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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The University of Maryland has developed a program that encourages students with dual interests in the fire service and fire protection engineering to combine the two. Called the "live-in" program, it lets students live in local firehouses while commuting to campus for classes. The initiative provides students with hands-on experience as volunteers in the fire service while studying the behavior of fire in the classroom without paying rent for an apartment or dormitory.

"The practical experiences of fire protection engineering student firefighters helps them to appreciate the conditions produced by fires in buildings and how these conditions can change dramatically in a short time period," said Dr. Jim Milke, undergraduate director. And these are busy fire departments. Both the College Park Volunteer Fire Department and Chillum Adelphi Fire Department average more than 3,000 fire and EMS responses per year.

FPEs Earn Top Dollar

The job market for fire protection engineers (FPEs) has remained strong for years due to the disparity between the large number of job openings and relatively small pool of potential employees.

"Conservatively, we estimate five positions are available per graduate," said Professor Marino di Marzo, chairman of the University of Maryland's Fire Protection Engineering Department. "Last January, we had one graduate receive seven job offers."

The overwhelming demand for qualified fire protection engineers has meant many recent graduates have received some of the highest paid engineering jobs in the country. According to a survey conducted by the Bethesda, MD-based Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE), the median income for an entry-level fire protection engineer (up to two years of experience) is $55,500 per year. That figure jumps to $65,000 when a person with that level of experience has a master's degree. The median income for a mid-level fire protection engineer (six to eight years of experience) is $72,500 per year, but it can approach $100,000 per year if he or she has a master's degree. These numbers are impressive, especially when compared with the national average for all engineers of $63,060 per year. Fire protection engineers with work experience upwards of 15 years earn the greatest salaries in the field. It is common for senior-level fire protection engineers to make over $120,000 per year.

"There are so many opportunities for fire protection engineers to make a rewarding and lucrative living," said Chris Jelenewicz, engineering program manager with SFPE. "The current environment is extraordinarily favorable for our profession."

The survey conducted in 2005 by SFPE polled more than 1,200 professionals practicing in the profession of fire protection engineering. Income data is based on earnings (salary plus bonuses) in 2004. The executive summary for this survey can be found at www.sfpe.org.

Using Computers To Forecast the Effects of Fire

Fire protection engineers use complex computer programs to predict the effects of fire on a building and how occupants will evacuate. The results are used to develop fire safety measures for unique building designs and to reconstruct fire scenarios to learn what factors contributed to loss of life and property.

For a performing arts center, Fire Protection Engineer James Lord calculated the smoke production and spread for an intricately designed atrium by using a computer simulation program called Fire Dynamics Simulator. The program shows engineers where smoke will spread, how hot it will get and what the concentrations of toxic gasses will be. For a different project, Lord used a simulator to calculate the evacuation times of occupants of a multi-story office building.


ANDREW VALENTE, PE, was a member of the College Park Volunteer Fire Department while attending the University of Maryland, where he graduated in 1990 with a degree in fire protection engineering. He started his fire service career as a member of the Seminole Trail Volunteer Fire Department and the Charlottesville-Albemarle Volunteer Rescue Squad, both in Charlottesville, VA. Valente also has worked for the Gainesville, FL, Fire-Rescue Department and Fire Marshal's Office, and is currently a fire protection engineer with Ove Arup & Partners, managing its Sanford, FL, office. He is president of the Florida chapter of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers and chair of the SFPE Design Performance Criteria Guide Task Group. Valente can be reached at andrew.valente@arup.com.