On June 18, 2007, a Sofa Super Store fire in Charleston, SC ended in the deaths of nine firefighters and the loss of a 42,000-square-foot showroom and a 17,000-square-foot warehouse, according to “NIST Study on Charleston Furniture Store Fire Calls for National Safety Improvements” on NIST.gov.
In the aftermath, investigators and fire prevention engineers managed to reconstruct the reasons why the blaze got out of hand so quickly. A panel of experts, including fire protection engineers, then met to discuss what might be done in the future to prevent such catastrophes.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) employs fire scientists and engineers to help improve building design, occupant safety, and emergency responder guidelines. In the case of the Sofa Super Store disaster, NIST fire prevention engineers recommended warehouse sprinkler systems (the sofa warehouse had none), comprehensive risk management plans, new guidelines for the ventilation of burning structures, and improved fire barriers in buildings.
Graduates with a bachelor’s degree in occupational health and safety may work with government or private sector agencies as a fire prevention and protection engineer. Occupational health and safety careers can be rewarding and offer a chance to affect society in a positive way.
What Fire Prevention and Protection Engineers Do
To improve society’s ability to safeguard life, property, and the environment from the ever-present threat of fire, highly trained individuals are needed to apply the principles of science and engineering to developing better fire safety technologies and guidelines.
“Fire prevention and protection engineers conduct analyses and make recommendations regarding the potential fire hazards of buildings, materials, and transportation systems,” the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) explains in its section on Health and Safety Engineers. “They also design, install, and maintain fire prevention and suppression systems and inspect systems to ensure that they meet government safety regulations. Fire prevention and protection engineers must be licensed and must keep up with the changes in fire codes and regulations.”
Firehouse.com expands on the BLS definition in its blog post, “What is Fire Protection Engineering?” by adding, “Through education, training, and experience, [a Fire Protection Engineer]: is (1) familiar with the dynamics and characteristics of fire and its products of combustion; (2) recognizes how fires originate, spread through structures, and can be detected, controlled, and/or suppressed; and (3) is capable of predicting the behaviors of various materials, structures, and processes to protect life, property, and the environment.”
Those pursuing a career in fire prevention and protection engineering should focus on developing skills and proficiencies associated with fire sciences. Fire protection engineers need a working knowledge of product development and design, customer service, math, physics, and chemistry, according to the Federal Student Aid website’s page “Fire-Prevention & Protection Engineers.”
Other suggested strengths include communication, logic, deduction, and visual understanding.
Where Fire Prevention and Protection Engineers Work
Fire protection engineers can be found in public and private sectors, managing the development of improved fire safety technology, procedures, and regulations. Federal, state, and local governments employ fire protection engineers to work in positions ranging from transportation to national parks, according to EnvironmentalScience.org’s “What is a Fire Protection Engineer?”
“[Fire protection engineers’] role in the private sector and the charitable sector is not likely to be that different,” explains EnvironmentalScience.org. “Depending on regulation, they are required in all industries and at all levels, small and large buildings, private, public, and charitable sector. No one sector employs more fire protection engineers than any other.”
Construction teams and similar projects can benefit by including a fire protection engineer. Without one, they would have to depend on a mechanical engineer, who might not have up-to-date knowledge of fire prevention and protection.
“While it does take a team to produce the whole network of fire protection systems, a fire protection engineer can be the glue that holds it all together,” fire protection and mechanical engineer Mike Lehner, P.E., writes in “Should You Have a Fire Protection Engineer on Your Project Team?” for WoodHarbinger.com.
“A licensed fire protection engineer (FPE) has knowledge of building construction, egress, fire suppression, fire alarm, and site planning,” continues Lehner. “This allows for better coordination and consistency in the project. Some clients, such as the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), require that a licensed fire protection engineer be involved in planning and design for all of its projects. With the FPE teaming with architectural, mechanical, electrical, and other disciplines, he/she can provide oversight for the fire protection systems of the building and assure that the team is working together to meet these needs. He/she can also provide the required expertise and a level of redundancy to make the project successful.”
Fire Prevention and Protection Engineer Training and Salary
Students interested in learning how to become a fire protection engineer should first earn a bachelor’s degree in occupational health and safety with a concentration in fire prevention and protection sciences. Some may also choose to pursue a master’s in a related field.
Salary for fire protection engineers ranges from about $50,000 to just over $130,000, depending on the area and the employing agency, according to EnvironmentalScience.org, with a national average of $84,600.
Looking back on some of the worst disasters in history, from the Chicago Fire of 1871 to the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, clearly shows the need for fire protection professionals. Qualified engineers advocating for better prevention technologies can make the difference between fires that are easily contained and those that burn out of control.
Eastern Kentucky University’s Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety Program
Eastern Kentucky University’s online Bachelor’s Degree in Occupational Health and Safety program is designed to teach students how to identify and analyze potential workplace hazards, infractions and risks.
Industry-experienced safety professionals guide students through environmental health and safety classes online, covering modern trends in employee engagement and the establishment of a safety culture in the workplace.
NIST.gov, NIST Study on Charleston Fire
BLS.gov, Health and Safety Engineers
Firehouse.com, What is Fire Protection Engineering?
EnvironmentalScience.org, What is a Fire Protection Engineer?
WoodHarbinger.com, Fire Protection Engineers on Project Teams