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Roles of Engineers and Technicians in the Design of Fire Protection Systems
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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 building.

 

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 affect fires.

 

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 practice.


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