for the integrity of the actual algorithms and code used to make the models,” explains Benjamin Fichera of Newburyport, Massachusetts, one of the student researchers. “There are many engineers out there who believe the problems that arise as a result of improper use and interpretation outweigh the advantages of using the models,” adds Nathan Wittasek of Woodstock, Vermont, another student researcher.

The students also conducted a random survey of 60 nonprofessionals (30 men and 30 women) to determine the public`s familiarity with or knowledge of computers and measure perceptions of fire simulation models. “Interesting but predictable” is how WPI student David Jacoby of Manalapan, New Jersey, summed up the results. Among the researchers` findings were the following: Highly educated people were more likely to question the models than those less educated. However, a surprising number of people said they would trust the models simply because they were “computers.” More than half believed the results were always accurate, and the same percentage did not believe it was possible to influence the results obtained from a model.

The students concluded that computer fire simulation currently functions well for and in the legal system and that as the models are improved and research is more complete, they will be more readily acceptable. The students expressed some concern about their finding that the “public appears to be driven by the ability to present the data in an interesting manner. It doesn`t matter whether or not the information is accurate….”

The study`s findings were presented by Jonathan Barnett, assistant professor of fire protection engineering at WPI and the students` faculty adviser, at a seminar sponsored by Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education, Inc. in Boston in November 1994.

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