Trends and positioning for fire protection engineers

Not since the late 1980s have we seen a business climate as challenging as the current one. Here are the characteristics of the fire protection engineers who have been able to remain successful and employed during the downturns.

By Ray Grill, PE, FSFPE, Arup, Washington, D.C. December 16, 2009
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    What are these characteristics, and how does one develop them? The key characteristics from my perspective include:

    • Strong technical knowledge in a broad range of areas

    • Strong communication and organizational skills

    • The ability to work in a team

    • The ability to be decisive

    • Self-motivation and willingness to go the extra mile

    • A commitment to continual learning

    • A strong network

    • Obtaining and maintaining engineering licensure.

    One could say that these characteristics are key to the success of any professional, so let me put them in context to fire protection engineering. First, let’s take a look at what’s going on in the industry.

    Codes and standards

    Codes and standards affecting building design continue to increase in complexity. Even though the International Code Council (ICC) has published a performance code, jurisdictions have not adopted it. Its use has been accepted, but typically only on an ad hoc basis or through equivalency. In addition, NFPA has performance design criteria in most of its codes and standards. Due to the complexity and cost of preparation of a performance-based design, the codes are rarely applied to an entire project. Prescriptive requirements continue to increase, often without technical justification or loss history. An understanding of alternative means and methods allowed by the codes will become increasingly more necessary to achieve design goals.

    Fire/life safety systems

    Fire protection systems include not only suppression, detection, and alarm, but also smoke control and other fire safety systems. Technologies in suppression and detection continue to develop and the use of systems for other purposes, like mass notification systems, continues to increase. Smoke control systems and their application, such as for elevator pressurization systems, continue to expand, and we are continually learning about them. The tools for optimizing design of these systems continue to evolve.

    Sustainable design

    There is growing pressure to implement sustainable solutions in building design, and fire protection engineers will play an increasing role in the implementation of these solutions. Fire resistance of structures, combustibility of contents, and interior finishes are just a few areas where fire protection overlaps sustainability. Using a performance approach can help avoid conflicts in these areas.

    Fire protection engineering demand

    The market for fire protection engineering will continue to expand domestically and abroad. While the profession and use of fire protection services have expanded, they still remain a best-kept secret. I regularly come across people involved in design and construction who have never heard of the profession. There is a tremendous opportunity to expand the overall market to the profession’s benefit.

    When the economy begins to expand again, developers, owners, and designers will demand more creative solutions to the burdensome prescriptive requirements that have been incorporated in the code during our current period of limited construction.

    To be effective in the marketplace, fire protection engineers need to work harder to understand the intent behind the code versus its rote application. The more complex the code, the more difficult it can be to apply to a broad range of situations.

    Authorities having jurisdiction will also need assistance in evaluating designs that have been based on performance criteria.

    New horizons

    A few areas of practice are gaining momentum and present significant opportunities for fire protection engineers.

    Commissioning of systems is one of these areas. While system commissioning has been performed on various levels, the development of NFPA 3, “Standard for the Commissioning and Integrated Testing of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems,” will emphasize comprehensive commissioning of not just individual fire protection systems, but also the coordinated performance of all building systems that form the fire protection program for a building. The first edition of the standard is on schedule to be completed in fall of 2010. Engineers doing commissioning will need to have knowledge of not only fire protection systems, but also HVAC, other building systems, and system integration technologies.

    The other area that is expanding is mass notification. Currently, mass notification systems primarily have been installed in Dept. of Defense (DoD) facilities and on university campuses. The systems in DoD facilities follow Uniform Facilities Codes. Those on university campuses have been implemented in an ad hoc manner. The 2010 edition of NFPA 72 has incorporated more detailed criteria for design and performance of mass notification systems.

    I anticipate that more facilities will be incorporating mass notification systems as an integral part of their emergency plans. This will drive a need for practitioners that can perform risk analysis and design of integrated systems.

    Positioning for success

    Given where we think the market is heading, what can we do to stay current and develop our skills across a broad spectrum? There are number of resources and opportunities available to fire protection engineers. Membership in organizations such as the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE), NFPA, and ICC provide access to a broad range of current information applicable to fire protection engineering.

    Depending on your interests, membership in trade organizations like the Automatic Fire Alarm Assn ., American Fire Sprinkler Assn ., and National Fire Sprinkler Assn. can also prove to be very beneficial. All of these organizations also provide training to facilitate knowledge transfer.

    Membership and participation in organizations help build credentials and, more importantly, a network of professional contacts. There are opportunities to participate at a local, national, and even international level. If you haven’t been active, I would recommend starting at the local level and expanding from there. Active participation in these organizations provides opportunities to not only enhance your technical knowledge and network, but to develop your leadership and management skills. These associations are always looking for members to take on leadership roles that can provide added exposure and experience.

    My active participation in SFPE and NFPA at the local and international level has provided me with many opportunities that I would have not otherwise had.

    Development of organizational and communication skills is also very important. While the organizations noted above don’t provide courses on this subject, there are resources in these areas. I know individuals who have benefited from training classes through organizations like Dale Carnegie and PSMJ Resources, Inc .

    As individuals, we are responsible for putting forth the extra effort to develop our personal and professional skills. As employers, we should strive to create an environment that fosters continual learning and teamwork. We need to help younger members of our profession develop the skills to be successful. Career development planning and goal setting combined with formal or informal mentoring are key elements to accomplishing these goals.

    Author Information
    Grill is a principal with Arup, where he focuses on fire protection engineering. He is a member of Consulting-Specifying Engineer’s editorial advisory board and a past president of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers.