Ignite opportunities to mentor fire protection engineers

We often hear or talk about formal mentoring programs. These programs are touted as employee benefits and advertised in recruiting campaigns. What does mentoring mean in the context of fire protection engineering?

By Ray Grill, PE, FSFPE, Principal, Arup Fire, Washington, D.C. March 1, 2008

We often hear or talk about formal mentoring programs. These programs are touted as employee benefits and advertised in recruiting campaigns.

What does mentoring mean in the context of fire protection engineering? And how is a mentoring program put in place to achieve the professional development goals needed for success? The challenge with creating a mentoring program for fire protection engineers lies in the fact that there are so many different areas in which fire protection engineers can practice or specialize. One of the keys is developing the mentoring program around the career development interests of the individual—the program needs to be flexible and provide opportunities for exposure to people knowledgeable in a broad range of practice areas.

When we think and talk about mentoring programs, we usually are talking about new graduates and younger engineers. The learning process is lifelong and learning from others can be one of the fastest ways to learn.

Fire protection engineering careers

There are a number of different business paths in fire protection engineering. A 2006 Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) survey ranks the business areas where fire protection engineers work, in order of the number of survey respondents as:

  • Consulting

  • Government

  • Insurance

  • Industry

  • Fire equipment manufacturing and installation

  • Education

  • Research.

Having a mentor early in a career plays a significant factor in finding a rewarding career path. The roles of the fire protection engineer vary significantly between businesses.

In the engineering professions, those wanting to earn engineering licensure often undergo a forced mentorship. Those individuals typically are required to gain experience under the supervision of an engineer who is licensed already. While this relationship between the engineer-in-training and the supervising engineer is one that must be documented, there are other mentoring relationships that can be developed to enhance learning and the success of the mentee.

There also are many career paths in fire protection engineering that don’t require licensure. However, from a career potential perspective, it is hard to deny the benefit of professional licensure. The SFPE 2007 Profile of Fire Protection Engineers report indicates that having a PE license commands an average 20% salary premium.

When we think of mentoring engineers, the tendency is to focus on the technical aspects of the profession. While the technical aspects are critical, other areas, including technical, should get attention:

  • Technical and engineering judgment

  • Professionalism

  • Ethics

  • Client service and interpersonal skills.

Arguably, there could be a laundry list of areas for focus in fire protection engineering mentoring programs.


Fire protection engineers have diverse opportunities to work in the technical field. For example, the Principles and Practice exam for fire protection engineers crosses a broad range of areas:

  1. Fire protection analysis: This includes hazard, risk, and economic analysis; and codes and standards, test methods, and data interpretation.

  2. Fire protection management: This includes design limitations and facility/system management.

  3. Fire science and human behavior: This includes fire dynamics such as fire growth, combustion, smoke behavior, and heat transfer; and human response such as people movement, response to fire cues, and dynamic egress.

  4. Fire protection systems: This includes water-based suppression such as hydraulics, water supply and distribution; special hazard systems such as design, application, personnel safety, and control; fire detection and alarm such as design, components, performance, survivability, and interaction with other building systems; smoke management systems including design methods, fluid mechanics, performance, and testing; and explosion protection and prevention such as design methods, system types, personnel safety, controls, and test methods.

  5. Passive building systems: This includes building construction such as combustibility of materials, compartmentalization techniques and protection methods; and egress design including components, loading, and emergency features.

It would be difficult for one person to mentor another in all of the various areas of knowledge required to successfully pass the fire protection engineer licensure exam. While someone may not be able to provide the mentoring in a specific technical area, an experienced mentor should guide the mentee to obtain the resources or support in the needed area. In this role, the mentor is using their relationships to facilitate the process.

One of the more challenging things for young engineers to get their arms around is the concept of engineering judgment. Engineering judgment is developed by experience. The mentoring process plays a role in moving young engineers toward the experience they need to develop engineering judgment.

Engineering judgment is increasingly becoming more important given the more extensive use of computer modeling. The outcomes produced by computer models are illustrative. However, it is important to have a good understanding of the input and other factors involved in order to evaluate the data produced by a computer model. If the results of an engineering model are counter-intuitive, an experienced engineer will look back into the model to discover what happened. Without that intuition—engineering judgment—the young engineer could pass on flawed results without realizing. The mentor can help in this process by teaching how to consider, evaluate, and question the results put in front of the mentee.

Fire protection engineers also are regularly involved with application and interpretation of building and fire code provisions related to fire safety and egress. Over the past 30 years, building and fire code provisions have increased significantly. Gaining a solid grasp of the intent of the code provisions and understanding how a particular requirement can impact overall fire or life safety is important to proper application of codes and standards.


Fire protection engineering, like any engineering field, requires extensive education and specialized training. While engineering education provides the foundation, experience, and continuing education develop and reinforce our professionalism.

Participation in professional activities provides an avenue to expand and accelerate professional growth. There are significant opportunities within SFPE at the local chapter level and at the international level to take an active role. These activities provide exposure to a broad range of professionals in specific fire engineering fields that provide mentees invaluable insight and perspective.

