Fire protection engineering? So, you’re a firefighter?”

Anyone in the fire protection engineering industry has probably been asked this question at least a half dozen times. Fire protection engineering has always been a field that, despite its vital importance, flies under the radar. But fire protection engineering education continues to steadily evolve, and there’s one private university in Massachusetts that is one of the leaders in fire protection research and education: Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI)—and even though students aren’t training to be firefighters, they may just find themselves decked out in the same full-on bunker gear over the course of their education.

In 2013, WPI unveiled a state-of-the-art fire science laboratory, and we recently chatted with lab manager Randy Harris to pick his brain about what’s happening on-campus and inside the Lab.

“This is really a unique facility in higher education,” Harris said. “The main use, of course, is research by WPI students, but we also do collaborative work with other universities around the world.”

What’s inside the Lab?

Aside from graduate students in safety goggles, you’ll find all sorts of gadgets and instruments available. For example:

  • Cone calorimeter: used to determine the flammability of small samples of materials
  • Room calorimeter: used to perform larger scale fire tests and gather data on heat release rate and combustion products
  • Fire propagation apparatus: used to measure flammability of synthetic polymer materials
  • Thermogravimetric analyzer: used on samples to measure weight in relation to temperature

What’s going on inside the Lab?

According to Harris, the Lab is available to both undergraduate and graduate students, all of whom go through a process that prepares them on safety procedures and other lab protocols. Seniors at WPI are required to complete a major qualifying project (MQP), which Harris described as a “real-world engineering problem” that they work on over the course of their final year of undergrad. Some of these MQPs involve fire safety related aspects, which gives these undergrads an opportunity to do some research in the Lab.

One group of students is working on testing decorative exterior panels used on buildings like stores and museums. Right now in the lab there’s a 6×12-foot mockup of a piece of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s facade, which Harris said students have begun testing to determine how well it resists fire. The lab contains an annex with a 20×20-foot exhaust hood, so they can put a large flame to it and see what it does.

“We can burn just about anything under the hood as long as we have sufficient exhaust for it,” Harris said. “Even though it’s a large fire, it’s still safe for us to do in there.”

Other projects include working with mass transit system authorities, specifically in the San Francisco Bay area.

“We’ve actually done some mockups of subway cars here in the lab,” Harris said. “We tested out the materials to see where we can make improvements. It was one of the larger-scale tests we’ve done.”

 Who gets to use the Lab?

WPI’s fire protection engineering program is unusual in a number of ways, one of them being that it is not available as an undergraduate degree. Undergrads do have the option of getting involved in fire protection if they take the dual program route—they earn a bachelor’s degree, for example, in mechanical, electrical, or chemical engineering, and as seniors they begin taking fire protection classes in preparation for one more years to obtain a master’s in fire protection engineering. WPI is also the only school in the US that offers a doctorate degree in fire protection engineering.

As for recruiting students who may one day pursue careers in engineering fields, WPI starts young. The school offers pre-college programs during the school year and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) camps over the summer. Kids as young as middle schoolers can participate in hands-on activities in labs all over campus and learn about fire technology and safety.

For more information, check out