Fire protection engineering is a unique profession that focuses on protecting people, property and the environment from fire. Using science and technology, fire protection engineers (FPEs) perform a wide range of roles that make our world safer from fire. As such, many careers in fire protection engineering provide opportunities for world travel and offer the chance to work in a variety of interesting industries. Having so many career options available makes being a fire protection engineer an extremely exciting profession. Here are just a few of the exciting career opportunities for FPEs.

CONSULTING ENGINEERING

Consulting engineering is a multifaceted industry that provides specialized professional services to developers, designers, construction firms, government and private companies in a variety of industry sectors. Normally, consulting services are offered through consulting engineering companies or offered by sole practitioners.

Consulting engineering companies may range in size from a partnership of a few people to multinational corporations with thousands of employees who are located in branch offices worldwide. Usually, large design projects are carried out by a team that can be from the same firm or from multiple firms. The team is comprised of a variety of design professionals from different disciplines. For example, a project team may include project managers, architects and engineers from different disciplines such as electrical, mechanical, civil, structural and fire protection.

Consulting fire protection engineering is an important sector in the building construction industry that mainly specializes in building fire safety. It can focus on fire code analysis, fire protection system design, emergency management, fire modeling, explosion protection, egress planning, litigation support, etc.

Fire protection consulting work involves both government and private sector clients from many different industries. In addition to members of the design team, fire protection consulting engineers also work with multiple stakeholders that may include general contractors, facility managers, interior designers, engineering technicians, fire department personnel, local code enforcement authorities and insurers.

As consultants, the FPE needs to develop trust in the relationship with clients. Collaboration with clients requires blending fire protection engineering expertise with consulting skills and engaging the clients in the process from defining the problem to implementing solutions.

GOVERNMENT

There are many opportunities for FPEs to work in governmental agencies. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy employs FPEs at national laboratories where energy research is performed. This often consists of one-of-a-kind technologies, processes and materials that present fire protection issues that are not found in many other industries. Fire protection engineering at these laboratories often requires a breadth of fire protection engineering knowledge in areas such as fire dynamics, fire protection system design and fire code compliance.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) also employs many FPEs. DOD installations such as military bases consist of structures with occupancies that cover just about every type of occupancy. Military bases include residential structures, office buildings, storage buildings, industrial buildings, schools, and even detention and correctional facilities. They also can contain unique structures such as towers, piers, open structures and membrane structures. These types of structures present unique fire protection challenges that require the expertise of an FPE. The design, modification and upkeep of these facilities and their fire protection systems require the FPE to ensure that these activities are being performed properly and safely.

At the local level, governmental agencies employ FPEs who act as code officials where they review construction design documents to ensure that construction projects in their jurisdiction comply with local fire and building codes. In this capacity, FPEs work with architects, engineers and construction managers to ensure the buildings in their jurisdiction are safe from fire. Additionally, in this capacity FPEs also may be asked to go out in the field and inspect construction sites and observe acceptance tests for newly installed fire protection systems.

INSURANCE INDUSTRY

Another career option for FPEs is with highly protected risk insurance companies. When working for an insurance company, an FPE can gain a wide array of experience in nearly all types of industries in a short period of time.

A highly protected risk location is a location or company that receives the best insurance premiums for their property insurance. In order to receive these reduced rates, the companies must implement certain requirements that may include an adequate water supply, automatic fire sprinklers, a fully functional fire alarm system, a fire protection program plan, adequate construction, the protection of special hazards and a management team committed to a sound fire protection program.

An insurance company FPE is exposed to nearly all types of industries and industrial hazards. These industries may include simple shopping malls, major intercity hospitals, fully integrated steel mills, auto assembly plants, glass plants, pulp and paper mills, research facilities, chemical plants, above-ground mine facilities and metal fabrication facilities. The hazards are equally broad and range from the protection of flammable/combustible liquids, plastics, painting operations, computer facilities, boiler controls and rolling mills.

LAlyson Blair, P.E., GHD in Chantilly, VA.

FIRE SERVICE

Modern firefighting and fire protection technologies are expanding at a rapid pace. Because FPEs have unique skills and abilities, many fire chiefs successfully employ FPEs on their staff. In this capacity, FPEs assist fire departments by incorporating the principles of fire dynamics and fire modeling into building codes and standards, fire-fighting practices and post-fire analysis.

As part of a fire service organization, FPEs assist in code interpretation, risk assessment and the design of safe buildings. They often review construction and fire protection system design documents for compliance with required fire safety standards. At the same time, they may be asked to judge the adequacy of a performance-based fire protection design or a design that is prepared as an equivalency to prescriptive code requirements. They also work with other local design professionals such as architects, engineers and code officials to determine the best solution to a fire safety problem. They also can assist their jurisdiction in the development of jurisdictional fire and building code requirements.

They also advise fire departments in adapting new technology in such areas as fire station location modeling, firefighting methodologies and personnel risk assessment. They also can be a resource for information on innovative safety practices for firefighters.

FIRE INVESTIGATIONS

FPEs frequently participate in fire investigations. Their role can range from examining fire protection-related systems and life safety code analysis to being included in a principal investigation to assist with determining the cause and origin of a fire.

FPEs usually work with insurance adjusters or attorneys to undertake or participate in an investigation and analysis of a fire loss. In this capacity, the FPE may be asked to assist based on the magnitude of the loss, to determine if the property was equipped with fire protection systems; the potential opposition has hired a FPE; or the client recognizes the need for analysis beyond basic cause and origin.

During a fire investigation, the FPE assists in discovering how fires start and spread, why protective measures failed, and how those measures could have been designed more effectively. They also may be asked to testify in a criminal or civil trial to take complicated, scientific calculations or test results and explain them so people without an engineering background can understand.

Shawn Cai is with Giovanetti Shulman Associates, Bruce Campbell is with Hughes Associates, and David Young is with the Idaho National Laboratory.