While a job might have finite limits, the task of building your profession and career is ongoing, and is not accomplished without additional effort. The role of a mentor in the development of one’s professionalism is to provide the positive example of behavior and of personal professional growth and continuing education. It is important for the young engineer to remember that it is not solely the employer’s role to allow its young engineers to grow. It is a mutual responsibility, where the effort put in by each is important to the end result.

Professional ethics

A cornerstone of professional ethics for engineers is keeping the safety, health, and welfare of the public paramount. Quoted from the preamble of the “Canon of Ethics of the Fire Protection Engineer,” which is published by the SFPE, “In the practice of their profession, fire protection engineers must maintain and constantly improve their competence and perform under a standard of professional behavior, which requires adherence to the highest principles of ethical conduct with balanced regard for the interests of the public, clients, employers, colleagues, and the profession. Fire protection engineers are expected to act in accordance with this code and all applicable laws and actively encourage others to do so.”

Fire protection engineers should be familiar with the “Canon of Ethics” and conduct themselves consistently in accordance with the code of ethics.

It is inevitable that one will be faced with ethical decisions during the course of one’s career. The questions are rarely black and white and require thoughtful consideration. The counsel and advice of a mentor in these situations can be invaluable.

Client service and interpersonal skills

An area that doesn’t get much discussion in the engineering community is that of dealing with clients or the development of interpersonal skills. This area doesn’t receive attention in the classroom. Development of interpersonal skills and the ability to successfully interact with clients and colleagues is a significant benefit to the individual in propelling their career.

We all know some engineers who are difficult to work with. They may be very bright and knowledgeable, but their communication styles or behaviors may put us off or turn off a client. Seldom do their careers develop as successfully as equally talented technical people who have soft skills.

There are few positions in fire protection engineering where one doesn’t have to interact with others. Clients can be external or internal to the organization. The internal clients often are pushed to the back burner. Keeping a client focus can be difficult and challenging at times, but it is imperative in most fire protection engineering positions. The ability to interact in a positive manner even during times of disagreement can make a huge difference in how a person is perceived and their ability to be successful.

The need to be able to communicate ideas in a concise and convincing manner is critical. Time spent in the development of communication skills is a great investment. Mentors can play the role of an impartial third party to help an individual understand how they are perceived. The key to success is the willingness of the person being mentored to accept constructive criticism.

Author Information
Grill is the immediate past president of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, and is a trustee on the Board Trustees of the Fire Protection Research Foundation. He also is chair of NFPA 72 Technical Committee on Notification Appliance, and is a member of CSE ‘s editorial advisory board.

SFPE honors mentors

The Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) has raised awareness of the need for mentoring.

In 2007, SFPE established an honor to recognize commitment to mentoring that enhances the practice of fire protection engineering. This honor has been named the Professor John L. Bryan Mentoring Award. Bryan founded the University of Maryland Fire Protection Engineering Dept. and chaired the department from its inception in 1956 until his retirement in 1993. Bryan’s actions and the impact he has had on his students over the years exemplifies the concept of mentoring and sets a very high bar for future awardees.

Bryan was given the inaugural award at SFPE’s Annual Technology Symposium in October in Las Vegas. Any SFPE member can submit a recommendation for another member to be nominated for the award. The SFPE Honors Committee reviews all of the nominations, makes a recommendation, and sends the recommendation to the SFPE Board of Directors.

The deadline to submit nominations for the 2008 award has passed, but nominations for the 2009 award are due in February 2009. Nominations can be sent tosfpehqtrs@sfpe.org; include the person’s name and a write-up that explains why that person should be considered for the award.

Ray Grill’s perspective: from mentee to mentor

I have been fortunate over the course of my career to have had the opportunity to be mentored by people whom I would consider pillars of the fire protection industry. Sometime, they may not have known they were mentoring, but the amount of information that was shared is incredible.

For example, being able to observe and follow Rolf Jensen around in the aftermath of the San Juan DuPont Hotel fire, more than 20 years ago in Puerto Rico, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Being the proverbial sponge when these opportunities present themselves will enhance anyone’s knowledge and appreciation for different perspectives. The list of individuals whom I consider to have been a mentor to me is too long to list, but these people come from various areas of the fire protection industry. Authorities having jurisdiction, industry representatives, architects, and other engineers who have been willing to discuss and share ideas over the years all have contributed to my career growth and knowledge base.

While I—luckily—haven’t had opportunities like a San Juan DuPont Hotel disaster to share knowledge with others, I always tried to bring younger engineers out of the office with me to expose them to different situations and to let them absorb how one might handle different technical issues and client interaction. I also subscribe to encouraging individuals to take more responsibility internally and externally when I think they are capable (even if they don’t think so), while providing a safety net in the way of guidance and debriefing. I am proud to say that there are a number of fire protection engineers that I have had the opportunity to mentor early in their careers who are now in leadership roles in their respective organizations and in a position to mentor the people that now work for and with them.

I don’t think that you can overemphasize the impact that mentoring can have to your career. We should take advantage of every opportunity we have to mentor and be mentored, and mentoring should be a continuous activity throughout your career.