The design of fire protection systems involves the practice of engineering. However, the roles of engineers and technicians have overlapped to the extent that inconsistencies have evolved in the preparation of the design documents. This was originally addressed in an SFPE "White Paper," which intended to clarify the roles of engineers and technicians in the design of fire protection systems. In recent years, many Professional Engineering and Surveying Boards addressed this concern in a variety of ways. As a result, the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) approved a Position Statement to provide consistent guidance for the PE Boards. The SFPE has now revised the original White Paper to conform to the NCEES policy.
NCEES Position Statement
The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) appointed a task force to develop a position statement to encourage nationwide, uniform implementation of fire protection systems engineering design. In the opinion of the Chair of the NCEES task force, "many state and local permitting authorities allow nonlicensed individuals to design fire sprinkler and fire alarm systems."1 The NCEES has acted to reverse this trend.
In August 2004, the NCEES adopted a Position Statement, known as PS #25, "Fire Protection." The NCEES position stated the following on the design of fire protection systems:
NCEES recognizes that fire protection systems including fire detection, alarm, and suppression systems play an important role in protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public. NCEES also recognizes the design and calculation of fire protection systems to be the practice of engineering.
NCEES recommends that Member Boards actively pursue enforcement of state statutes and rules with local permitting authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ) regarding the engineering supervision over the specification, design, and calculation of fire protection systems.
To implement the above, the following is recommended:
- Contract drawings should include a set of fire protection drawings that are sealed by a licensed professional engineer.
- Supervision by a licensed professional engineer is required in the review of fire protection installation shop drawings for compliance with the engineer's design and specifications.
- Oversight by a licensed professional engineer is required in the installation of an original permitted design.
NCEES is an umbrella organization for the Professional Engineering and Surveying Boards established in each U.S. state and territory; membership in NCEES is limited to representatives of those boards.
The Board of Directors of Society of Fire Protection of Engineers responded by endorsing the NCEES Position Statement and establishing a task group to compare the new Position Statement issued by NCEES to an existing SFPE White Paper entitled "The Engineer and the Technician Designing Fire Protection Systems," which was published in 1998. The task group of the SFPE Board of Directors worked to modify the original White Paper to incorporate the NCEES Position Statement and to incorporate comments received since 1998. Such comments came from numerous state engineering boards and practicing professionals.
Fire Protection Engineering Practice
The professional engineering members of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers work in concert with technicians certified by the National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies (NICET) in the design of fire protection systems. NICET-certified technicians generally are not governed by state statutes and are not allowed by professional engineering statutes to practice engineering. In its efforts to be vigilant and support its members, SFPE has delineated the appropriate responsibility of professional licensed engineers and NICET-certified technicians in a new Position Statement.
Further, with the development of the SFPE Position Statement, it is necessary to emphasize its overall application to the design of fire protection systems. Such systems are life safety and property conservation systems that are crucial in the performance of buildings to respond to fire incidents. The designers of such systems must be competent in the preparation of contract documents for these systems.
It has been claimed that many engineers have abdicated their design responsibility, leaving it to sprinkler contractors and fire alarm contractors to perform the design of fire protection systems. In many cases, the balance of design has been put on the shoulders of technicians that do not have the training and education of an engineering professional.
The final National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) report on the collapse of World Trade Center Towers stated the following: "NIST recommends that the role of the ' Design Professional in Responsible Charge' should be clarified to ensure that: (1) all appropriate design professionals (including, e.g., the fire protection engineer) are part of the design team providing the standard of care when designing buildings employing innovative or unusual fire safety systems, and (2) all appropriate design professionals (including, e.g., the structural engineer and the fire protection engineer) are part of the design team providing the standard of care when designing the structure to resist fires, in buildings that employ innovative or unusual structural and fire safety systems."2
The SFPE Position Statement
The intent of the SFPE Position Statement is to provide reasonable and prudent roles and responsibilities of engineers and technicians when designing fire protection systems for installation in the U.S. The SFPE Position Statement defines "Fire Protection engineers" as licensed professional engineers who demonstrate sound knowledge and judgment in the application of science and engineering to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public from the impacts of fire. This includes the ability to apply and incorporate a thorough understanding of fundamental systems and practices as they pertain to life safety and property protection; fire detection and alarm; and fire control, and extinguishment. The "Fire Protection Technician" is an individual who has achieved NICET Level III or IV certification in the appropriate subfield and who has the knowledge, experience, and skills necessary to lay out fire protection systems.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, in the interest of public safety, state and local governments began to adopt and enforce building and fire codes that mandated fire protection systems. The need for personnel qualified in system design and layout grew accordingly. At that time, the principal nationally recognized qualification criteria for technicians, technologists, and engineers in this profession were found in the membership requirements of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers. In the United States, no nationally recognized programs existed for licensing and certifying those who designed or laid out fire protection systems.
Licensing and certification alone are insufficient to assure quality; thus, professional organizations have developed Codes of Ethics regarding professional responsibility.
