Fire protection engineering: Where are we today? Where are we going?

When this article was being written, the question was raised, “What keeps fire protection engineers up at night?” The first and foremost answer is the fear that a major fire catastrophe may be just around the corner.

By Joseph H. Talbert, PE, ARM, Aon December 28, 2010

When this article was being written, the question was raised, “What keeps fire protection engineers up at night?”

This is a great question and probably has as many answers as there are professionals in the field. First and foremost is the fear that, despite the best efforts of hardworking professionals in the fire protection industry, a major fire catastrophe may be just around the corner.

It is a credit to everyone involved in the fire prevention, fire detection, fire suppression, building construction, education, and firefighting fields that the overall number of structural fires in the United States has been reduced by about 50% since 1977 (from 1,098,000 estimated fires in 1977 to 480,500 estimated fires in 2009), and the number of civilian fire fatalities in the United States has been reduced by about 50% in the same time frame (from an estimated 6,015 civilian deaths in 1978 to an estimated 3,010 civilian deaths in 2009).1 Fire protection engineers (FPE) are continuously working to achieve reduced loss of life, reduced property damage, and reduced interruption of production or loss of operations of critical facilities.

Some of the current challenges for FPEs include:

  • Increasing the use of performance-based design (PBD) techniques in conjunction with the design and construction process to improve fire safety in buildings at reasonable costs and/or to provide greater flexibility to architects in the design of buildings
  • Globalization: working with counterparts in other parts of the world
  • Implementing new concepts in commissioning of fire protection systems
  • Ensuring that fire protection engineering programs at colleges and universities continue
  • Keeping our heads above water in the current economic climate.

Performance-based design

PBD techniques have been in use in some form for many years. The earliest use of these techniques was the alternative means and methods or equivalency approaches that were built into codes and standards; such techniques have been in use for years and are still in use today. They allow designers to propose an alternative means of achieving a level of life safety and property protection from fire that is deemed by the authority having jurisdiction to be equivalent to the level of safety that would be achieved by compliance with prescriptive code provisions.

A problem with this approach has historically been that there were no guidelines for determining this equivalency. It usually came down to which fire protection engineer was more persuasive and therefore able to convince others that the proposed protection was equivalent. The Society of Fire Protection Engineers now publishes the “SFPE Engineering Guide to Performance-Based Fire Protection, 2nd Edition,” which can be used to provide a framework for PBD to ensure that all interested stakeholders are involved in the design process and that all important issues are considered in the design. This is a useful tool to make the alternative means and methods and the equivalency approaches more effective now and in the future.

Many very useful PBD approaches have been used in the past 40 years. Among them is the decision tree approach pioneered by the U.S. General Services Administration2 in the 1970s. With this approach, a decision tree enables the designer to use performance-based criteria in designing a total building systems approach to fire safety for a building. Another performance-based approach that was developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s was the Fire Safety Evaluation System, which is a numerically based system that was originally developed for health care facilities. This technique was later extended to other types of facilities, including offices.

In the 1980s, relatively simple computer programs were developed and distributed for free or at minimal cost to enable more FPEs to use them. These programs included the Detector Actuation (DETACT) software and Available Safe Egress Time (ASET) program. Later, such tools were merged into the Hazard I software program and a series of computational tools in a package known as FPE Tool. Another notable software tool was the Consolidated Fire and Smoke Transport (CFAST) model. The Building and Fire Research program of the National Institute of Standards and Technology has been instrumental in developing and distributing fire protection software to practicing FPEs at no or minimal cost.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, several countries (United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia) established performance-based codes. The United States is slowly beginning to adopt a performance-based code approach; however, it is not widely used at this time. The major building codes in use in this country do allow for PBD to be proposed in lieu of the prescriptive code requirements, with approval from the authority having jurisdiction. This is the first step toward the wider acceptance of performance-based codes in the United States.

The latest PBD techniques take advantage of powerful computer fire models using computational fluid dynamics software to predict fire effects over time. One of the best known of these models is the NIST Fire Dynamics Simulator.

To use one of these models, the fire protection engineer first develops a fire growth scenario that is considered to be representative of a fire that is likely to occur in the facility given the type of occupancy, the fire loading, and the building geometry. The computational fluid dynamic (CFD) model can then predict items such as temperatures at various locations in the building, fire plumes, quantity of hot gases, the thickness of the hot gas layer, and development of species such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and oxygen levels in the facility being evaluated.

