What does a fire protection engineer do?
I often get this question from inquisitive building owners and contractors, as well as nosy family members. Most people who ask about this profession are usually surprised at the depth of knowledge required of fire protection engineers. The short answer is that fire protection engineers are responsible for applying scientific theories and engineering practices to prevent death, injury, and reduce damage from fires and explosions. The longer answer requires a blog to flesh out some of the roles and responsibilities of a fire protection engineer.
Fire protection engineers typically operate in the built environment. They study the characteristics of fire and apply lessons learned to minimize the effects of fire. They work alongside architects, civil and structural engineers, and even mathematicians when producing fire prediction models. Fire protection engineers are essential in bringing safety to modern construction designs.
One of the most common and recognizable purviews of the fire protection engineer involves the design of fire sprinkler systems. A fire protection engineer must understand the area hazards and ensure the fire sprinkler system is appropriate. For instance, a fire sprinkler system that protects an office space will not be sufficient in a tire storage facility, since tires present a significantly greater fuel load than items found in a typical office environment. Fire sprinkler systems fall under the general category active protection systems which means that an action occurs to influence the outcome of a fire. A common myth about active protection systems is that they are designed to extinguish the fire, but the truth is active protection systems are engineered to control the spread and contain the fire long enough for first responders to arrive. Other active protection systems include the use of carbon dioxide and foam to control fires from unique hazards. Fire protection engineers can also help create smoke control systems, which remove smoke from important areas such as atriums to make sure people can get out of the building safely.
Another active protection system that fire protection engineers design are fire alarm systems which provide an early warning to occupants to exit the building. Some common items in a fire alarm system include strobes that flash and horns that emit a loud pulsating sound. The fire protection engineer must ensure that these signals are able to reach all the people in the building and that the system will function correctly in the event of an emergency or power loss. Early detection saves lives by providing extra time for people to get away from the danger.
Fire protection engineers also work on passive protection systems, which aim to compartmentalize and prevent the spread of fire. These include fire rated walls that will resist fires for a certain amount of time and protect important areas, like exit corridors and high-hazard storage rooms. Passive protection systems provide additional time for occupants to exit and can limit the damage of a fire. Fire protection engineers collaborate with architects and other engineers to ensure that the building itself is appropriate for its intended function. Both active and passive protection systems are necessary for the safety of a building and the fire protection engineer is responsible to ensure both types of systems work together to save lives and property.
While recognizable and the subject of countless movies and TV shows, firefighters are the last resort against fires, whereas fire protection engineers are the first line of defense in the safety of lives and property. Fire protection engineers help reduce the severity of fires, allowing people more time to escape and minimizing the danger to heroic firefighters. Often overlooked, fire protection engineers are vital to the built environment and a safer society.