Fire Protection Engineering
Depending on the country, it may be called fire protection engineering, fire safety engineering, or simply fire engineering. No matter the title used the concept for this engineer is to identify risks related to fire and determine ways to reduce the risks as well as design ways for safeguarding against the wrath of fire. Through the application of science and engineering principles, the engineer can mitigate, detect, control, or suppress a fire. Because fire protection engineers apply science and engineering principles, their career is different from individuals pursuing a career in the fire service, like firefighters.
Similar to other types of engineering, fire protection engineering is the application of science and engineering principles. The principles when working with fire protection relate to protecting both people and the environment, built and natural, from the hazards of fire. This includes analyzing fire hazards, mitigating fire through design and construction of buildings, examination of building uses and industrial processes, and design, installation and maintenance of fire detection and suppression systems. Of course, should a fire occur, post-fire investigation and analysis fit within the fire protection engineering realm too.
What Kind of Career?
Fire protection engineers can be found in a variety of places. This unique discipline allows for interdisciplinary work preventing and mitigating fire risk as consultants, forensic investigators, government employees (local, state, and federal), fire equipment and system manufacturers or designers, facilities management, insurance industry representatives, research laboratories, universities, and many other industries. Each career path leads to exciting opportunities to design or implement ways to reduce the risk of fire or explosions. This variety of career paths provides a place for everyone to grow their strengths and to pursue their passion to protect people and property.
FPEs have expertise in a variety of areas. These could include but are not limited to, structures, mechanical systems, risk control and management, fire dynamics, occupant movement, environmental protection, and wildfire management. This combination of disciplines has led many to career opportunities in fire protection, even when their studies may have been in another discipline.
The consulting side of fire protection covers a wide variety of specialties. Consultants may be hired by architects or building owners to design or review the fire protection features of a building. Consultants utilize both prescriptive and performance-based analysis. The work involves analyzing fire suppression, fire alarm, egress, and other systems to ensure code compliant or equivalent solutions are in use. Consultants utilize building and fire codes in their reviews and may work on existing buildings or new construction designs. FPGAs in consulting may also survey buildings, conduct fire tests, or run computer-based fire models.
Fire investigations involve the application of fire science to determine the origin and cause as well as evaluation of the function of fire protection systems in the built environment. Property damage may also occur in the absence of fire, providing opportunities for further evaluation of fire protection systems to determine the cause of a system failure or accidental discharge. The systems involved in fire and other loss investigations include passive systems (fire barriers, fire stopping) as well as active systems (fire detection/alarm, fire sprinklers, clean agent) providing an opportunity to evaluate the application of passive and active systems outside of the initial design and installation phase of construction. Additionally, fire investigations often include laboratory examinations to perform detailed evaluations of evidence collected at a scene as well as testing of fire protection systems to recreate the event. Opportunities for employment in the field of fire and loss investigations exist internationally with organizations supporting insurance providers and building owners with property damage.
The insurance industry was a part of the start of the role of the fire protection engineer. Fire protection engineers in this industry are sometimes called risk control engineers or loss control specialists. Working in insurance includes understanding a wide breadth of fire protection and life safety elements within commercial and industrial properties. FPGAs within the insurance realm may specialize in fire protection systems, industrial fire protection, or life safety. Employment in this field includes companies that serve properties worldwide.
The research in fire protection covers multidiscipline areas related to fire fundamental, which includes combustion science, material science and structural mechanics and fire safety engineering challenges in application and practice, which includes but not limited to wildland fires, comprehensive fire modeling, high-rise building firefighting, occupant safety, performance-based design, and fire suppression systems. Therefore, employment opportunities in fire research exist worldwide from fundamental-focused research institutes, academia, national labs to application-focused consulting firms, materials R&D, fire protection/prevention system manufacturers, and regulation development organizations such as NFPA.
FPEs that work for system manufacturers fill their role in several ways. This can include being a part of a research and development team for new and innovative products. All system manufacturers also have the technical staff to aid in troubleshooting problems, reviewing product designs, and integration of products. Due to the technical nature of system manufacturers, there is also an opportunity to work in the business development and sales side. System manufacturers need a variety of roles filled by FPGAs. Additionally, system manufacturers themselves can also serve multiple areas from sprinkler or suppression system manufacturers to fire alarm and mass notification system manufacturers.
Past, Present, Future
Where did it all begin?
Fire protection engineering is young as a field but in practice, it is centuries old. Following the Great Fire of London in 1666, which destroyed over 80 percent of the city, London put its first fire protection regulations for buildings in place, requiring the use of brick and stone exteriors to reduce fire spread.
When industry began to expand circa the 18th and 19th centuries, the focus of fire protection also expanded. The focus of fire protection shifted from just limiting fire spread to protecting specific buildings and their contents. Many notable fires come from this era and most of the knowledge on protection from fire came from trial and error. The study of fire events, many with significant tragedies, led to better fire protection methods as well as codes and standards for the built environment to protect human life.
In 1903, the first-degree program in fire protection engineering was initiated as the Armour Institute of Technology (later becoming part of the Illinois Institute of Technology). Today there are colleges and universities around the world that offer varying levels of study in fire protection engineering and fire safety.
There are jobs available in locations around the world and the potential for travel and remote work as in many modern industries. The 2019 SFPE compensation survey found that the median income (including bonuses and overtime) for those working in fire protection engineering in 2019 was $118,800, a 6.4% increase since the previous survey was conducted in 2016. There are a wide variety of on-campus and distance education FPE programs around the world and the job market remains strong in this field. FPE’s have many opportunities to participate in the safety community through participation in the building and fire standards/guidelines processes along with other opportunities through local communities where the expertise of an FPE can be very useful.
The field of fire protection engineering is ever-changing as new technologies and trends create new fire hazards while at the same time, new and old hazards can be addressed in better ways with new technologies. This makes this field an excellent choice for the lifelong learner. The emerging hazards that fire protection engineers will have to mitigate in the near future include wildland-urban interface fires, lithium-ion batteries fires, fires safety in cross-laminated timber buildings, and façade fires, among others. In order to do this, fire protection engineers will have to use scientific and engineering principles to protect people and their environment from destructive fires which include:
- analysis of fire hazards;
- mitigation of fire damage by proper design, construction, arrangement and use of buildings, materials, structures, industrial processes, and transportation systems;
- design, installation and maintenance of fire detection, fire suppression and communication systems; and
- post-fire investigation and analysis.
As science and tools such as computational fluid dynamics, machine learning, and material synthesis become more advanced the FPE community must continually update their knowledge and develop new skills with modern tools as they become validated for use in the modern world. This combination of factors creates an intellectually stimulating, challenging, and well-paid career for those entering this field.