After years of planning and development, a new graduate program in Fire Protection Engineering (FPE) was launched during the Fall 2010 quarter at the California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo, CA. The FPE program leads to a master of science (MS) degree in fire protection engineering that is offered through the college of engineering at Cal Poly. With its well-earned reputation for turning out highly qualified engineers based on its learn-by-doing philosophy, and with its location along the West Coast of the United States,Cal Poly is an ideal place to offer the third graduate program in FPE in the United States.

The fire protection engineering program at Cal Poly is designed to build on the broad scientific and engineering principles students acquire in an undergraduate engineering program or in a related technical field. The required and elective courses composing the MS degree in fire protection engineering address the body of knowledge currently required by the fire protection engineering profession. Students completing the program acquire the technical knowledge, skills and tools required to practice fire protection engineering in a variety of local, national and international settings. Upon completion of this program, students will possess the necessary knowledge to pursue professional certification and licensure in the fire protection engineering discipline.

The Curriculum

The goal of the FPE program at Cal Poly is to educate students who are fundamentally sound as well as highly qualified to practice in the fire protection engineering profession. To this end, the curriculum has been devised to offer a fundamentals track, which addresses topics in fire science, and an applications track, which addresses current practice topics in fire protection engineering. The curriculum is rounded-out with a number of elective courses as well as a culminating project experience as described below.

The fundamentals track is a 4- course sequence of classes designed to provide students with the knowledge and skills to quantitatively analyze fire hazards and fire scenarios in support of performance-based design, fire protection system design, fire investigation and reconstruction as well as for other purposes. The courses in the fundamentals track include:

  • FPE 501 - Fundamental Thermal Sciences
  • FPE 502 - Fire Dynamics
  • FPE 503 - Flammability Assessment Methods
  • FPE 504 - Fire Modeling

Unique to the Cal Poly FPE program, the fundamental thermal sciences course is intended to provide students lacking a background in the thermal sciences with the knowledge of thermodynamics, fluid mechanics and heat and mass transfer needed for the subsequent courses in this track as well as for their professional careers.

The applications track is a 4-course sequence of classes designed to provide students with the knowledge and skills needed to analyze and design building fire safety subsystems based on a solid understanding of relevant engineering principles and in accordance with current standards and practices. The courses in the applications track include:

  • FPE 521 - Egress Analysis and Design
  • FPE 522 - Fire Detection, Alarm and Communications Systems
  • FPE 523 - Water-based Fire Suppression Systems
  • FPE 524 - Structural Fire Protection

In these courses, students are introduced to traditional approaches to designing systems based on current codes and standards as well as to emerging performance-based approaches to fire safety design. In this way, students gain both practical skills associated with the current practice of FPE as well as advanced skills associated with alternative design approaches and specific performance objectives, thus preparing them to become leaders in the future practices and development of the FPE profession.

Two elective courses are currently approved, with more to follow. The two current elective courses include:

  • FPE 551 - Fire Safety Regulation and Management
  • FPE 552 - Smoke Management and Special Hazards

Additional electives are being planned to address fires and fire safety in the wildland-urban interface fires and forensic fire analysis and reconstruction.

The FPE MS degree program at Cal Poly requires the successful completion of 45 credits, including ten 4-credit courses and one 5-credit culminating project experience. Cal Poly operates on the quarter system, so each 4-credit course is equivalent to a 3-credit course under the semester system.

The culminating project concept is unique to the Cal Poly FPE program. The typical culminating project experience requires students to perform a comprehensive fire and life safety evaluation of as elected building, prepare a report documenting this evaluation and present their analysis and findings to a review committee. Other culminating projects of similar scope and complexity may be submitted for approval. These culminating projects provide students with written and oral communication skills sought by fire protection engineering employers.