Project Team Members and Their Tasks
Engineers involved in fire protection system design must have the knowledge and judgment to develop fire protection analyses, provide for fire protection management, apply the principles of fire science and human behavior, assess and design fire protection systems, and apply a working knowledge of the principles of building construction as they relate to providing fire protection and life safety using the passive building systems.
Engineers must be qualified to evaluate the broad range of hazard protection schemes required to develop a workable integrated solution to a fire safety problem. Engineers must prepare design documents for fire protection systems, including the conceptual and detailed engineering documents, the hazard and risk analyses, and the performancebased design analysis, where required. Engineers must be competent in the layout of fire protection systems and in the review of fire protection installation drawings for compliance with his or her design. When completed, the engineer in responsible charge must affix his or her professional seal or stamp to the documents to attest to the fact that the documents were prepared under his or her direct supervision and control. Since engineers are responsible for the design, they must maintain competency through continued education.
Based on engineering design documents, which include design drawings, specifications, and the incorporation of the requirements of nationally recognized codes and standards, the technicians execute a system layout in accordance with the engineer's design, prepare shop drawings in accordance with the engineer's design, and perform any supplemental calculations based on the engineering design. Technicians must maintain certification to establish the responsibility for their work and maintain competency through continued education.
As the developer of design documents, the engineer must establish his or her objectives and design criteria of the fire protection system. For example, the design documents must identify the scope of work, identify the applicable codes, identify the occupancy type and hazard classification, and determine the type of system for installation. Such systems would include water-based suppression systems, fire alarm systems, and special hazard suppression systems.
Based on these design criteria, the engineer prepares or supervises the preparation of design documents.
As the next step in planning fire protection systems, the engineer or the technician then develops working plans, known as shop drawings, based on the design documents and specified standards.
If the shop drawings are not prepared under the supervision of an engineer, the engineer must supervise the review of the fire protection system installation shop drawings for compliance with the design documents. The engineer and the technician monitor the installation of fire protection systems to assure compliance with the shop drawings.
Roles and Responsibilities
As described in the SFPE Position Statement, the roles and responsibilities of engineers and technicians should function as follows:
- The engineer prepares the design documents for fire protection systems.
- The technician or engineer prepares shop drawings and appropriate supplemental calculations.
- The engineer responsible for the design reviews the shop drawings for compliance with the engineer's design specifications. This review does not necessitate approval and sealing of the shop drawings with a PE stamp.
- The AHJ reviews the shop drawings and the acceptance test results. The owner should note that the role of governments acting as the AHJ is generally limited to minimum code compliance and does not assume the engineer's responsibilities for design documents.
- The engineer and technician provide construction monitoring services, which include monitoring the installation and witnessing of final acceptance tests.
Some states have statutes that allow the technician to lay out a system and prepare shop drawings without the involvement of an engineer for preengineered projects, self-installed projects, small projects, or minor modifications to existing facilities. In such cases, the engineer does not review and approve the shop drawings. However, it should be noted that this can only be performed as a result of specific laws or regulations adopted in the state of jurisdiction.
Professional Engineers subscribe to a Code of Ethics in recognition of their role in providing public health, safety, and welfare. The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) publishes a model code of professional ethics, which is commonly followed by State Boards of Registration. The following are several excerpts from that Code of Ethics for engineers:3
- "Engineers, in the fulfillment of their duties, shall perform services only in their area of competence."
- "Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public."
- "Engineers shall undertake assignments only when qualified by education or experience in the specific technical fields involved."
- "Engineers shall not affix their signatures to any plans or documentsdealing with subject matter in which they lack competence, nor to any plan or document not prepared under their direction and control."
- "Engineers may accept assignments and assume responsibility for coordination of an entire project and sign and seal the engineering documents for an entire project, provided that each technical segment is signed and sealed only by the qualified engineers who prepared the segment."
In essence, engineers must work within their area of competence and, as a result, must assume responsibility for the quality of the fire protection system design. Safeguards for enforcing this Code of Ethics regulations lie within the state registration laws. State registration boards investigate complaints when the engineer is believed to be practicing outside of his or her specific areas of competency.
All detailed designs for fire protection systems in the working drawing or shop drawing phase must be consistent with the engineer's design, regardless of whether the design is fully addressed within applicable codes and standards. Technicians who prepare working drawings or shop drawings have an obligation to adhere to the requirements of the reference standards, except as needed to comply with an otherwise approved engineering design.
John McCormick is with Code Consultants, Incorporated.
- Galvin, N., "Report of the Fire Protection/Design-Build Task Force," Action Items and Conference Reports, NCEES 83rd Annual Meeting, NCEES, Clemson, SC, 2004.
- "NIST NCSTAR 1: Federal Building and Fire Safety Investigation of the World Trade Center Disaster: Final Report of the National Construction Safety Team on the Collapses of the World Trade Center Towers," National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD, 2005.
- "NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers," National Society of Professional Engineers, Alexandria, VA, 2006.