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Fire protection engineers use their expertise to design fire safety systems and recommend fire safety measures to ensure buildings are up to code and meet safety standards. They can also help investigate the causes of fires and recommend strategies to prevent future fires from occurring.
Fire protection engineers provide invaluable services to the public by helping prevent fire disasters, saving lives and property, and protecting the environment. And six main teams benefit from working with fire protection engineers the most.
When there’s a new building project, architects are tasked with coordinating everything to ensure the project is completed smoothly. They can utilize fire protection engineers to help with a large array of needs:
And since architects want to maintain their reputation with their clients, they will often turn to fire protection engineers when there are late surprises. For example, if an MEP engineer doesn’t realize that a fire pump is necessary until the project is nearly completed, there can be hefty costs and delays. The fire protection engineer can look at the project holistically and find a cost-effective solution that fits within the existing timeline.
And while architects are great at designing against code, fire protection engineers have a better understanding of the fundamentals behind the code. This comes in handy when alternative means and methods are required. For example, if an architect and client want to build a more advanced or ambitious building, they may run into issues with the building code. But because the code isn’t meant to hinder any advancement of the design approach, the fire protection engineer can come in and understand what the architect is trying to do. From there, the engineer can leverage alternative means and methods, like performance-based design, to overcome challenges with:
Attorneys often hire fire protection engineers to serve as expert witnesses on cases involving fire. That said, there aren’t that many fire protection engineers in the world, and they are not always willing to participate in litigation. When they do, though, they can answer questions thoroughly and in a confident manner.
Attorneys may also turn to fire protection engineers to determine whether there were deficiencies in the design or installation of fire sprinkler systems, fire alarms, and other systems. A fire protection engineer can perform fire and egress modeling in deeper litigation cases involving loss of life or significant injury. This approach has been validated and verified by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to work with fire investigators and other experts to see how a fire started and grew.
Ultimately, when an attorney looks for a fire protection engineer to help with a case, they should research the engineer’s qualifications in a professional and legal atmosphere to determine whether they can serve as the liaison and technical expert to help their case.
Contactors, including general contractors and sprinkler or fire alarm subcontractors, will often involve a fire protection engineer for design-bid-build and design-build contracting approaches.
The difference between design-bid-build and design-build is the amount of control a contractor has over the project. In the design-bid-build approach, the owner will typically hire an architect or engineer to create the design for the project and then request bids from contractors to build it. The contractor usually has less control over the project since the design has already been established. With the design-build approach, the contractor is responsible for the project's design and construction. This allows the contractor to have more control over the design and cost of the project.
Fire protection engineers can play a critical role during the design-build process by helping contractors better understand expectations and how everything will work together. This is especially useful when a bid goes out but lacks information the contractor needs. Fire protection engineers serve as the leader when there are multiple contractors involved with a project. Since fire protection engineering systems can require mechanical, electrical, and plumbing contractors, it helps to have a fire protection engineer lead the charge in coordination and keep the project moving forward.
Fire protection engineers help save contractors money: by providing cost-saving performance-based alternatives; by quickly resolving construction inspection violations; by facilitating smoke control system commission and special inspections; and ultimately, by ensuring an efficient, coordinated, code-compliant project from design through occupancy.
A developer will often hire a fire protection engineer when they need an expert to help them navigate the fire and building codes for the construction of a new building. Sometimes fire protection engineers and life safety consultants are used interchangeably, this is especially true when it comes to developers. Fire protection engineers can save the developer money by finding ways to reduce construction costs and increase the usefulness of a building. They can also help developers get their certificates of occupancy and handle problems that pop up late in the project.
If there’s a major issue that sounds like it’ll cost big money to fix, fire protection engineers are known for being able to find and justify a more cost-effective build that satisfies the objectives of everyone involved.
Mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) engineers usually work directly for architects. When a developer wants to design a building, they put out a request to different architects and designers. Architects work with MEP engineers to then design the mechanical systems of a building and then put it out to bid for construction with general contractors.
MEP engineers sometimes have their own internal fire protection engineers to handle work for the architect and designer, but these in-house engineers usually don’t have much experience with smoke control, fire modeling, hazardous materials, and the more advanced fire protection services. For example, if an engineer attempts to perform smoke control work outside of his area of expertise, we find results are usually hyper-conservative due to the use of algebraic calculations for the smoke control system design. This is generally ok from a system performance perspective, but the oversized smoke control systems result in excess ductwork, grilles, and HVAC components, increased makeup supply air, exhaust capacity and emergency power demand, all of which unnecessarily increase the cost of a smoke control system.
A fire protection engineer with experience in smoke control systems is proficient with tools such as CONTAM and FDS. These fire modeling tools allow the fire protection engineer to optimize the smoke control exhaust and makeup air for atriums and pressurization fans for stairwell and elevator hoistway smoke control systems. They are also familiar with the necessary documentation – smoke control rational analysis – that many building codes and the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) will require for permitting. This results in confidence during smoke control system commissioning and special inspections, reduced cost of smoke control equipment and a generally better performing, more efficient smoke control system.
Fire protection is a specialty. Fire protection engineers understand fire science and the basis for how codes are developed. With this exclusive knowledge, they can read between the lines of the written code and develop custom fire protection solutions that satisfy the fire protection and life safety objectives of the code. And because they do fire protection engineering day in and day out, they have the experience to get projects done right.
Fire protection engineers help property managers with a range of issues, from sprinkler tests and fire pump upgrades to annual inspections and smoke control system testing. They also assist with any work that must be reviewed and approved by the homeowner association (HOA) and property board.
Smoke control systems are known to be problematic for jurisdictions. When a property’s fan breaks or the jurisdiction requires annual testing, the fire alarm contractor is the first one called. However, most fire alarm contractors can’t help because they don’t deal with smoke control, so the property manager may look to the internet or referrals for assistance. That’s when fire protection engineers enter the scene.
Unfortunately, property managers are often more reactive than proactive, so if a new Fire Marshall finds a problem with a building, the fire protection engineer can help resolve any immediate issues. And in an effort to be more proactive, usually per AHJ requirements, the fire protection engineer can perform the annual testing and make sure that smoke control systems always perform as designed.
It takes a village to ensure buildings are safe for people. That’s why the best fire protection engineers know how to work with everyone – architects, attorneys, contractors, developers, MEP engineers, property managers, and other professional services providers. So, if you want to make buildings more cost-efficient and effective, find a good one.