Career of the Month: Fire Protection Engineer

Fire protection engineers help protect people from fire and explosion hazards by ensuring that buildings have adequate exits, that flammable substances are controlled, and that everyone operating near such hazards takes necessary precautions. Nancy Pearce is a fire protection engineer for the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA).

Work overview.

Many fire engineers work behind the scenes to help design equipment or buildings to prevent or withstand fires. Others figure out what building materials are required and how to configure exits or hallways to allow quick escape in case of a fire. Some fire protection engineers conduct investigations after fires or do research on materials that may provide better fire resistance.

My focus is on codes that protect industrial workers from fire and

Fire Protection Engineer Nancy Pearce

explosion hazards. I help experts in the field write and revise fire-protection codes and standards adopted by many government agencies. Revisions occur as new information becomes available. After explosions in Texas killed firefighters a few years ago, for example, I worked with experts to rewrite the ammonium nitrate code that spells out how to properly use that chemical and respond to such fires.

People who have questions about the codes call me to interpret them. For example, someone applying for a July 4 fireworks display permit may want to know at what angle to set up the fireworks and how far away spectators must be from particular types.

Nancy Pearce visits a barge on the Charles River to review how mortars are set up before an Independence Day fireworks show in Boston.
©2016 National Fire Protection Association and Nancy Pearce

My job involves much reading and research as well as traveling to conduct training sessions on how to apply the codes and to visit facilities that may be performing a new process. My math training helps me do the necessary calculations for the codes, and my science background helps me understand the reasons behind the code requirements, such as why a chemical has a particular fire property and which materials should not be stored together for safety reasons.

My career has been rewarding and exciting. Yet it’s frustrating when fatalities occur because people didn’t follow the fire codes. The NFPA often gets involved when there is a major fire. Recently, the association deployed three people to support investigators of a deadly fire in Oakland, California, involving a warehouse being used as a dwelling. Sadly, fatalities are often a matter of noncompliance with fire codes.

Career highlights.

It’s very dangerous for workers to enter tanks, manholes, and so on. I had the opportunity to create a committee of top experts and work with them to develop a standard for confined-space entry that should improve safety.

Career path.

After graduating from college, I worked in a lab but decided I’m better suited to a people-oriented job. So I eventually took a job as an industrial hygienist for the State of Massachusetts. In that role, I worked on a number of programs, starting with one focusing on getting asbestos out of schools. I also visited different workplaces to help protect workers from dangers, ranging from blood-borne pathogens to high-noise levels to amputations. The job involved a lot of science and math to carry out tasks such as collecting air samples and calculating exposure levels. I did that for almost 28 years.

Five years ago, I began working as a fire protection engineer for the NFPA.

Knowledge, skills and training needed.

You need a math, science, and engineering background, but you can enter this type of career from multiple disciplines—for example, from chemical, mechanical, or civil engineering—and then get plenty of on-the-job training. Several universities offer specific degrees in fire protection engineering and industrial hygiene.

Advice for students.

Look at online videos and talk to people who are working in these fields. An association or college can help you find someone to talk to in your area. Becoming a volunteer or professional firefighter is another way to find out about the field.

Bonus Points
Pearce’s education:
BS in chemistry (with community health concentration) and MS in civil engineering and environmental policy from Tufts University

On the web:

Related occupations:
Industrial hygienist, chemical engineer, mechanical engineer

Editor’s Note

This article was originally published in the March 2017 issue of The Science Teacher journal from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA).

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3 Responses to Career of the Month: Fire Protection Engineer

  1. Amy Anderson says:

    I like how you explained that fire suppression systems were dependent upon fire detection systems. My brother let his batteries die in his fire extinguisher in Manchester . He thinks that his system will just automatically start if there’s a fire. I’ll have to make him change those batteries soon.

  2. Derrick says:

    The most common automatic fire suppression system, fire sprinklers, don’t need a separate detection system in most cases since each sprinkler can act as it’s own fire detector. Also, like any other career field, if you’re an old FPE you’ll find age discrimination is common.

  3. Derrick Tjernlund says:

    The P in NFPA stands for Protection, not Prevention. Also, anyone seriously interested in FPE should contact either WPI or the University of Maryland. Finally, until you take the PE test in FPE, you’re not really an FPE.

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