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How I Became a Fire Protection Engineer
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Decision Time: 3 Fire Protection Engineers Tell Their Stories of How They Chose to Become Fire Protection Engineers

Fire Protection Engineering spoke with three fire protection engineers to find out about everything from college classes to searching for a job to trends in the profession.

Tracy Vecchiarelli, P.E., is a fire protection engineer at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in Quincy, MA, and a graduate of Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

How did you first hear about fire protection engineering and what were your first impressions?

BLAIR: I was always good in math and science and everyone told me I should be an engineer. My mom found an engineering summer camp at University of Maryland (UMD), which introduced students to all of UMD’s engineering disciplines. I found a demonstration of the aspects of a candle flame very interesting and that sparked my interest in fire protection engineering.

RADLE: While deciding on my Master’s degree in Engineering, I spoke with Professor Christopher Pascual who got me more excited about fire protection engineering than the other engineering fields. He thought I would be a good candidate with my architectural background—I was the first non-engineer to enter the program. The fire protection degree was new (I was in the second graduating class) and I liked that there was a desire and need for fire protection engineers in my community.

VECCHIARELLI: My father is in the industry and would take me to large-scale fire tests. I was hooked!

Laura Radle, EIT is a fire protection engineer working as a contractor for PG&E at Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in San Luis Obispo, CA and a graduate of California Polytechnic State University with a MS in Fire Protection Engineering

FPE: What attracted you to the field? How did you ultimately decide to enter?

BLAIR: I liked the fact that fire projection engineering is a small community at UMD, an otherwise large university. All of the professors knew you and the options for jobs seemed better than other disciplines.

RADLE: I graduated with my degree in architecture in 2010 and couldn’t find work in the field so I took time to travel. While in Southeast Asia, I decided to go back to school for my Master’s and chose engineering because I had always been interested in my architectural engineering classes.

VECCHIARELLI: I was interested in engineering and I heard that there were many jobs available for fire protection engineers.

FPE: What were some of the highlights or memorable moments of engineering school?

BLAIR: The school was community oriented and not a cutthroat environment. We worked with each other on homework and projects, which has been similar to the real world. Also, during our senior capstone class, we used fire modeling to build a replica of the department within a computer model and burned it using Fire Dynamics Simulator.

RADLE: My thesis presentation. Many important people from the industry came to watch and it was very nerve wracking, but very rewarding to show industry professionals what you know about your topic and be able to talk on their level and earn their respect.

VECCHIARELLI: Being part of the student chapter of SFPE and ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers). We did volunteer work and several fun projects. Also, I really enjoyed my internships with a construction contractor, parts manufacturer and NFPA.

FPE: What is your overall assessment of your school’s program? Did it prepare you adequately for the "real world”?

BLAIR: Yes, I think so. It was very sciencedriven and helped us gain an understanding of what fire is and how it develops. We focused a lot on problem solving in general and critical thinking. It provided a good basis for my work now, which is practical and applied. I spend a lot of time solving problems.

RADLE: Oh yes, from day one I had a job in the field. I started at a small fire alarm company and then moved into the nuclear field. After three years working in the field, I feel like I got more than I needed at Cal Poly.

VECCHIARELLI: I was absolutely prepared. The variety of group projects I worked on helped prepare me for the type of work I do today. And the workload at WPI helped me develop time management skills.

FPE: What would you recommend to high school and college students to help them prepare for a degree and later a career in fire protection engineering?

BLAIR: For college students: make sure you do internships to find out what you do and don’t like. Try to be involved on campus—there are a lot of fun organizations to participate in and I think this really helps you learn and hone time management skills. For high school students: participate in engineering summer camps or local STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) initiatives, which are designed to expose kids to these areas and get them excited about it. Specifically, UMD has a number of one-day events or week-long events throughout the year.

RADLE: Work while they get their degree. Volunteer or intern at the fire department, engineering consulting firms or wherever you can to see what the work environment is like as early as possible. Get involved with local SFPE chapters.

VECCHIARELLI: I recommend doing several internships, whether summer or part time. Get involved in student or local SFPE chapters. In the New England chapter, for example, students attend meetings for free and it’s a great way to meet professionals and learn about the field. There are a lot of mentors available through SFPE and school, so you should take advantage.

FPE: How did you decide where to work? Was it easy to land your first job?

BLAIR: I had a few offers coming out of school. I picked an engineering consulting job with GHD because I liked the idea of being exposed to different projects. I like that every day is not the same. As a consultant I work for clients such as architects, Mechanical/Electrical/ Plumbing (MEP) firms and Authorities Having Jurisdiction. We help them solve fire protection and life safety problems, either for new buildings or retrofitting old ones. I help them with solutions, design systems and I am involved in performance-based designs using fire modeling or egress modeling.

