From the Technical Director:
SFPE's Revised Position Statement on the Roles of Engineers and Technicians in the Design of Fire Protection Systems
By Morgan J. Hurley, P.E. | Fire Protection Engineering
The design of building safety systems constitutes engineering practice.
This is just as true for sprinkler systems and fire alarm systems as it
is for building structures and HVAC systems. As engineering work, the
design of fire protection systems must be done under the responsible
charge of qualified engineers who meet the licensing or registration
requirements of the jurisdiction in which they practice. However, there
are some tasks that can be delegated to qualified engineering
technicians. SFPE's position statement was published to identify the
types of tasks that can be delegated by an engineer while ensuring that
public safety is adequately protected.
As with many parts of buildings,
fire protection systems
can have a tremendous impact on public health, safety, and welfare.
Design of a less-than-adequate system can result in avoidable deaths and
injuries if a fire were to occur. On the other hand, design of an
overly capable system could be too costly. While an overly costly system
would only have immediate impact on the owner of a building, the costs
of the system would in turn be passed on to the public through increased
costs of the products and services that derive from the use of the
The main purpose of engineering is to find the proper balance
between these two specify systems that achieve the level of safety that
is expected by society while not being overly costly. To ensure that
engineers have the necessary understanding to properly apply engineering
and scientific principles in the built environment, many countries have
certification or licensure programs.
In the United States, engineers
must have achieved a certain level of education and experience, and pass
examinations that demonstrate proficiency in engineering principles.
The examination that is used in the United States to verify an
engineer's capability includes questions in the areas of fire protection
analysis, fire protection management, building construction, fire
protection system design, and fire science and human behavior. Knowledge
in all of these areas is needed to competently design fire protection
systems and understand their impact on people and property. In-depth
knowledge of fire and how it affects people and property, in addition to
knowledge of the elements of system design, is essential to ensuring
that fire protection systems provide adequate protection of public
health, safety, and welfare.
One of the reasons that are commonly given
for not having engineers design fire protection systems is that existing
codes and standards, like NFPA 13 and NFPA 72, have reduced fire
protection system design to the point that it is essentially a cookbook
approach. The shortcoming with this line of reasoning is that these
standards focus on the details of the systems and not on their context
in the larger building environment. Also, these standards do not
simplify all of the considerations that must be made during the design
of fire protection systems to simple checklists. Consider, as an
example, classification of hazards of contents for a sprinkler system.
Judgments must be made when conducting this analysis, and they can only
be made responsibly by understanding how fires behave and how buildings
Another criticism that is occasionally leveled at SFPE's
position on the roles of engineers and technicians is that there have
been cases where design documents are signed and sealed without
conducting any engineering analysis. This type of criticism is valid,
since handing design documents that are simply reflected ceiling plans
with a note that says "design and install system in accordance with NFPA
XX" to a technician represents an unacceptable delegation of
engineering work to nonengineers. However, this type of bad practice is
not a good reason to have nonengineers conduct all engineering work.
Using the design of structures as an analogy, if one could reduce civil
engineering to a series of checklists, would it be responsible to design
a structure without understanding how loads affect buildings? SFPE's
position statement reflects a rational definition of the types of work
that should be conducted by engineers and the work that can responsibly
be delegated to engineering technicians.
For more information on SPFE's
position statement, see the article by John McCormick on page 24 or view
the position statement in its entirety at www.sfpe.org.
As engineering work, the design of fire protection systems must be done
under the responsible charge of qualified engineers who meet the
licensing or registration requirements of the jurisdiction in which they