Preface: How I Stumbled Into Fire Protection Engineering is a series of blog posts tracing the roots of my current career. From stumbling upon fire protection as a college student through starting Harrington Group as an entrepreneur, I hope you enjoy the story of my journey into Fire Protection Engineering. I would also like to encourage you to post comments of the moments in which you realized your calling. Thank you for reading and sharing.

After two and a half years in Montgomery issuing fire protection engineering prescriptions to reduce fire risks for over 250 different buildings, I wasn’t learning anything new anymore. My employer understood that I needed to move on, or move out. If they had something for me to do, great. If not, I was going to seek employment elsewhere. Fortunately, they moved me to Atlanta as a supervisor in 1980. I was one of five supervisors in the Atlanta regional office. There were five fire protection engineers under me to handle the Atlanta metro area.

From the bird’s eye view, I could see that there were many more issues that required custom solutions. I was reviewing the other fire protection engineer’s work and the same problems continued to pop-up. Unfortunately, I had a very rigid boss who wouldn’t let me do anything custom. Instead, he was very black-and-white. If it wasn’t a solution blessed by the insurance company, I couldn’t approach it.

One of my jobs as a supervisor was to be an account manager. Once every three years, a three person team composed of an account manager, account engineer, and underwriter would tour a facility. We would work together and evaluate the account as a single unit. The final step was deciding whether to renew or cancel an account if it proved to be too risky.

One day an account underwriter came to me and said, “This account is important to me because I have a personal relationship with this company. There is a recommendation that says we should cancel the account because there is a very large risk for fire exposure.”

“Would you come with me and look for yourself to see if you agree, or maybe, there is another solution?”

When I arrived, I learned the basics of the problem. The company creates a thin plastic fabric material that has to run through a curing oven. The fabric sheet was about 100 feet long, 20 feet wide, and a single layer. For curing, it zoomed through the oven. The report said, “The fire risk is so great, there is definitely going to be a fire someday, and when there is a fire, it’s going to burn the whole factory to the ground.”

After inspection, I found no such risk. I spent the day there interviewing engineers and production workers. After gaining an understanding of the production process, I realized the chance of a fire happening was almost zero. If there was a fire, the fabric material would burn up so quickly, that it would put itself out in about 30 seconds. It would not do damage to anything.

My final recommendation was to buy two CO2 extinguishers on wheels and place them at each end of the oven. That’s it. The account underwriter was ecstatic and the client saved several hundreds of thousands of dollars. Job well done, right?

Well, a couple days later my boss came into my office and nearly fired me. He said, “You should have never done this. Your decision was 180 degrees away from conventional wisdom. You went against another fire engineer’s recommendation and our prescriptive solution for oven fire protection, allowing an exposure to go unprotected. If you do it again, your fired!”

The words resonated in my head. I realized I was destined to become a fire protection consultant to be free from corporate constraints in order to listen to customers, look at their specific problems, and come up with custom solutions to meet their needs.

By Jeff Harrington, CEO and Founder of Harrington Group, Inc.