By using this information, the FPE can specify the appropriate type of fire detection and suppression systems required to mitigate the predicted fire effects. This can give the designer greater latitude in the design process as opposed to strict compliance with prescriptive code provisions.

The benefit of the PBD analysis is the designer’s ability to justify a building design that does not meet the prescriptive code provisions, but that enhances the building’s functionality and beauty. The PBD analysis may allow the designer to specify longer travel distances to an exit, more effective smoke control systems, reduced fire resistance ratings for structural members, and unprotected openings that would not normally be allowed between floors in a building, while enhancing the overall level of fire protection provided to the occupants.

One issue that is coming to the forefront is how to ensure that the PBD concepts used in specific building projects that were approved many years ago are still understood and followed today. For example, if a building was designed with the concept that the facility required automatic sprinklers, smoke detectors, and 2-hour fire-resistant structural members to demonstrate the level of fire safety that was determined to be adequate at the time the building was constructed, all of these features must be maintained and kept in service for the PBD concept to be successful. If one of the features of the design is modified (for example, to reduce the required level of fire resistance for the structural members from 2 hours to 1 hour), the entire PBD concept must be reevaluated to determine what, if any, changes in other protective features must be modified. Similarly, if the building use changes—for example, from an office occupancy to a manufacturing facility—the PBD concept must be reevaluated to determine if it is still valid or needs to be revised.

The challenges facing FPEs in the next 20 years will be to refine the existing fire models and develop a framework to standardize the process by which PBD tools can be most productively used to interface with traditional codes and standards in the design and construction process.


Globalization is not a new phenomenon. It has been more than 500 years since Christopher Columbus sailed forth to discover a faster trade route from Europe to India, an effort driven by the globalization process.

It is notable that the current president of the SFPE resides in Sweden. A symposium held in Sweden in June 2010 on the topic of PBD attracted hundreds of attendees from all over the world. In fact, the National Fire Protection Assn. now publishes some standards in Spanish to better serve the needs of users in Latin America.

For the FPE, the word “globalization” may mean that one may be collaborating with colleagues in one’s own city on a project halfway around the world, or may collaborate with a colleague from another continent on a project in one’s backyard. On a recent project, I was working on a facility that was designed in Europe for a plant to be constructed in the Caribbean, and the facility was financed by a company in the United States. Major fire protection firms have offices all over the world, with building projects in places like Dubai, China, and Macau.

Among the issues that this worldwide collaboration creates is determining which codes and standards should apply. In many cases, a U.S. industrial company will specify that U.S. standards be used either because the country in which the facility is built does not have local codes or because the company wishes to standardize the level of fire protection at all facilities it owns. That said, if the country has local codes and standards, these codes and standards must also be met.

Globalization is here to stay, and FPEs should plan on developing working relationships with colleagues around the world.


Commissioning is a concept with which most FPEs are familiar. For many years, it has been standard operating procedure to perform a final acceptance test on active fire detection and fire suppression systems such as sprinkler systems and gaseous fire suppression systems. However, the concept of commissioning is currently undergoing a radical change.

Traditionally thought of as an action to be performed at the completion of the construction project to ensure that the system is in proper working order before the building is complete and turned over to the owner, the new concept of commissioning is a much broader concept. It begins with the planning phase of the project, continues through the design phase and the construction phase, and finally has a significant role to play in the post-construction phase of the building’s life.3

This broader concept is intended to ensure that the system is:

  • Appropriate for its intended function
  • Properly designed and installed to achieve its intended goal
  • Properly maintained to ensure it can operate as it was designed in an emergency situation that may not occur for years or decades. 

This concept is consistent with the FPE’s traditional role in providing a high level of confidence that fire protection systems will perform as they are intended. However, these systems typically have not been viewed as a single continuous process that extends throughout the life of the building. This represents a significant opportunity for FPEs to have a positive impact on the built environment.


Education of FPEs in the United States is still limited to a few undergraduate and graduate programs. University of Maryland has both an undergraduate and a master’s degree program. Worcester Polytechnic Institute has a master’s degree program, and California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo has started a graduate degree program; the first classes were offered in late 2010. Oklahoma State University has an undergraduate degree program in fire protection and safety technology.

