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.

Bob Fitzgerald was really the ringleader for the MQP. He had mapped this whole thing out and I just followed along with it. There were elements of the MQP that were just beginning to be considered for fire protection.

Until this point, fire protection systems engineering was just beginning to be considered in the much larger field of fire protection. The systems engineering component was not widespread yet, so there were only a few practitioners of it. Bob was one of the few trying to advance the field. To further study the approach, he built some of his ideas into the project. For example, my partner and I figured out a way to evaluate a sprinkler system and calculate a mathematical probability of success for it.

At the time, the building codes and fire codes were prescriptive. Very much like a doctors prescription, someone would write down on a piece of paper that you have a cold and you should take this to cure it. You don’t question the prescription, you just get it filled and take it. That’s how building fire codes were done. If you wanted to build a building, like a new library, you had to get a permit to build it and then you’d have to apply for a certificate of occupancy from the fire department before you could move in. To receive the permit and the certificate of occupancy, you had to demonstrate that your building would be designed according to the fire code prescriptions. So if you have a building with a certain size, height, and stacks of books, you had to put in a sprinkler system designed exactly like [whatever was required] – the prescription.

What Bob Fitzgerald and others around the country were working on was the next step, helping to evolve the field. Instead of applying a prescription to a building, they wanted to develop a fire protection engineering solution that used a systems approach. They would look at the fire risk in the building, evaluate the risk of fire, and develop a solution based on the level of safety that someone would want to achieve.  They called this the “goal-oriented” systems approach.  Today, the goal is called the performance objective.

Using this new approach, instead of being stuck with a sprinkler system in the example of the library, maybe a gaseous fire extinguishing system would be installed instead so that the books wouldn’t get wet. But, if you were to follow the the building and fire code, you would have no choice. With systems approach, a fire protection engineer can evaluate the risks and open up opportunities to other solutions that might be a better fit in terms of a fire prevention system.

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