Burning Ambition: Fire Protection Engineers Use Their Skills to Save Lives

Andrew Valente presents academic options for those interested in pursuing fire protection engineering as a career.


Every day, nine Americans on average perish in fires. But fear of death or injury by fire doesn't make most citizens' lists of anxieties. And planning for better fire safety measures rarely, if ever, occurs to most — except for a group of about 10,000 professionals whose careers focus on...


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Every day, nine Americans on average perish in fires. But fear of death or injury by fire doesn't make most citizens' lists of anxieties. And planning for better fire safety measures rarely, if ever, occurs to most — except for a group of about 10,000 professionals whose careers focus on protecting people and their property from the ravages of fire.

"When I wake up each morning, I go to work knowing I have a cause I'm working for," said Fire Protection Engineer Victoria Valentine.

Valentine, 25, is manager of product standards for New York-based National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA), a trade association that watches over the ways sprinkler systems are manufactured and installed throughout the country. With undergraduate courses in civil engineering, Valentine might have chosen to work as a designer of roads, bridges or buildings. Instead, she quit her civil engineering studies a few years ago and moved into fire protection, after a three-day conflagration in her hometown gave her cause to ponder fire's sheer destructiveness.

"Rather than building another building that's occupied a few years and then abandoned, I'm doing something to help save people's lives and property," she said.

Fire protection engineers perform a wide range of public safety-related roles, according to Maryland-based Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE). The typical fire protection engineer:

Evaluates buildings to pinpoint the risk of fires and the means to prevent them.
Designs fire suppression and detection systems, as well as fire alarm, smoke control, emergency lighting, communications and exit systems.
Conducts fire safety research on consumer products and construction materials.
Investigates fires to discover how they spread, why protective measures failed, and how those measures could have been designed more effectively.
Writes investigative reports and provides expert courtroom testimony in insurance and civil litigation cases.

Though loss of life and property due to fire doesn't register on most Americans' radar screens, the ongoing threat of a terrorist attack does. It has turned people's attention increasingly to improved safety and security. With increased awareness comes an overall rise in demand for better fire protection in our airports, tunnels, arenas, offices, malls, museums and other public spaces — making fire protection engineering a hot new career.

Fire protection engineers have two important masters to serve. Most often, they find themselves working alongside architects and real property owners, adding to a building's blueprints and recommending ways to meet those clients' never-ending demand to "build the best building for the best price."

At the same time, fire protection engineers must, in effect, answer to the public. Their recommendations must adhere at all times to the stringent local and national fire safety codes that govern construction. And they must always respect the fact that local government authorities — namely fire marshals — can turn thumbs up or down on any or all their fire safety solutions.

"My biggest challenge is to juggle my clients' needs to meet their building and cost goals with the codes and with occupants' safety," said Fire Protection Engineer James Lord.

Lord, age 26, is with UK-based Ove Arup and Partners, one of the world's largest consulting engineering firms. Based in New York, he works on fire protection for airport terminals, colleges, cultural and performance centers, and the city's new subway line. Before he began to study fire protection engineering, Lord was a firefighter in Massachusetts.

"At the end of each day, you can be proud that you've found the way to balance the public's safety and your clients' demands." Lord said. "That's what I most like about my job."

Fire Protection Engineer Stacey Welch said, "I get a charge from feeling I make a difference in people's lives."

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