RADLE: Yes it was easy—I put my resume out to the fire protection companies in the area. I accepted a position as a designer for a local fire alarm company. It was part-time and flexible so that I could still go to school. Then I was offered a full-time position in the nuclear industry before I was even halfway through school, so I changed my schedule and continued pursuing my Master’s as a part-time student.

VECCHIARELLI: I based my decision on my internship experience. I loved NFPA’s mission and the people. I applied for a job opening during my internship.

FPE: What was the most memorable part of your first job?

BLAIR: Being based in the DC area I’ve worked on many very interesting projects in well-known buildings. For example, I’ve been behind the scenes at the National Zoo, Eisenhower Executive Office Building and Rayburn House Office Building.

RADLE: Being able to work on fire alarm designs, getting to be creative, learning new codes and having two great mentors (the owners of the company). They gave me opportunities to do real work and helped me when I needed it. It was a great learning environment.

VECCHIARELLI: Well I’m still at my first job five years later! The best part is going to committee meetings and our Conference and Expo. I get to hang out with the people who wrote my textbooks and top executives from various engineering companies.

FPE: What parts are the most challenging? What are exciting elements of your job?

BLAIR: What is most challenging is solving problems you’ve never encountered before. You need strong problem solving skills, but that is also exciting because it’s not the same thing every day. It’s gratifying to find solutions to help the client or make buildings safer.

RADLE: The scope of projects is challenging because it is always increasing or changing. After a project is started, sometimes there is more that needs to be done, or changes from the original scope to make the project more accurate and you have to explain that to your superiors. It’s exciting to be in charge of projects. I like managing workload, people and schedules and having ownership of a project.

VECCHIARELLI: Most challenging would be working with the code language. It has to be perfect. One misplaced comma and the requirement could mean something completely different. The most exciting is getting to travel, see new parts of the country and work with so many people in all industries.

FPE: Is your job satisfying? Why?

BLAIR: Yes it is. I like to see projects go from cradle to grave from designing it to seeing it installed and then being able to observe a fully-functioning building. I love knowing what I did is making an impact now or in the future.

RADLE: My job is satisfying. I get to contribute to safe energy production in my community. Nuclear is different from commercial—we focus on nuclear safety and radioactive release goals as well as life safety.

VECCHIARELLI: Yes absolutely. I get to work with people from so many different fields in this industry. I like working with codes, training people—I teach the NFPA Life Safety Code seminar across the country. It’s gratifying to know that I’m helping people to be safe.

FPE: Describe a day in your [work] life.

BLAIR: I probably spend 60% of my time working on consulting and design work and 40% on site visits and attending client meetings. On any given day I might work on a life safety design or a fire alarm system design, then get on a conference call about a different project and finally conduct a site visit for yet another project.

RADLE: I spend about 60% of my time in the office and 40% in the field and at meetings. We start each day with an alignment meeting with all the members of the team. We go over status of the project and set priorities or push resources to support areas that are behind. I spend a lot of time communicating with plant personnel at Diablo Canyon—fire protection engineers, the fire department, operations department, design engineering, etc., to ensure our project goals are aligned. During an Audit or Inspection, we receive questions from the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission), and getting them answers takes precedence over everything else. Every day is dynamic and unpredictable with new, unexpected, emerging issues to work on.

VECCHIARELLI: The split between being in the office and traveling is about 80%- 20%. When I’m in the office I work with task groups to help create code language, answer NFPA members questions about the code, review seminars and work with the Fire Protection Research Foundation to review their reports. And I’m on the board of directors of the New England Chapter of SPFE, so I get to plan the monthly meetings!


BLAIR: Well, the job market is getting better since the recession. The nice thing is that when budgets get cut, life safety doesn’t get hit as hard. In addition, technology is ever changing in the industry. Smart buildings where systems interact with each other may really become a reality, and have an impact on fire alarm, sprinkler, smoke control and egress design. And, performance-based design will become a much bigger thing in the future. It’s used internationally and growing in the U.S. As buildings get more complicated, prescriptive codes can’t solve every problem so performance-based design is used to prove that the building is meeting the intent of the code.

RADLE: In general, toward performance-based design. A large portion of U.S. nuclear plants are transitioning to a new fire protection program licensing basis under NFPA 805 (performance based standard). NFPA 805 allows plants to use fire modeling and risk assessments instead of a more traditional prescriptive approach.

VECCHIARELLI: I think the trend of health effects will become a bigger part of the industry. As we learn more about sustainability and environmental health and safety I think the industry will need to adapt. Also, technology is constantly improving and helping us do our jobs better.

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