Protecting Canada’s transportation infrastructure from fire

Volume 17, Number 4, December 2012

Fire testing in Montreal's Carré Viger Tunnel

Fire researchers at NRC Construction are helping owners and managers of Canada's infrastructure systems to provide safe and secure transportation networks that contribute to economic growth and societal development, while protecting the public against natural or accidental hazards and terrorist threats. NRC researchers, with topflight test facilities at their disposal, have studied such diverse issues as explosive spalling of concrete columns at high temperature and detection of fires and smoke in tunnels.

Securing transportation networks is complicated by the need to balance security with the expeditious flow of people and goods. Much of the country's existing transportation infrastructure was designed using knowledge and experience of decades past. Over the years, the nature of transportation and the volume of traffic have grown considerably. Measures to cope with the changes in quantity, type and loading of vehicles and rolling stock need to be updated.

Safety in tunnels

In one study, NRC researchers conducted a series of on-site experiments to investigate fire-safety aspects of highway tunnels in the City of Montreal that were built more than five decades ago. Based on the results, researchers recommended solutions for a number of safety issues. This led to a major re-engineering of the fire protection systems of the tunnels to increase safety levels and to enhance strategies for the operation and management of the tunnels.

The researchers also took the lead role in an international study initiated to develop innovations for enhancing technical specifications and installation requirements for fire detection technologies in tunnels. The work consisted of full-scale fire tests in the Carré Viger Tunnel in Montreal and the Lincoln Tunnel in New York City, supported by similar tests in NRC's unique experimental tunnel. These tests enabled researchers to investigate the performance of various detection technologies in a realistic setting.

The design and performance of natural ventilation systems for tunnels were also studied. Conducting more than 100 tests in the NRC facility, researchers were able to provide guidelines for the enhanced design of these systems in a way that takes into account the sometimes unusual geometries and ever-challenging meteorological conditions typical of tunnels.

Fire-related challenges

A recent study conducted in collaboration with Transport Canada revealed that owners and managers of Canada's critical transportation infrastructure face numerous fire-related challenges. They need reliable information with regard to structural vulnerability and loadings in the event of terrorist events, cost-benefit and risk assessment methodologies, better early detection systems, and improved interoperable communications networks, especially for first responders. They need guidelines to help them deal with accidents and disasters, including ventilation strategies, mass evacuation procedures, and traffic control methods.

Through their extensive experience in tunnel research and their world-class facilities, NRC fire researchers offer unique expertise and capability to study the major issues affecting these important elements of urban transportation systems.

Tunnel fires not only affect the safety of users, but lead to costly repairs and major economic losses due to closures. They can also jeopardize the infrastructure located above these tunnels. The development of safety solutions is achieved through a multi-disciplinary approach, with input from stakeholders, technology leaders and other researchers specializing in concrete technology.

For more information

Contact Ahmed Kashef at or 619-990-0646.