FPE Offers Broader Viewpoint To Fire Service as Staff Aide
What is a fire protection engineer and where does he fit in the fire department? These are legitimate questions for already overworked and harassed public officials.
In a rapidly changing physical and social environment, the fire service now can progress with the modern trends by using and supporting the established profession of fire protection engineering. The fire protection engineer is educationally equipped to serve as the communication network between the fire department, its financiers and mentors, and its contemporaries and competitors.
In the context of this presentation, economics forces the definition of a fire department to mean paid fire services of expanding municipalities, large cities, and county-wide consolidations. However, this does not preclude the application of the principles and ideas by the smaller fire department. In fact, past experience has shown excellent results when specific problems of small fire departments were analyzed by fire protection engineering consultants, as long as expensive, time-consuming generalities are avoided. The criterion adopted in this article is that any fire department desiring to engage the fulltime services of a graduate fire protection engineer must be economically prepared to compete for his interest and services with other organizations.
In essence, the primary objective of the fire service is to prevent the loss of lives and property by fire. In seeking to achieve this objective, the fire department becomes involved in actual fire fighting operations, fire prevention and investigation, communications, maintenance, training, planning, fiscal policy and administration. Traditionally, fire fighting and an ounce of prevention were sufficient with a regular equipment maintenance program.
However, the current complex problems have developed to such an awesome extent that the fire department must have its responsibilities divided into operational categories to approach effectively its primary objective. The tremendous versatility demanded of the department head and the diversification of background and experience necessary to handle this complete fire protection management concept are the defining factors of the role of the fire protection engineer.
The fire protection engineer, like the fire department, can trace a large portion of his nativity and development to the insurance interests. The insurance organizations were the first to realize the inadequacies of seat-of-the-pants judgments in assessing and evaluating fire problems and their solutions. The courtship of the insurance interests with the civil engineers, principally structural and fluids engineers, introduced a solid engineering framework into the fire protection field where experienced guesswork had prevailed by necessity.
Sound engineering principles
From this logical beginning, fire protection engineering has developed until it now attempts to encompass the full range of talents which the protection of life and property from fire demands. It is vitally concerned with fire fighting and fire prevention; with codes and statutes; with sensible administration, wage priorities, and operational financing; and with training, communications, and maintenance. Therefore, the function of the fire protection engineer is best expressed as the use of sound engineering principles to achieve the protection of life and property from fire in the most efficient, effective and economical manner possible.
Here one finds that the fire protection engineer is seeking the same goal as the fire department, except that his approach is by means of engineering analysis and application rather than tradition and experienced speculation.
With a common goal it is only natural to wed the forces of the two professions in order that they may compliment each other. The difficulties facing the fire department and the fire protection engineer today are quite adequately expressed by the fire protection engineering student who remarked with visible frustration: “They not only expect you to be a jack-of-all-trades, but the master of all of them.”
A difficult and demanding position to say the least, but one which offers a tremendous potential for the development of sincere and dedicated individuals.
Many talents needed
The need of the fire department today is for an adviser who can fulfill a large number of the master-of-all-trades categories. The fire protection engineer is the most suitable individual with the necessary foundation who is capable of approaching these needs satisfactorily; and even more extensive educational curriculums should be fostered and developed by the programs already in existence. Obviously neither the academic world nor the school of experience can produce the omniscient individual necessary to achieve the ultimate in the needs of the fire service. However, sound engineering education, particularly in areas of investigation, analysis, and logical decision making, can produce an individual who will allow the fire department specifically and the community generally to attain the best possible protection against fire for its dollar investment.
Just where does the fire protection engineer fit into the fire department organization in order to promote effectiveness? Ideally, the fire protection engineer should be a staff associate of the department head or a similar top administrative officer. To use his education and training effectively, he must be in a position to gain the attention and confidence of the decision makers and policy setters.
This is not, however, to imply aloofness from the middle and lower echelons of the organization. Rather, the fire service is highly dependent on the intelligent action and observation of subordinates, and therefore an effective adviser must maintain numerous, constantly-open channels of communication throughout the entire department. Many of the fire protection engineer’s functions may require on-the-scene investigation or explanation in instances where the confidence and respect of the fire fighters is essential to his success. Similarly, he must be observant and well-versed to intelligently advise the chief administrator or department head on matters of budget preparation, equipment replacement or capital improvements.
