by Dougal Drysdale1 and Jack Watts2
1 University of Edinburgh, UK
2 Fire Safety Institute, USA
It is 40 years since David Rasbash was appointed to head the new Department of Fire Engineering at Edinburgh University. Its creation was due to the foresight of one man, Frank Rushbrook, Firemaster of Edinburgh and South-East Scotland from 1959 to 1970. He had come to realise that the gap between the existing fire engineers – almost 100% of whom were acting and retired Fire Brigade Officers – and members of the other, well established professional engineering disciplines (Civil, Mechanical, Electrical and Chemical) was rapidly becoming unbridgeable as a consequence of the rapid advances in science and technology that had been made since the Second World War. Graduate engineers were urgently required in the UK Fire Service and Rushbrook took the bold step of proposing that a tailor-made undergraduate degree in Fire Engineering be developed as the best option to advance the capabilities of the Fire Service.
His vision was about two decades ahead of its time, but thanks to a great leap of faith by Sir Michael Swann, then Vice-Chancellor, Edinburgh University agreed to establishing the fledgling Department. David Rasbash proved to be the ideal person to undertake the challenge of its development although when he arrived in Edinburgh it was to face a blank canvas. Fire Protection Engineering had been taught at the Illinois Institute of Technology since the early 20th Century, but in 1973, Fire Engineering did not exist as a graduate academic discipline. Rasbash graduated in Chemical Engineering at Imperial College, London in the 1940s and had been with the Fire Research Station (FRS), Borehamwood, for over 25 years. During this time, he worked on an astonishing range of topics, mostly at a fundamental level, applying his keen intellect and boyish enthusiasm for each one – and building up an overview of the field that we now define as “fire safety engineering”. He was the main contributor to 50 of the Fire Research Notes that were published by FRS up until the 1970s. These included studies of gas explosions in buildings and in ducts; the properties of sprays of water droplets; the suppression of pool fires; the fundamentals of ignition and extinction; smoke production and visibility through fire gases; and the formation of carbon monoxide in compartment fires. In addition, he was closely associated with the early work on detection and served as Chairman of the European Committee on Fire Detection (CEN/WG 72). Serendipitously, in 1966, he undertook a review of the courses on Fire Technology that were then available in the United States.
At a time before the word “holistic” was in common use, it might be said that David Rasbash had a truly holistic view of “fire safety engineering”. He made this very clear in his Inaugural Lecture “New Variation on an Old Theme”  in which he emphasised the fact that fire phenomena – as distinct from “combustion” – had not been subjected to rigorous scientific studies. He introduced his audience to some of the fundamentals that had been tackled after the Second World War, mainly in the UK, Japan and the USA and indicated how he saw the new department developing this research further.
However, Rushbrook’s vision was of a department that would prove a stream of graduate engineers that would enter and promote the professionalism of the Fire Service. This required the establishment of an academic programme which could be based on a curriculum that included fire science and engineering as well as the traditional sub-disciplines associated with fire technology (sprinkler design, smoke extract systems, evacuation, risk assessment, etc.), but underpinned by a fundamental understanding of the scientific principles of fire. At that time fundamental understanding was incomplete and there were no textbooks on which a curriculum could be based. The curriculum with which the Edinburgh Masters’ Degree programme which started in 1974 was drawn up by David Rasbash and refined during the subsequent years, eventually published in Fire Safety Journal of which he was editor at the time . The content of the curriculum was based on material from a wide range of sources, including the Fire Research Notes, publications from the Centre for Fire Research (National Bureau of Standards, USA), Factory Mutual Research Corporation (USA), the Building Research Institute in Japan and the active fire group at the University of Lund, Sweden, led by Professor Ove Petterson.
The material for much of the course drew on original research papers and reports, reflecting the diversity of the discipline. Rasbash organised the International Symposium on Fire Safety of Combustible Materials that was held in Edinburgh i
In 1976, bringing together for the first time individuals from National Fire Laboratories in 8 countries who had never before had the opportunity to meet and discuss common problems and interests. Common approaches were identified and there were clear signs of the development of a unified understanding. In his closing remarks at the Symposium, Rasbash used a musical metaphor to describe the state of the subject at that time. He compared it to a Sibelius symphony in which the audience becomes aware of bits of melody as the music develops, gradually being woven together to create the final melodic lines that make up the whole.
Not only was David Rasbash responsible for creating the structure of what we now call “Fire Safety Engineering”, but along with (inter alia) Philip Thomas, Kunio Kawagoe, Ove Petterson and Jim Quintiere he was one of the founder members of the IAFSS, as well as actively working towards the establishment of a professional Engineering Institute for Fire Safety Engineers in the UK. This was eventually recognised by the UK Engineering Council who encouraged the fledgling Society of Fire Safety Engineers to combine with the Institution of Fire Engineers to develop a single body to ensure the standards in the profession. This amalgamation took place in 2004.
Sadly, David Rasbash did not live to see this happen as he passed away after a long illness in 1997 but he will be remembered for the crucial contribution he made to Fire Safety Engineering world-wide. His legacy is evident in the professionals he mentored and the students to whom he imparted his enthusiasm and singular appreciation of the discipline. He is recognised by the Institution of Fire Engineers by the annual award of the Rasbash Medal.
- D J Rasbash, New Variation on an Old Theme, Inaugural Lecture, University of Edinburgh, 14th November 1974 (http://www.era.lib.ed.ac.uk/handle/1842/5574)
- D J Rasbash, A modular approach to the subject of Fire Safety Engineering, Fire Safety Journal 3 31-40 (1980).