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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Welch, 30, is a senior fire protection engineer with Maryland-based Marriott International, a Fortune 500 hospitality provider. Her charge is to protect the lives of the hundreds of thousands who work and stay in Marriott's 2,700 properties.

Welch concentrates on Marriott's newest building projects and is involved in the entire chain of events surrounding their construction, from initial drawings to occupancy. She works with a variety of construction professionals, including architects, mechanical engineers and fellow fire protection engineers, visiting Marriott properties throughout the nation, where she tests and inspects their fire safety systems, to ensure they comply with her employer's tough standards.

"There's a direct correlation between my work and people's safety," Welch said. "I feel I'm making a clear contribution to society. The lives and wellbeing of our guests and employees are dependent on what I do."

Welch said that, for her, engineering was "a family thing I fell into." Her grandfather, father and older brother all worked in the field and she enrolled in the school of engineering at University of Maryland without much deliberation. It was an open house at her alma mater that propelled her into studying fire protection engineering. During the event, the undergraduate director of Maryland's program, Dr. James Milke, captured Welch's imagination.

"I was drawn into the discipline through its human components, the study of how people behave in a fire," she said. "I quickly saw that fire protection engineering has a more immediate, practical impact on people's lives than the other engineering areas."

In school, Welch completed courses in, among other subjects, calculus, chemistry, physics, thermodynamics, fire dynamics, fluid mechanics, structural fire protection, sprinkler design, fire alarm design, hazard analysis, life safety and risk analysis, and fire modeling. She also completed an internship at Marriott while attending school and was hired by the company immediately upon graduation — typical for much-in-demand fire protection engineers. (Ninety-eight percent of those who study the subject land jobs in the field, according to the University of Maryland.)

Another graduate of Maryland's program, Fire Protection Engineer Laura Doyle, chose the path after abandoning chemical engineering, first to seek a degree in business — which she learned would take too many semesters — then to study fire protection. Doyle, 36, is a team leader in the fire protection engineering section of General Services Administration (GSA) in Washington, DC. GSA acts as "landlord" to other government agencies, overseeing nearly 200 federally owned buildings near the nation's capital. Doyle said she enjoys the fact that she has considerable autonomy in her job and that she "can have a definite influence on fire protection policies."

An out-of-the-ordinary facet of Doyle's work derives from the unusual character of many of the buildings for which she is responsible. Not only do her recent clients include Vice President Dick Cheney, cabinet-level secretaries and the heads of the FBI and the Secret Service, but Doyle is responsible for protecting historic properties such as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building from fire.

"I work not only with architects to improve the life safety treatments inside these buildings," Doyle said, "but with historic preservationists, who want assurances that the building's fabric won't be disturbed or compromised."

In addition to historic, Doyle works on futuristic properties. She has just completed fire protection engineering work for the new fire research laboratory operated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). The largest "burn lab" in the U.S., the building's design and construction mandated that Doyle take an extraordinarily creative approach to the fire safety systems, since no building codes applied to the one-of-a-kind facility.

Sometimes, fires turn out to be catastrophes with enormous consequences, such as the February 2003 Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island, in which more than 100 people died and 200 were injured. Disasters like the Station fire push fire protection into the headlines for weeks.