Program Delivery

The FPE program at Cal Poly is offered simultaneously both on-campus and online. Students continuing directly from their undergraduate studies are encouraged to enroll full-time in the on-campus program, where they can interact directly with faculty members and other students as they complete the program in 1.5 to 2 years. Working professionals who seek to enhance their skills and qualifications in FPE can enroll part-time in the online distance program, where they will take the same courses as the on-campus students and work with professional mentors in the field, but will typically take longer to complete the program.

This format offers students a high degree of flexibility in managing their educational and professional needs. Students enrolled in the online MS degree program are required to travel to San Luis Obispo at their own expense on at least one occasion to present and defend their culminating projects at the end of their degree programs.

The Cal Poly FPE program is unique in that on-campus and online students participate together in the same classroom setting. The combination of students with FPE experience along with those new to the field provides for dynamic interactions on topics of current interest to the profession. For each course, two-hour lectures are typically presented twice per week from 4 to 6 p.m. Pacific time to allow working professionals throughout the U.S. to attend lectures online without interfering with their normal business hours. Lectures also are recorded so that students can review them at a later time, either to observe a lecture they could not attend live or to review materials requiring clarification.


The FPE program includes both Cal Poly faculty members and working FPE professionals as instructors. Many courses are taught by teams of instructors to provide both theoretical and practical perspectives on the subject matter.

Dr. Frederick Mowrer is director of fire protection engineering programs at Cal Poly and a professor-in-residence in the program. Dr. Mowrer spent 20+ years on the faculty of the Department of Fire Protection Engineering at the University of Maryland before retiring with emeritus status in 2008; he served on the board of directors of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers for eight years, including a term as president of SFPE in 2002. Dr. Mowrer has broad expertise in the field of fire protection engineering and is involved in teaching a number of courses in the program as well as directing the program.

Professor Christopher Pascualis graduate coordinator of the FPE program. Prof. Pascual is a professor of mechanical engineering at Cal Poly with expertise in the thermal sciences. He is involved in teaching courses related to the thermal sciences and fire dynamics. Prof. Pascual received a grant from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to develop the FPE 501 course on Fundamental Thermal Sciences. Additional full-time faculty members at Cal Poly also are engaged in the FPE program.

Fire protection engineering professionals currently involved in teaching in the FPE program include Dr. Christopher Lautenberger and Dr. David Rich from the University of California, Berkeley, and currently with Reax Engineering in Berkeley. Daniel Gemeny, formerly with the RJA Group and currently with Varietal Matrix Consulting, is another FPE professional teaching in the program. With its online format, the FPE program also is able to tap into the specialized expertise of people throughout the U.S. and beyond to provide guest lectures on specific topics. For example, Dr. Kevin McGrattan, principal developer of the FDS fire model at NIST, provides guest lectures on the development and application of this widely used fire model.

The FPE program at Cal Poly is developing relationships with SFPE chapters in the U.S., starting with chapters in California and other western states, as part of its recruitment and mentoring program. The goal of the recruitment effort is for SFPE chapters to establish connections with undergraduate engineering programs at local universities by providing guest lectures and participating in career fairs as a means of spreading the word about career opportunities in fire protection engineering and helping to recruit students to the FPE program at Cal Poly.

As part of the mentoring process, the FPE program at Cal Poly is working with SFPE chapters to identify chapter members who are willing and able to serve as professional mentors to students in the program, particularly students located within close proximity to a SFPE chapter.

Two mentoring models are being developed concurrently. In the first model, a student seeks out an individual mentor to provide guidance throughout the time a student is enrolled in the Cal Poly FPE program and to oversee the student's culminating project. In the second model, the SFPE chapters identify members with specific subject matter expertise whom students can contact to reinforce their education and learn more about these subjects. These models are not mutually exclusive; ideally, students will have individual mentors as well as subject matter mentors to help them along the way. Regular chapter meetings provide a good opportunity for students and mentors to interact as well as an excellent way for students to become more involved in the FPE profession.

Frederick Mowrer is with California Polytechnic State University.