Update on SFPE's Canons of Ethics
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From the Technical Director
Update on SFPE's Canons of Ethics

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

At the first annual meeting of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, Illinois Institute of Technology president H. T. Herald defined six attributes that defined a profession:1

  1. Body of knowledge
  2. Strong motive of service over profit
  3. Qualification in individual competency and character
  4. Education
  5. Recognition of status
  6. Assuring the public of member competence

These six attributes are not mutually-exclusive, and they are provided in a number of ways: professional licensure, academic and continuing education programs, and technical publications. Another key element is SFPE's Canons of Ethics, which were written to define what constitutes acceptable practice for the purpose of maintaining public health, safety and welfare.

The Canons of Ethics were first written in 1984. Since then, the canons have been revised twice to ensure that they reflect current practice: once in 1992 in response to the increased use of computer models in fire protection engineering, and again in 2008 to recognize that choices made while practicing fire protection engineering can have an impact on the environment (an editorial change was also made in 2008 to the Canon written based on the increased use of computer models.)

Professional societies such as SFPE write codes of ethics in recognition that practitioners apply knowledge and concepts that are not widely understood by the public in a manner that can have a direct impact on the public.

The first four of SFPE's canons deal with how fire protection engineers should apply their knowledge and skill. The first canon states that fire protection engineers shall be dedicated to the safety, health and welfare of the public. The canon also states that if a fire protection engineer becomes aware of hazardous conditions that threaten present or future safety, health or welfare of the public, then they shall so advise their employers or clients. In the event that the employer or client does not act on the information, then the fire protection engineer's responsibility requires notifying an appropriate public authority. Because the engineer's first duty is to the public, simply notifying a client or employer is not sufficient if the client or employer does not investigate and, if necessary, correct the problem.

The new canon on protecting the environment was placed into the section of the Canons of Ethics on knowledge and skill as Canon #4. This canon requires that fire protection engineers consider the potential impact to the environment of their work. While this canon is new, the concept is not. Environmental protection was the reason that the use of halons were prohibited as fire suppressants. More recently, concerns arising from the potential scarcity of water have also impacted fire protection engineering practice.2

The next five canons relate to the honesty and impartiality that fire protection engineers should apply to their work, and the final six canons relate to upholding the competence and prestige of the profession. These canons have been briefly discussed in a prior column in this magazine.3

The canon that was added in 1992 (Canon #15) was written to highlight the necessity of only using methods and tools for which the engineer has an understanding of the correct use and limitations. While it was written to clarify an engineer's responsibility when using computer-based tools, it reinforced an existing canon that stated that fire protection engineers should only work within their areas of competence. The editorial change that was made in 2008 was intended to further clarify this issue.

The SFPE's ethics committee recently conducted a comprehensive review of the Canons of Ethics to make sure that they reflect current practice. The complete text of the canons is available on SFPE's website - www.sfpe.org, and once the revisions are complete, they will be posted there as well.

Morgan J. Hurley, P.E.
Technical Director
Society of Fire Protection Engineers


  1. Lucht, D., "Coming of Age," J. of Fire Protection Engineering, 1 (2), 1989, pp. 35-48.
  2. Hurley, M., "Fire Protection Engineering and the Environment," Fire Protection Engineering, Spring, 2009, p. 2.
  3. Hurley, M., "SFPE's Canons of Ethics," Fire Protection Engineering, Summer, 2006, p.2.

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