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Fireside Chat with Raman Chagger
Intro: Raman Chagger, an Applied Research Scientist, is a Chartered Engineer and Fellow with the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) and has worked in the field of fire safety for over 20 years. He performs investigative consultancy projects for commercial organisations, government departments, and fire and rescue services as well as collaborative research projects that are conducted together with industry.
He leads, manages, and delivers research projects to create new knowledge then works with stakeholders to implement the findings to generate real impacts. The outputs include producing publications, developing test methodologies and training material, writing standards and codes as well as engaging in awareness-raising activities. He also develops associated product testing and certification service capabilities at BRE Global.
- How have you been affected by COVID-19?
During the first lockdown home schooling and working from home at the same time proved a challenge far greater than any I've experienced in the workplace. Since then, it has been a worrying time especially when friends and family have tested positive. Both of my boys have had to self-isolate on a number of occasions when cases have been reported in their bubbles, so that has been disruptive as my wife or I have had to be with them. My wife, an Occupational Therapist with the NHS, has been able to continue working from home conducting assessments over video teleconference with patients and is now treating long COVID patients.
A lot of partners, with whom I had been progressing collaborative research projects in fire safety, were concerned by the uncertainty created by COVID and of the potential impact to their businesses. They chose not to financially commit to research until things had settled down and their financial status was clearer. This resulted in these projects either being stalled or cancelled altogether.
- Do you have any pets?
I suffer from a pet allergy so I cannot have a dog or cat, but my older son would like a snake. The thought of storing mice or rats in our freezer puts me off, but as there are pets that we can’t have I may have to concede!
- What’s your favourite movie of all time?
The movie Contact based on the book by Carl Sagan. It tells the story of research scientist Ellie Arroway, played by Jodie Foster, that, losing both her parents at a young age, is driven on a search for the truth and to discover whether there is life beyond this world. With this clear purpose she searches patiently and persistently overcoming a series of challenges and obstacles.
Her life’s scientific approach is contrasted with that of her partner Palmer Joss, a Christian Philosopher, that has also been searching for truth but through his faith in God. In the end the two approaches merge and point to the same truth.
As a researcher myself, I can relate to Ellie’s passion to make a difference, her self-belief that she can do it and her desire to discover more about the world we live in. I can also relate to her constant search for research funding and supporters of research work!
- Describe yourself as a teenager in 3 words?
Wanting to know. I think that needs more explanation– as a teenager I was very keen to understand how the world and universe worked and I wanted to find my place in it. I was naturally drawn towards physics and mathematics as well as philosophy. I studied Physics, Maths and Further Maths at A-level, which I relished! In my free time I read lots of books on existentialism, spirituality, religion, philosophy and psychology.
It was during my continuing journey with Physics, at master’s level, that I realised my talent for performing research. To understand I had to go deep into the research topic and then, in moments when the mind was quiet, such as whilst having long soak in the bath, the solution would spontaneously emerge. Once I had discovered this talent, the challenge in my early twenties, was to work out how best to use it.
- What is your biggest pet peeve/hate?
People that communicate poorly- not returning calls, emails or not following up on promises, or not communicating when necessary.
- If you could be from any other decade (or era), which would it be and why?
Not sure about that, I couldn’t pick any one period in human history over another. But if I could experience another time on earth it would undoubtedly be the time of dinosaurs. Since I was a child, I was always fascinated by these fantastic animals that once ruled our planet. To witness how they looked, sounded, moved and interacted with one another would answer many questions that I have about them.
- What is your favourite quote and why?
“Whatever you are, be a good one.”- Abraham Lincoln.
I’ve always liked this quote as it inspires me to be better, but for me the meaning has changed with time. When I was younger, I thought this referred to the career that we choose and an aspiration to be good at that, whether engineer or scientist or whatever it is. I felt that no matter what role we do so long as we do it to the best of our ability, then we do ourselves justice.
With time I realised there are many roles within each job, for example within mine I am a researcher, writer, presenter, project and people manager etc. so to aim to be good at all of these.
More recently I think that, as well as roles at work, I have many roles in my life with my family, friends, strangers and so on. So now, my aspiration is that whatever I am at the time, I aim to be a good one
- If you weren’t in the fire industry – what would you be doing and why?
If I wasn’t in fire, I would be actively engaged in researching another area of improving public safety. If I were to do something completely different, I would like to write a book or direct a film- or even better write my book and then direct a film on it!
Through my research work I have had the opportunity to produce and direct three short videos which I really did enjoy www.bregroup.com/projects-reports/live-investigations-of-false-fire-alarms/. Hopefully more to come in the future.
- What’s on your Spotify or iTunes?
A real mix really- rock such as Guns and Roses or Queen, heavy metal such as Iron Maiden and Judas priest. I also have 80s and 90s bhangra, Bollywood, a fair bit of R&B, trap and electronic music as well as Indian and Western classical music.
More recently I’ve discovered a Canadian electronic music artist, Sickick, that despite the odd name produces awesome music. The artist has a real fear of performing and so he chooses to wear a mask, which has given him courage and in so doing he has created a persona that is unique. To see him turn his weakness into a strength to permit free expression of his creativity is praiseworthy.
