Fire protection engineers study the causes of fires and how architecture and design influence the prevention and suppression of fires. They work to save lives before fires occur. In the course of the day, a fire projection engineer may inspect building plans and structures to evaluate which fire detection, fire alarm, and fire-fighting equipment will keep occupants and property from catastrophic damage.
One of the more direct paths in how to become a fire protection engineer begins with the study of fire science and engineering (mechanical, physical and structural). Following fire protection engineer training, you’ll take your place beside city planners, architects, interior designers and other building trade professionals as they consider the construction of new buildings or the retrofitting of existing structures.
You may choose to focus on the engineering, design and installation of fire alarm and sprinkler systems, evacuation portals and stairwells. You might lead your municipality’s fire education efforts in the community, or take a job with companies that design and manufacture fire alarms and suppression systems.
Fire protection engineering training focuses on the skill sets and field knowledge necessary to advance into an engineering role. You’ll dive deep into the history of firefighting, structural engineering, and the principles behind fire prevention and suppression. Coursework can include hydraulics, physics, mathematics, research principles and technology, risk analysis, economics, fire agency organization, smoke management, passive and active smoke and fire barriers.
Your school research should dovetail with your ongoing field experience. For example, you may visit construction sites, fire scenes, fire equipment development organizations, or construction trades conferences. Students will also develop data systems for calculating occupancy standards based on square footage for residential, commercial, public and industrial structures.
Students will also learn the chemistry of building materials and furnishings, the composition and interaction of suppression chemicals with fire. Since fire protection engineers often interact with public law enforcement and legal entities, students also learn protocols for reporting on findings, creating court documents or studies that inform construction administrators. Anyone interested in becoming a fire protection engineer should reach out to schools with experience in the field. The University of Maryland, for instance, has a full academic department dedicated to fire protection engineering at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
Experience plus education equals opportunity. While most fire protection engineers hold at least a four-year degree in fire science or engineering, many get their start as a professional or volunteer firefighter. Or, if you already have an engineering education and background, you can take fire science courses to apply your knowledge to the fire prevention field.
Either way, most fire agencies in the public sector prefer hiring candidates with firefighting experience. One and two-year post-secondary programs in fire science can prepare you for your first job with a federal, state or local firefighting agency.Your firefighting certification program should arm you with basic fundamental principles and field experience in fire causes and chemistry, firefighting tactics, alarms systems, relevant building codes (national, state and local), water supply and hydraulics, industrial safety, and wildland fire causes and suppression strategies. Upon completion you can test out on a number of professional certifications that will keep you working while you pursue advanced training.
Voluntary professional registration can be your key to success in a fire protection engineering career, but licensing is mandatory. The Professional Engineering (PE) licensing exam consists of 80 multiple-choice questions and takes up to eight hours to complete.
You’ll not only earn your credentials, you’ll be required to continue your education by attending advanced classes and workshops to maintain your license. The field is always evolving; new construction techniques and materials keep pace with fire knowledge.
The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying offers examinations that benchmark your skills in and understanding of fire protection management, investigation, alarm and suppression systems, escape planning and national building codes.
All organizations establish their own minimum requirements for candidacy. For example, New York State requires candidates to complete an educational program approved by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). At first, you may work on a probationary basis with your firefighting agency or private research organization under the tutelage of an experienced, senior officer.
For those who work in federal, state or local public firefighting organizations, your employer maintains a step-by-step ladder for advancement in rank based on continuing education and professional experience. For those in corporate or research positions, advancement may be based on merit.
The Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) reports that the median salary for a fire protection engineer is $85,000, with a quarter of working engineers taking home more than $100,000 annually. Compared with other professionals holding a four-year college degree, fire protection engineers draw higher starting salaries, the SFPE claims.
In sum, fire protection engineers enjoy solid wages, strong benefits and pension options with public agencies. You’ll gain personal and professional satisfaction from knowing the part you play in saving lives and taking a bite out of millions dollars in property damage lost to fires each year.