The fact that there are so few programs in operation in the United States should be a concern to all FPEs. Without a continuing stream of graduates in fire protection engineering and fire protection engineering technology, this area simply cannot survive as a legitimate engineering discipline. One of the challenges facing FPEs in the next few years will be to ensure that all of the current FPE programs continue to do well and that additional programs are nourished to the greatest extent possible.

The economy

FPEs have been affected by the economic downturn, but probably to a lesser extent than most other engineering disciplines. The SFPE recently published the “2010 Profile of the Fire Protection Engineer,”4 a profile that has been published periodically since 1976. Part of the profile is a salary survey conducted to determine the salary and compensation trends for FPEs throughout the world. The 2010 report indicated that the median income for all FPEs in 2009 was $110,500, which represented a 12.5% increase over the previous survey conducted in 2006, a rate of salary increase of approximately 4% per year. While this seems to indicate that FPEs were doing well on average in 2009, the unemployment rate among FPEs was reported to be 6.8% in 2009 as compared to 0.2% in 2006. Anecdotal information suggests that the unemployment rate among FPEs is probably higher in 2010 than the 2009 figure indicates.

For FPE consulting firms, it is still definitely a buyer’s market in 2010. FPE firms are fighting for every sale and seeking to expand their traditional markets.

Where do we go from here?

In the next 12 months, FPEs should seek to provide a high level of service to existing clients for renovations and retrofits of existing buildings. New construction is not likely to improve in the United States in the coming year; however, China likely will continue to be a viable market for new construction. To remain profitable in the immediate future, FPE consulting firms should stay in touch with the clients and partners with whom they have good working relationships. They should nurture those relationships so that the FPE will be the first choice to work with their colleagues when new projects are designed in the future.

In the United States, government-funded construction projects will continue to come on-line, although it may take a year or more for projects to reach the stage at which an FPE will be needed. The federal government has traditionally treated fire protection engineering as a necessary engineering discipline that must be provided on all major construction projects, a practice that should provide FPEs with work on new federal projects when they reach the design stage. Again, this is a time to nurture relationships with colleagues.

In the medium term (2 to 5 years), local, state, and federal codes and standards being adopted require a higher level of fire protection with each successive edition. Consequently, more authorities with jurisdiction are requiring the involvement of competent FPEs on a project’s design team to ensure that the fire protection intent of the codes and standards are being achieved. This should provide opportunities for FPEs on construction projects when the economy improves.

In the longer term (5 to 20 years), FPEs should be in demand because society in the United States and throughout the world recognizes that loss of life, property damage, and interruption of essential services due to fire are pure wastes that can be largely mitigated with appropriate design, construction, installation, testing, and maintenance of fire protection features such as passive fire barriers, fire-resistive construction, fire detection, and alarm systems and fire suppression systems. An FPE should expect to have many rewarding opportunities over his or her career.

Back to the original question: “What keeps fire protection engineers up at night?” I can only suggest an answer. The greatest worry most FPEs probably have is that, despite the best efforts of countless professionals in the field, there will be additional, catastrophic multiple-loss-of-life fires. Because we live in a global community, such fires could involve a high-rise building in Dubai, a school in China, an assisted living facility in the United States, or any one of many other types of facilities in many other parts of the world. We all hope and pray that this will not occur, but we all fear that it can.

Talbert graduated from Illinois Institute of Technology in 1972 with a BS in Fire Protection Engineering. He is a senior consultant with Aon Risk Solutions Global Risk Consulting Fire Protection Engineering. He is a fellow of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers and a member of the NFPA.


  1. Karter, Michael Jr. “U.S. Fire Loss for 2009.” NFPA Journal, September/October 2010, Volume 104, No. 5, pp. 56–61.
  1. GSA Order PBS P 5920.9 CHGE 2, April 27, 1972, “Building Firesafety Criteria, Appendix D. Interim Guide for Goal Oriented Systems Approach to Building Firesafety,” General Services Administration, Washington, D.C..
  1. Frable, David. “Commissioning: A Federal Agency’s Perspective.” Fire Protection Engineering, 4th Quarter 2010, Issue No. 48, pp. 17–24.
  1. “2010 Profile of the Fire Protection Engineer,” Society of Fire Protection Engineers, Bethesda, Md., 2010.