- If you could have any three people (dead or alive) over for dinner – who would they be?
I prefer to have one to ones as I can really get to know the other person that way.
The first on my list would definitely be Bruce Lee- he was an incredible all rounded human being that accomplished so much in his short life. He was a gifted, innovative and dedicated martial artist that has inspired generations into martial arts as well as martial artists into acting. He was an action film actor, philosopher as he studied philosophy at the University of Washington, poet, writer and a dancer, winning the Hong Kong’s cha-cha championship one year. He developed his own martial arts style, Jeet Kune Do which took the most effective elements of combative disciplines, including fencing. All this before he tragically died at the age of 32. I don’t think one evening would be enough time with Bruce!
Next on my list would be Freddie Mercury as I’ve always wanted to know more about his early life and how his upbringing in India and Zanzibar, influenced his life. He was blessed with an incredible voice which he used in different ways to sing many memorable songs. Whilst he was known for being a charismatic and funny person, I would like to know what he was like when he was not in the limelight.
The final person would be Jiddu Krishnamurti- an Indian philosopher of the 20th century that was encouraged by the Theosophical Society to be their head and the new “World Teacher”. When he came of age, he rejected this and sought to share with people what he had realised about the nature of the mind. Interestingly, Bruce Lee was inspired by Krishnamurti’s philosophy focussing on the need for self-knowledge as a basis of life and he integrated this into his own martial arts style.
- What two things would you take to a Desert Island?
A Swiss army knife and the book “Beelzebub’s tales to his grandson” by G I Gurdjieff. This allegorical book details the journey home, through space, of the extra-terrestrial, Beelzebub as he shares with his grandson his adventures during his visits to Earth. It is full of mystery and depth that, as yet, I have been unable to fathom. Perhaps without any distractions it would give me the time and space to reflect on the wisdom contained within the book.
- Name a book, movie or tv show that has positively shaped you and why?
My favourite programme, growing up in the 80s, was the television series Knight Rider about a man, Michael Knight that, with a technologically advanced car, fights crime. KITT the elegant and streamlined car was intelligent and capable of performing a multitude of eye-opening functions such as talking, driving itself, jumping over objects and it hosted a range of other sensors and gadgets that allowed it to interact with the local environment.
A brilliant engineer Bonnie constantly developed new capabilities and features for KITT and Devon, the boss, was always actively exploring where criminals were operating. Usually, they would make contact with someone directly affected that would provide important information about the criminal’s operations. Working together as a team for an organisation that aims to challenge those that operate “above the law” they achieve together what none of them could do alone. I have come to value the unique strengths and diversity of skills that individuals bring that, when working for an organisation with aligned aims, is a recipe guaranteed for success.
I became awed by technology and interested to explore what I could do with it. I won a Young Technologist Award from the Coventry Rotary Club when I was sixteen for a burglar alarm that I had designed and built, which utilised many different types of sensors to detect intrusions.
Many of the technologies that Knight Rider showcased have evolved and become commonplace since then, such as artificial intelligence, satellite navigation and GPS, and others such as self-driving cars appear to be on the horizon. One of my research projects explored how modern technologies could be used to improve fire safety.
- If you were an animal, what would it be and why?
A whale- my preference is to go deep and I love the stillness I find there. Then returning to the surface to share what I have found with others.
- What is the best gift you’ve ever received?
Undoubtedly my two sons Sohum aged 10 and Rishi aged 6. Two absolute bundles of delight from whom I learn so much about the art of simply being and experiencing the joy of life in every moment.
- What's your favourite thing in your closet right now?
I saw a fluorescent orange shirt from Debenhams and quite uncharacteristically for me I really wanted it but could not imagine wearing it in public! I went back a few days later and it was the last one on the line- so I brought it! I’ve only dared to wear it once to the office whilst most of my colleagues, in lockdown, were working from home. Not sure if that counts!
- If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
It would be to recognise and fully utilise the superpowers with which I have already been blessed, to reach my full potential. If this could be extended it would be to help others realise theirs too. I often feel that we are full of hidden talents and latent abilities and it would be great to be able to help bring these out.
- What's the best piece of advice you've received?
I've received lots of great advice over the years but the one piece of advice which immediately comes to mind, which was given to me by a colleague, Julie Bregulla, is “Failure is okay, fear of failure is not.”
- What time did you get to work this morning?
After getting ready I dropped my boys off at breakfast club and I got to work at eight o'clock this morning.
- What does your usual day look like?
It starts with sorting and responding to emails and checking my LinkedIn feed. I then either lead or perform experimental research work on or off site and spend a fair amount of time writing up findings for reports or publications such as International Fire Protection: . I have a good balance, spending roughly the same amount of time at my desk as I do performing experimental work, or working with colleagues, which keeps my working life varied.
- What makes you excited about the future of this industry?
Being involved in the journey of working together with partners and colleagues to identify how to improve fire safety then seeing everyone working together to achieve this.
