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Who Will Design Fire Protection of the Future
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From the Technical Director:
"Who Will Design Fire Protection of the Future”

By Morgan J. Hurley, P.E., FSFPE | Fire Protection Engineering

The title of this column is not a rhetorical question, but rather it was the title of a presentation that was given on the occasion of SFPE’s 25th anniversary in 1975. A summary of the presentation can be found in SFPE Technical Report 75-5, which can be downloaded from http://tinyurl.com/SFPETR75-5. (SFPE "Technical Reports” were a precursor to SFPE’s peer-reviewed journal.)

In the subject paper, Dr. John Rockett of the National Bureau of Standards (Now the National Bureau of Standards and Technology) made a number of projections about how fire protection engineering might evolve. Since this paper was written almost 40 years ago, it’s interesting to see how closely Dr. Rockett was able to foresee the future.

Rockett divided practicing fire protection engineers into three categories: those who performed risk assessments and ratings for the insurance industry, consultants, and those involved in codes and standards development or research. At the time, Rockett observed that 70% of all fire protection engineers fell into the first category, with the other categories representing 20% and 10%, respectively. (Now, the latter two categories would arguably not be mutually exclusive.)

Rockett’s first prediction was that the percentage of fire protection engineers who work in the insurance industry would decline, while the percentage involved in consulting would increase. While the insurance industry is arguably the driving force behind establishing fire protection engineering as a profession, Rockett proved prescient here. The percentage of fire protection engineers who work in the insurance industry has declined to 14%, according to the 2012 survey1 of SFPE’s members.

Rockett also predicted that as the share of fire protection engineers who worked in the insurance industry decreased, so too would the sophistication of their work. Rockett was incorrect with this prediction, as fire protection engineers who work in the insurance industry do work that is no less sophisticated than that done by other engineers.

He suggested that residential fire detection systems, which in 1975 were only beginning to be introduced into homes, would be one of the last technological changes. While sprinkler systems were certainly not novel in 1975, perhaps Rockett would have considered their use in homes novel at the time.

Another significant prediction of Rockett’s was that buildings of the future would be more highly engineered. He did not use the term "performance-based design,” although that was clearly what he meant by "more highly engineered.” He suggested that, due to the higher design costs, such approaches would primarily be used in "more densely occupied properties.”

He was partially correct here, although his posited timeframe – 10 years – was certainly short. Almost 40 years later, performance-based design is generally only used on higher-end projects, where building owners or developers seek to incorporate innovations that would not be possible under the prescriptive code.

With the transition to a more highly engineered approach, Rockett foresaw the need for additional specialties to be applied in fire protection engineering. In addition to the need for professionals who are well versed in fluid flow and heat transfer, Rockett foresaw the need for professionals with expertise in areas such as physiology, toxicology and psychology. Here again he was correct.

In 1975, computer programs were already available to assist with hydraulic calculations of sprinkler systems. Rockett observed that, while it was possible to perform accurate hydraulic calculations, determining the effect of sprinkler flows on a fire was much more difficult. Rockett suggested that this situation would be resolved "in a few years.” Nearly four decades later, it is still quite difficult to predict the effects of fire suppression, although computer modeling has made great progress and shows promise for additional progress.

Reference:

  1. 2012 Profile of the Fire Protection Engineer, Society of Fire Protection Engineers, Bethesda, MD, 2012.

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