Fire and Cabin Safety – the NTSB’s Broad Perspective

By Mark Rosekind

Member Rosekind presenting on fire safetyLast week, as part of my NTSB advocacy efforts on fire safety and its inclusion on this year’s Most Wanted List, I spoke at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Seventh Annual Triennial Fire and Cabin Safety Research Conference in Philadelphia and presented information on the investigator’s role in addressing fire safety in transportation. This is one of the aviation community’s largest gatherings for airlines, manufacturers, inspectors, researchers, computer modelers, regulators, and academics to share critical information that can help prevent tragic accidents.

Fires are especially dangerous in aircraft, marine vessels, and vehicles. When fires are detected and extinguished early, the likelihood of surviving, reducing injury, and minimizing damage increases greatly. Prevention is critical.

I learned this firsthand during a visit last July to the FAA’s Technical Research Center where world-class laboratories, top-notch scientists, and leading engineers are at the forefront modernizing the U.S. air transportation system and making air travel safer than ever before.

Even though this week’s conference was focused on aviation, the NTSB and its investigators have identified fire safety shortcomings in every transportation mode. Lessons learned, recommendations, and improvements often can and should find important applications in every sector. Whether it’s a deadly wheel well fire on a motorcoach in Wilmer, Texas; or an engine room fire aboard the “Queen of the West” on the Columbia River; or a fleet-grounding lithium battery event on a Boeing 787 “Dreamliner,” these dangers are universal and not limited to any one particular type of travel. Our mission is to find out how they happen and recommend how to prevent them.

My remarks at the conference’s opening session helped reinforce the agency’s efforts and support valuable contributions by other NTSB participants. Research and Engineering (RE) expert Joe Panagiotou presented information including a paper he and RE Director Dr. Joe Kolly prepared on the NTSB’s work investigating the cause of the 787 battery failure. The presentation provided details on the Materials Laboratory examinations including the methods and equipment used, and their significance in determining the origin of the event. It emphasized some of the specific challenges of investigations involving emerging technology, the importance of multidisciplinary and internationally diverse teams of expertise, and using unconventional testing techniques to get to the bottom of why batteries fail. The audience was packed.

By providing insight into the NTSB’s fire safety recommendations and our forensic investigation of fire events, we hope that anyone involved in fire safety, especially industry, manufacturers, and investigators, will apply this information in every mode to make lithium batteries safer as this technology goes into production across the transportation spectrum.

Mark Rosekind, Ph.D., is a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board. He is a frequent contributor to the NTSB blog.

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