Over the years we’ve collectively identified ways to reduce false fire alarms, reduce fire fatalities, confirmed that ionisation and optical smoke alarms detect a broad range of fires from modern materials, identified the most effective visual warnings to provide notification of a fire to the deaf and hard of hearing, and identified when we should replace smoke alarms in our homes and smoke detectors in commercial premises. We’ve also demonstrated how multi-sensor technologies can be more resistant to false alarms sources such as steam and dust yet provide the same level of detection response to a broad range of fires.
Such projects addressing real problems, are investigated by experts to propose practical solutions. To see the solutions implemented and the resulting benefits to society is deeply satisfying.
Being involved in the development of standards and offering a testing and certification service for emerging technologies is also exciting. For example, video fire detection is a relatively new technology for which robust standards are required. I have led collaborative research to understand their capabilities, identified suitable test methods to assess them and am working towards writing a Loss Prevention Standard and developing a testing and certification scheme. To be involved in this journey from idea, through research, to develop a standard and then certify products and then to see certified products in the market is an exciting process to be a part of.
What is the latest technology/invention/innovation you would like brought into the fire industry?
It was proposed, during our study into how modern technologies could be used to improve fire safety, to use cameras for protecting vulnerable people in domestic environments. The cameras would effectively act as sensors and utilising video analytics could perform multiple functions such as detecting smoke from a fire, an occupant tripping, hazards, occupancy numbers, or a security threat. These could be used to provide more comprehensive support for an increasingly older and vulnerable population. I would really like to see this progressed and would be keen to be actively involved.
- What do you like about the fire industry?
How my peers in the industry are committed to and continuously work towards improving fire safety. Fire fatalities in the UK have come down by two-thirds over the last 30 years leading to thousands of lives being saved and many thousands of fire related injuries being prevented. What a great sense of achievement that must be for both those that have contributed to this decline and for fire safety professionals that work to ensure that suitable measures are in place when there is a fire.
- How does your work and family life come together?
I love my work and my family life but prefer to keep them separate so I can give them both the best of myself.
- What matters most to you?
Having a positive influence and impact on the people in my life. Of course, I have greater chance of this with those that I am close to, such as my immediate family, but also with the people that I engage with on a day-to-day basis as well as those that I work with. However, through my work, I hope that I positively contribute to society more generally.
- What would you tell yourself at the age of 21?
Face your fears and overcome your limitations. When I first started my career, I was afraid of many things that slowed down my progress. For example, I was afraid to present to people, didn’t feel comfortable producing technical publications and avoided meeting or conversing with people I did not already know. These have all proved to be essential skills that I have had to develop and grow.
In real terms this has meant pushing myself beyond perceived limitations imposed by myself or by others. It is a continuing journey of discovering these limitations, accepting them and then aiming to surpass them. It’s never easy, but always fruitful.
I try to encourage the next generation of professionals not to fall into the same trap that I did and those that go beyond their “safe zone” always benefit, both in their professional and personal lives.
- What motivates you?
People that are passionate about what they do and organisations that value working diligently together towards a common goal.
- Where do you want to be in 5 years?
Leading a bigger team to perform collaborative research in broader areas of improving public safety. The framework that has been used in fire safety has proven to be productive for collaborators, fire professionals and the general public. It would be highly rewarding to see this used successfully in other areas.
In the meantime, I am working to kick-off collaborative projects investigating the effects of emollient cream residues on clothing during fires, the mechanism of how electrical fires start, how carbon monoxide is produced from common items in homes and understanding how fires involving flame retardant materials start and progress. I am also working towards building up more international work and am actively seeking collaborative partners to repeat the study to reduce fire fatalities in other countries.
- Why is the FIA important to you and the industry?
The FIA supports important collaborative research work, engaging in the entire journey, to ensure that outputs and findings are maximised. At the outset the FIA provide cash to support research work and contribute in-kind by proposing their members to act as technical experts on the various collaborative projects.
As the projects progress, findings are regularly reported back to the stakeholder group and the FIA steer it to ensure that these have the greatest relevance and affect the broadest range of professionals.
Once the work is complete, the FIA push forward with the findings by drafting of new standards and codes or revising old ones in the UK and Europe, writing FIA Guidance Codes, Fact-Files, producing infographics and also promoting the findings in their fortnightly published FIA Focus e-magazine. Where relevant, the latest findings from research are incorporated into FIA qualification training modules.
By engaging in this way, the FIA ensures that not only is the knowledge generated up to date but that it is shared with the entire industry to create the greatest impact.
The FIA are keen to promote the work of professionals, like myself, to inform others of what we do. To be given this opportunity to share my views and experiences is an honour and I am grateful. Thanks to you and your colleagues at the FIA.
- What do you want to say to the readers?
If you or the organisation that you represent have benefitted from the collaborative research work that has been performed with the FIA then please let me know. Alternatively, if there are areas of private or collaborative research that I have mentioned or others that you would like to participate in, then please get in touch. Fire Safety Research - BRE Group
If you would like to get involved with Fireside Chats please contact Adam Richardson on [email protected]
*All answers given are not reflective of the FIA views and thoughts and are that of the individual who was interviewed.