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

Sept. 1, 2006
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 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."

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.

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.

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 [email protected].

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