CJ in AustinThe fire protection engineering industry is evolving, and the folks over at the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) are making it a priority to stay on top of what’s changing. We all know that professional development as an engineer goes far beyond a bachelor’s or master’s degree; we chatted with SFPE Senior Manager for Engineering Practice Chris Jelenewicz about how the field has changed since his undergrad days in the ‘80s and what the SFPE is doing to facilitate the ongoing progress.

Jelenewicz started out as a volunteer firefighter as an undergrad at the University of Maryland, and like a lot of people, he had no idea what a fire protection engineer was when he started school. More than 20 years later he oversees a department at SFPE that encompasses fire protection issues related to professional recognition, plus technical documents and guidelines.

First and foremost is the Fire Protection Engineering  Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam, which tests an engineer’s competency in his/her particular engineering discipline after four years’ post-undergraduate experience in the field. It’s an intense, 80-question multiple choice test, Jelenewicz said, and it changes every year. SFPE develops questions for the exam and there’s a lot that goes into that.

“Preparing the exam is more than just writing 80 questions every year,” he said. “When we write these questions, we’re really testing the knowledge, skills, and abilities of a fire protection engineer with four years’ experience.”

Jelenewicz said they work with education statistics experts to run stats on different exam problems and on the exam itself to make sure they’re writing constructive, thoughtful, and relevant questions. Some years the exam is more challenging than others, and he said the grading scale depends on the difficulty of the questions—if it’s easier than the year before, you need to get more questions right to pass, and if it’s harder than the year before, you need to answer fewer questions right to pass.

“The thought process behind that is you shouldn’t get an advantage or a disadvantage because of the year you take the test,” Jelenewicz said. “We don’t want to have someone pass who’s not competent, but at the same time we don’t want to fail people who are competent.”

As for the questions themselves, Jelenewicz said the content has been evolving over the years, and the SFPE makes a conscious effort to create questions that are current and relevant to the changes and current trends in the industry. For example, if you looked at a fire protection PE exam from 20 years ago, you’d see a lot of questions about sprinklers and related water supply. According to Jelenewicz, only about 12% of the test’s questions these days are related to sprinklers.

“We’re seeing more things like fire dynamics and human behavior (how people react in fire), and smoke management, which 20 years ago we never even had,” he said. “We can really see how the profession is changing, and designing fire protection into a building is becoming a holistic approach.”

The PE exam is crucial when it comes to professional recognition, Jelenewicz said. He also noted the importance of higher education programs accredited though the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), and said the SFPE sets criteria for all of the ABET fire protection programs.

One of Jelenewicz’s other responsibilities at SFPE is visiting fire protection engineering departments at colleges and universities around the country, and he said that’s one of his favorite aspects of the job.

“I’m really impressed by the excitement I see in the students, the kind of research the students are doing, and how much it’s changed since I went to school,” he said. “The tools, computer knowledge, the types of topics they’re addressing—it’s all really interesting.”

One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the need for more students and professionals in the field.

“A lot of people really don’t know what a fire protection engineer is or what they do,” Jelenewicz said. “We’ve always had a demand problem, meaning the demand consistently outpaces the supply of fire protection engineers.  The global economy in the last 10 years has been shaky to say the least, and I’ve never met [a fire protection engineer] who has had trouble finding a job, even when the economy is at its worst.”

And according to a recent survey, the supply of fire protection engineers relative to the demand may get much worse.  The SFPE does a compensation survey every other year, and in 2014 the survey asked fire protection engineers when they plan on retiring.

“We found it very interesting that about 25 percent of our workforce plans on retiring in the next five years,” he said. “If that’s true, that could be really frightening for our profession.”