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Engineers and specifically those who work with fire protection regularly work to achieve public health, safety and welfare in their projects. This is the engineer’s obligation of professional conduct to help create and sustain the natural and built environments in a way that does not put undue risk and danger on the public. A key component in achieving this is ethics.
Merriam-Webster.com defines ethics as, “the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group.”
What principles of conduct govern your professional career? There are many organizations engineering professionals choose to affiliate with, such as the American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE), the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) or the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE), to name a few. These professional engineering organizations, and many others, each have a code of ethics for members to abide by.
A code of ethics is often comprised of the fundamental reminders about honesty, impartiality, competence, knowledge and skills. If you have not reviewed an ethics code, it might be a good time to find those for the organizations you hold a membership. The professional conduct of engineers is, in general terms, expected to be one where knowledge is used to the best of one’s ability to do good works meeting the task goals and maintaining fair and safe conditions.
Ethics are not an everyday conversation for most engineers. So, how often do ethics arise in engineering work? They are a fundamental part of engineering work even if not discussed directly. For many, it starts with the simple philosophy that an engineer does not practice outside his or her area of expertise. This is highlighted in most licenses for those who are professional engineers (PEs).
However, while most jurisdictions regulate that professional engineers handle specific tasks, they do not regulate the disciplines of the engineers who actually complete the work. This is covered by engineers needing to understand and recognize where their expertise ends and another professional is required.
Expertise areas, conflicts of interest
Fire protection engineers come from many different disciplines and backgrounds. With the variety of areas to work in for a career, it is vital to abide by standards of ethics and only practice in subject matter that you hold expertise. For some fire protection engineers, this may be fire protection systems design or fire risk analysis or wildland-urban interfaces.
Although a fundamental competency is expected of a fire protection engineer (see “Minimum Competency for Fire Protection Engineers,” Plumbing Engineer, July 2018) across many subjects within a discipline, a more in-depth knowledge develops, forming an expertise in only some of the areas. Similarly, other engineering disciplines can demonstrate a variety of expertise areas.
Ethics have grown in importance with licensing boards, such that now many states require PEs to have a specific number of continuing education units each renewal cycle. Typically, the requirement is for an hour or two focusing on ethics every two or three years for those boards that have implemented this. Most of the professional societies offer courses to help members and nonmembers meet this requirement; many local chapters bring in speakers to help attendees gain these credits, too. Check with your state boards for their specific requirements pertinent to license renewals.
Another area where ethics are essential to an engineer’s career is identifying conflicts of interest. Some may be obvious; others may be more subtle. A conflict of interest occurs where the concerns and goals of one project/client where an engineer is working are incompatible with another project/client. In application, this means that cumulatively, projects need to be evaluated on an overview to consider any possible conflicts of interest and the best course of action.
NSPE has many resources for its members in the ethics category. Regulations are essential for the environment we live in, but without the strong ethics of the engineering community, things could still go awry. Tools frequently asked questions (FAQs), Board of Ethical Review Cases, and a Licensure and Ethics Hotline. Studying past cases and situations that arose for others may enlighten us to areas of concern needing more attention in our work.
Cases where ethics come into question can involve gray areas where interpretation and consideration of all the scenario details are crucial. This topic can impact everyone. Articles, newsletters and other resources are abundant if you look for them. The question is: Are you looking? Have you taken the time recently to recall how important your professional ethics are to your work, as well as those around you? Maybe it is time to share with your colleagues, too, or mentorees.
Take a look at NSPE’s Engineers’ Creed. It can offer a quick refresh on a topic that is not only core to sound engineering, but can help to remind us of the service engineering is to the world around us — whether you’re a member, nonmember or work in and around engineering.
NSPE’s Engineers' Creed
As a Professional Engineer, I dedicate my professional knowledge and skill to the advancement and betterment of human welfare.
In humility and with need for Divine Guidance, I make this pledge. Adopted by the National Society of Professional Engineers, June 1954.
Ethics is often a field of gray, when we would like engineering to fit, similar to many calculations, into black-and-white rules. Taking the time to consider current projects and evaluate the ethics surrounding them can bring focus to the ethical boundaries and good practices employed every day.
Acting ethically is a responsibility that all engineers must carry. Protecting public health, safety and welfare is no easy task, but it is a challenge I know the engineering community can conquer. l