Fire Safety – a complex and continuously evolving science 

Although we have made immense progress in our ability to reduce the risk posed by fire, we can and do continue to learn and apply the lessons from those fires that do occur. 

It is important to recognise that flame retardants – invaluable as they are – are only one component in fighting the threat of fire. Reducing fire’s capacity for damage and injury demands a combination of applied science and effective regulation. 

Major incidents such as blazes are routinely the subject of inquests, not only to discover the cause of the fire but also to discover what could have been done to improve the safety and protection of people and property. Post-accident investigations, such as those into the crash of Swissair Flight 111 or the fire at the Harrow Court tower block in Stevenage in the UK, directly led to changes in regulation related to the fire resistance in the materials used. 

However, the recommendations from such inquests are not restricted to flame retardation alone. They recognise that fire safety requires a multidisciplinary approach. For example, the inquest into the fire on a British Airtours aircraft in 1985 led to industry-wide changes in aircraft design. It proposed revisions that included not simply greater use of flame retardants but also changes to the seating layout near emergency exits, floor lighting, fire-resistant wall and ceiling panels, more fire extinguishers and clearer evacuation rules. 

It will never be possible to prevent fire completely. Our aim, therefore, should be to minimise the risk of fire occurring wherever possible and to take measures to reduce the likelihood of injury to people and damage to property when it does.

In addition, we must maximise protection for the most vulnerable and at risk – the young, the elderly and those with disabilities. This is why fire safety regulations are not universal, but they reflect the situation where they are used. Where evacuation is likely to take longer, for example where people have reduced mobility, the regulations that apply will reflect this; in design, materials used and even clothing.

The science of fire prevention will continue to evolve, as we learn from each incident and refine our approach. While we can never eliminate the threat from fire completely, we can continue to reduce the risk through all available approaches.


Fire science is the scientific branch to discover knowledge on how fires behave, how they ignite, how they spread, how they emit smoke and how they can be suppressed.

This scientific knowledge is then given to engineers and authorities, who can then use that knowledge to create new technologies, combine it with previous things that they know work or to create new things. And little by little, by combining knowledge and engineering we can create a safer world.

The modern
history of fire retardancy 

The birth of the modern fire retardancy techniques

Although there has been a long history of fireproofing treatments, the modern scientific principles of fire retardancy were first established in the early 19th century by French chemist and physicist Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac . He defined a number of methods for improving the fire resistance of textiles, particularly cottons; indeed, some of the methods he defined are still applicable today.


Fire retardancy approaches

Although many of these earlier techniques still retain valid applications, the science of fire retardancy is continuously advancing. This is both desirable and inevitable, as the way that we live and work is constantly evolving. 

Our home and work environments are unrecognisable from even a few years ago. There are new materials for building and construction; new types of furniture and furnishings being used within them and a new range of new devices and appliances in use. All of these advances have to be made safe from the risk of fire. 

As discussed, such safety measures are not achieved solely through increased use of retarding agents; there is a wider methodological approach. Fire safety – and thus minimising the risk to people and property from those fires that do occur – is planned and built in from the outsets. 

So-called ‘fire engineering’ is an approach that maximises protection to a building and its occupants – as well as the surrounding community in the event of a fire. This will examine a wide range of aspects such as design and layout, placement of emergency exits and proposed materials. It also ensures full compliance with national and local fire regulations.

In buildings, the role of flame retardants is to supplement the efforts of fire engineers. By helping to prevent and slow the spread of flames, they maximise both the time for intervention and – where necessary – the time to escape.


Flame retardants act in one or several key ways to stop the burning process.

They act to:

  • Disrupt the exothermic radical chain reactions of combustion (capture the H and OH high-energy free radicals)a
  • Physically insulate the fuel from the heat source (by production of a fire-resisting “char” or glassy layer on surface, thereby limiting the process of pyrolysis)
  • Dilute the flammable gases and concentration of oxygen in the flame formation zone (by emitting water, nitrogen or other inert gases)