Engineer should be able to increase administrative efficiency
Role of mediator
One of the most important contributions the fire protection engineer can make to the fire department is in resolving questions and disagreements on the requirements and reasoning of the various building and fire prevention codes that arise as a result of construction or property improvement proposals. In many cases, the reluctance of an architect, contractor, or project owner to accept the judgment of a person whose ability they consider to be below their peer group, such as a fire inspector, is a major block in resolving questions concerning the specific construction of a building. Or they may feel that the demands for a second water supply source for a sprinkler system has been plucked out of the air.
The fire protection engineer within the fire department is in a position to relate a knowledgeable explanation of the code or department demands to the parties involved, since he has been educated in the same basic manner and is cognizant of the philosophies and disciplines of the architect and structural or construction engineer. In addition, these people are much more likely to discuss their particular problems more open-mindedly with a peer they feel is more familiar with their language and philosophy.
Problem of understanding
Along these same lines, one of the major problems facing the fire department is obtaining the understanding of its contemporaries as well as its competitors. The fire department’s contemporaries are principally those other municipal departments which exercise judgment and jurisdiction over various other areas of the codes and statutes. The engineers and inspectors of the public works, building and mechanical, traffic, and electrical departments must work with fire department officials and contractors to achieve a reasonable and equitable balance of rules and judgment under the codes. In this, the fire protection engineer provides a direct link with the fire department to whom these individuals and departments can come to work out problems which could not normally be handled by a fire inspector or other fireman unless he is one of the rare individuals who has successfully acquired an engineering education while rising in the ranks of the fire service.
In addition, as new concepts and materials become available to the construction industry, intelligent interpretation of the codes in areas not yet clearly defined or fully tested can be enhanced by the fire protection engineer with an eye toward continuing public protection and eventual specification under the codes. Again, the approach to a peer tends to remove much of the natural reluctance and provides an avenue for the fire protection engineer to project his philosophy and ideas back through other authoritative personnel.
Another key area within the fire department which is becoming increasingly difficult for the department head to handle without competent assistance is the actual administration of the department. Even a small department has a tremendous need for adequate record keeping, and the department without a good administrative staff is a great deal like a man with no eyes or mouth. The fire protection engineer is in a position to bring the assets of concentrated education in basic administration to the assistance of the department head. He should be familiar with sound management principles, statistical methods and philosophy, records compilation methods and the use of computers.
By working closely with the department head and his administrative staff the fire protection engineer can greatly facilitate the preparation and justification of the annual budget, which is the lifeblood of any formal government organization. By using his analytically oriented background, he should be able to increase the overall administrative efficiency and provide a basis for inclusion of information and ideas external to the department for the benefit of the fire department.
Not the least of the fire protection engineer’s duties should include assistance in preparing training aids and training manuals. He should also be a special subject instructor to handle topics which the training staff has not had the opportunity to investigate thoroughly because of lack of time or qualification. The training of certain specialists within the fire department will also necessarily be at least under the advisement of the fire protection engineer—specialists such as mechanics, fire alarm maintenance personnel, dispatchers or communications personnel, and fire inspectors in specialized areas such as sprinkler plan review or arson investigation. One must realize, however, that the fire protection engineer here is in a staff advisory, not a principal, role.
Look at the future
Having discussed the master-of-all-trades aspect of the fire protection engineer in general and in the fire department in particular, it is appropriate to look at the future of the fire protection engineer in the fire department. Ideally, the man who knows the most about the fire department is the man who serves as its head. The trends today are toward better training and education and many departments are placing educational qualifications on the top echelon jobs. The complexity of the fire service will continue to demand the filling of top jobs with individuals capable of handling a wide variety of operational and administrative problems.
Overall administration and the manipulation of personnel is the major headache of any fire chief and can reach colossal proportions. A personal experience with salaries indicates that they have more than doubled in the last 10 years. This type of administrative situation places a justification problem at the door of the fire chief that can be handled only by an individual with an analytical background. This places the fire protection engineer in demand as the department head’s staff adviser.
Human life overlooked
Current economic approaches that are utilized by most governments in selecting and administering budget priorities are based strictly on cash value and take little or no stock of human life, per se. The fire protection engineer is probably the one individual available to the fire service today who has at least the rudimentary knowledge to take economic analysis, engineering knowledge, code and statute requirements, management principles and psychology, and intestinal fortitude to sustain the needs of the fire service and the general public for the protection of life and property.
Take a close, objective view of your fire department—maybe a fire protection engineer is the key to improvement.