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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Routine fire protection engineering, thankfully, isn't all that headline-grabbing. It's careful, methodical fact-finding and number-crunching that requires well-tempered engineering and technical competency, a strongly analytic mind and a love of understanding "the way things work." But it's also a job where a lot happens every day.

"You're never bored by this job," Lord said. "Employers from day one throw you right into the fire, no pun intended."

To succeed in a career in fire protection engineering, you need not only the engineering know-how that the university programs provide, but public speaking and technical writing skills — and enough poise and self-assurance to present and defend your ideas before both large and small audiences.

"The greatest challenge of all is the social element of this job," Welch said. "You interact constantly with architects, building owners, contractors and government authorities. That takes good communications skills, something you can pick up by taking extra writing courses, reading a lot and joining clubs such as Toastmasters. The technical parts of the career you can learn quickly on the job. But not the people abilities. They come from elsewhere."

What Is a Fire Protection Engineer?

According to the Maryland-based Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE), a fire protection engineer applies science and engineering principles to protect people, homes, workplaces, the economy and the environment from the devastating effects of fires. The SFPE is the professional society representing individuals practicing the field of fire protection engineering. It has approximately 4,000 members in the U.S. and abroad and more than 50 regional chapters.

Through education and experience, a fire protection engineer understands the nature of fire and the products of combustion; understands how fires originate and spread; understands how fires can be detected, controlled and extinguished; and can anticipate how materials, structures and fire safety equipment and procedures relate to the protection of life and property from fire.

Practicing fire protection engineers typically earn about $85,000 a year. More than 25% earn $100,000 and above each year. They are employed and retained by the fire service, consulting firms, the military, transportation companies, corporations, hospitals and health-care providers, light and heavy manufacturing firms, insurance companies, fire equipment manufacturers, architects, petroleum and petrochemical companies, government agencies and local authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs).

In the U.S., students can study fire protection engineering at these institutions:

The University of Maryland offers a bachelor's and a master's degree in fire protection engineering.
Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts offers a master's degree and a five-year combined bachelor's and master's degree in fire protection engineering.
Oklahoma State University offers a bachelor's degree in fire protection and safety technology.
The University of California at Davis offers a certificate in fire protection.
The University of New Haven in Connecticut offers a bachelor's degree in fire science.

Strong academic skills must be demonstrated by secondary school graduates before they can enter coursework in fire protection engineering. Typically required are an overall grade-point average of 3.0-3.5 out of 4, SAT scores above 1,100 (out of 1,600), exceptional oral and written communication skills and strong listening skills, high achievement in high school science and math, and completion of advanced high school courses such as calculus, physics, trigonometry, plane and solid geometry and algebra.

The SFPE offers membership to students free. Free membership entitles students to participate in events sponsored by the society and receive information about the career. To learn more, visit www.sfpe.org.

A Different Career Ladder: Volunteering While Going To College

Many individuals find careers in fire protection engineering by way of the fire service. A stint as a firefighter will often lead those who are academically oriented to make the climb into fire protection engineering because they discover it's a way to blend their passion for saving lives and livelihoods with a penchant for math and science.