By: Phil Friday


More and more, fire protection engineers are called on to act as the primary investigator of fire losses. Fire protection engineers have historically been regarded as special experts, called upon to analyze code issues, investigate fire protection system failures, and support cause-and-origin experts. However, recognition by the fire investigation profession of the broad expertise of fire protection engineers has led to a more central role. For example, NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations, places fire protection engineers at the top of the list within the field of fire science and engineering. It describes the field of fire protection engineering as encompassing “all the traditional engineering disciplines in the science and technology of fire and explosions.”

Fire protection engineers deal with ignition sources and materials, fire dynamics, fire detection and suppression systems, building and fire codes, fire test methods, fire performance of materials, computer fire modeling, failure analysis, and more. With such a broad skill-set, it is no surprise they are more frequently the first experts contacted by insurance adjusters and attorneys handling fire losses.

The courts are also a driving force of this new trend. The courts are challenging and excluding expert testimony with greater frequency based on an expert’s knowledge, skill, experience, training, and education. Many fire investigators are finding it difficult to qualify as cause-and-origin experts. Attorneys realize that it is risky to rely solely on a basic cause-and-origin investigator to offer opinions on issues related to ignition, fire growth and spread, and even fire detection and suppression system performance; issues that are often central to even the most basic cause-and-origin investigation.

It is clear that fire protection engineers play an important role in various aspects of fire loss investigation. A discussion of some specific examples follows.


A fire protection engineer who is also certified as a fire investigator (i.e., IAAI-CFI or NAFI-CFEI) can be the best single resource to determine the cause-and-origin of a fire. A broad and deep understanding of fire dynamics allows a fire protection engineer to quickly sort through various hypotheses and focus only on plausible scenarios. This saves time and money, increasing file-handling efficiency.

The risk of court exclusion later in the case is also reduced, as there will be less question regarding the formal education and training of a licensed fire protection engineer.

System Performance

Fire protection systems are a vital component of most buildings. Even residential structures are required to have certain fire protection features installed. For example, in Georgia, single-family homes are required to have smoke alarms.

Fire protection systems are not limited to fire alarms and fire sprinklers. There are many specialized fire protection systems like commercial kitchen ventilation and extinguishing systems, foam extinguishing systems, computer room extinguishing systems, smoke control systems, portable fire extinguishers, and so on. Also included are basic construction features like walls, floors, doors, and interior finishes. It is often important to understand whether a particular system functioned properly during a fire. A fire protection engineer who has designed fire protection systems and understands how they are intended to function can assist.

Code Compliance

Almost every structure in the U.S., from single-family houses to large factories, is designed and constructed to meet specific building and fire code requirements. The model building codes used throughout the country are often complex and subject to interpretation. This can result in buildings without adequate fire safety features.

For example, many are surprised to learn that local building and fire code officials typically do not have the technical background or resources to thoroughly review designs and installations. Instead, cursory reviews are conducted resulting in ‘approval’ of designs and installations. This can result in buildings that do not meet code requirements. Errors overlooked in the design and construction process can have a major impact on how a fire starts and spreads. An experienced fire protection engineer can often easily identify these design and construction errors following a loss.

Code issues may also arise when the insurance policy is written to cover the increased cost of construction following a loss. Where the insurance policy covers the increased cost of repairs to meet building and fire code requirements, it is important to know exactly which code requirements must be satisfied. Most model building and fire codes speak directly to the issues associated with repairs and describe what level of code compliance is required. However, it is not uncommon for a fire marshal or other code enforcement official to provide a laundry list of upgrade ‘requirements’ following a fire loss. It is important that insurance adjusters and attorneys understand that these officials, while given some latitude to interpret the codes, are not allowed to enforce requirements that do not exist. It is also helpful to understand that many fire protection requirements can be satisfied using alternative or performance-based solutions that offer an equivalent level of safety while providing a substantial cost savings. A fire protection engineer can explain these issues, offer alternative solutions, and negotiate with code officials to provide the best total solution.

Fire Reconstruction

Following a fire there are often many questions. This is due, in part, to the fact that important evidence is destroyed in the course of a fire. Some questions that might be asked include:

  • Would a smoke detector have provided victims with enough early warning to escape?
  • How long did it take for smoke to fill a room?
  • How would an open door or window have influenced fire spread?
  • What path(s) did the fire take as it spread throughout the building?

Fire protection engineers can use a wide range of tools to answer these types questions. These tools include basic hand calculations, spreadsheet calculations, and advanced computer fire models with 3D graphical output.


Fire protection engineers have a breadth and depth of fire-related knowledge, education, training, and experience unrivaled by others in the fire investigation profession. In addition, many have experience as firefighters or in code enforcement.

If would like to learn more about the fire protection engineering profession go to or feel free to contact the author of this article.

Phil Friday, P.E., C.F.E.I., C.F.I.I.
Harrington Group, Inc.
770-564-3505 ext. 35