10 Years of Fire Protection Engineering
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10 Years of Fire Protection Engineering

By Jim Quiter, P.E., FSFPE | Fire Protection Engineering

Ten years ago, I was pleased and proud to write, as SFPE President, the Viewpoint column in the first issue of Fire Protection Engineering magazine. At the time, as with most new ventures at SFPE, we knew we were taking a risk. We also knew that our members wanted and needed an application-oriented magazine. We wondered, however, if we could consistently fill it with meaningful material. I think it is safe to say that, under the technical leadership of Morgan Hurley, the magazine has flourished and the fire protection community would be poorer without it.

So what have we seen change in our profession during the 10 years of the magazine? At first, one might think very little is different, but as I thought about life as a fire protection engineer, and as I canvassed others within Arup who have been around through those 10 years, I came to the realization that almost everything we do is different. Since I only get one page to discuss the changes, just look at the following teaser points and imagine the world without them:

  • Virtually all business correspondence is by e-mail with the expectation of immediate response. Ten years ago, much was by fax, 20 years ago by express mail, and 30 years ago, it took a week to turn around a document.
  • We now run computer models on our desktop that were difficult to run on a mainframe. The zone models so commonly used 10 years ago have given way to CFD models today, with run times in the order of minutes or hours as opposed to days and weeks. Now we need to make sure we evaluate and understand the results, rather than letting our computers do the thinking.
  • We have realistic and credible means of modeling people movement. Models that were developed for fire protection are being used for transport planning and vice versa. The current models have people (agents) who think and react, not just traipse along on a predetermined route. This, of course, leads to validation issues.
  • SFPE has evolved into a driving force in the industry. Besides technical journals, the society now publishes technical guides, computer model evaluations and is involved in the codes and standards process.
  • We are living in a 3-D world. Our designs and our interaction with the rest of our profession are done on models that could not have been imagined 10 years ago. In some cases, that has led to buildings that could not have been built (the Beijing Water Cube being an example).
  • We have developed into a global design community. U.S. performance-based codes are being used in much of the world (neither the International Building Code nor NFPA 5000 existed 10 years ago), and codes from other nations are also in use globally. Many international architects and developers are working in all parts of the globe, and the fire engineer is following suit.
  • Partially driven by globalization, the concepts of performance-based design and risk have become much more accepted. The laws of science do not change across the globe, even if the laws of codes do change. Therefore, returning to first principles allows the engineer to practice good fire protection first and deal with code application second. With these first principles, the risk associated must also be considered because the code crutch has disappeared. Perhaps China has made the greatest step forward with many major performance-based projects
  • The entire field of fire protection engineering has grown in its influence. Ten years ago, fire consultants on a design team were treated as technical advisors to solve code issues. Today, fire protection consultants are major players in the chain of decision-making, often working with fellow fire protection engineers who are part of the approving authority, and often having owners as clients who also employ fire protection engineers.
  • In the past few years, the concept of fire and structures has developed greatly, particularly for steel structures. Instead of passive fire protection being prescriptively applied over the whole steel frame, significant areas of unprotected steel are becoming commonplace where these methods are applied. This helps us to evaluate robustness, to reduce materials where appropriate or to use those materials in a way to make a better structure.

So what has changed since the first Fire Protection Engineering magazine was published 10 years ago? Virtually everything we do! I look forward to an equally exciting next 10 years.

Jim Quiter, P.E., FSFPE, is with Arup.

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