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The Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) developed its “Recommended Minimum Technical Core Competencies for the Practice of Fire Protection Engineering,” (https://bit.ly/2MpKSdS) which outlines the skills needed in various areas of fire protection engineering to achieve a minimum competency level. Their purpose is to identify core knowledge and skill areas and corresponding experience duration in which practicing engineers must be well versed.
This provides a guide for local jurisdictions to define fire protection engineering, recognize competent practitioners and protect public health and safety. By creating these guidelines, SFPE has produced a set of universally recognized minimum criteria that helps ensure that a suitably high level of quality is maintained within the fire protection engineering profession and its related activities.
The core competencies document is a guide to understanding the knowledge and technical skills necessary for those practicing principles that fall within the fire protection engineering discipline. Depending on the locality, fire protection engineering also can be referred to as fire engineering or fire safety engineering. These terms are generally understood to apply to those applying engineering principles “to prevent and mitigate the unwanted impact to fire.”
Due to the interdisciplinary nature of fire protection engineering, it is often the case that engineers other than those who principally practice fire protection engineering will execute some skills or elements of fire protection included within the core competencies. Such is the case for plumbing engineers who design fire sprinkler systems or electrical engineers who design fire alarm systems.
For professionals who are practicing a portion of the skills related to fire protection engineering, the core competencies document can provide context as to how these practices tie into the greater canvas of fire protection engineering skills.
The most common path toward achieving competency in each of the core skill areas is to complete a university-level education program with specific coursework in fire protection engineering, followed by professional practice under the supervision and guidance of experienced and competent fire protection engineers. There are many pathways available to achieving competency, but a critical aspect of competency is gaining the appropriate experience through professional practice.
Structure of SFPE Core Competencies
The competencies consist of five tiers. Tiers 1 through 4 represent both the academic preparation needed to be competent in overall engineering, as well as the professional work experience.
The competency guide begins with broad personal effectiveness competencies in Tier 1, core academic and workplace skills in Tiers 2 and 3, and technical knowledge base in Tier 4. These skills are relevant to and essential for plumbing engineers, fire protection engineers, and other engineering disciplines and are not specific to the practice of fire protection engineering.
Due to the common foundation of general competencies, the knowledge of core engineering principles and the interdisciplinary nature of fire protection engineering, some overlap occurs concerning specific aspects of fire protection engineering, as can be the case for fire protection systems design. The design of fire protection systems is one of the core knowledge areas addressed in Tier 5 and is specific to the fire protection engineering industry.
Building on the skills outlined in Tiers 1 through 4, Tier 5 defines the technical competencies specific to fire protection engineering: fire science, human behavior and evacuation, fire protection systems, and fire protection analysis. Of these competencies, overlap between plumbing engineering and fire protection engineering is most prevalent within the fire protection systems competency.
Within the SFPE core competencies document, knowledge of suppression is listed as a technical requirement and is considered to be core to the profession of fire protection engineering. This technical competency requires a “comprehensive understanding of fire mitigation, including water- and non-water-based suppression,” amongst other active and passive building systems.
This includes knowledge of the applicable codes and standards, fundamental principles, design criteria and installation requirements for these fire suppression systems.
In addition to water-based fire suppression, fire protection systems also include clean agent systems, gaseous suppression systems, chemical extinguishing systems, foam fire suppression systems, and fire and detection systems.
As is the case for water-based systems, such as sprinkler and standpipe systems, design of all the aforementioned systems must account for the construction features specific to a building or project, the use and occupancy of such, and the effects of heat transfer and oxygen displacement that are inherent to a particular system type, as applicable.
All engineers responsible for designing fire suppression systems are held to the same level of competency in this and other subject areas. And, as with all engineering practice, practitioners must operate only within those areas where they possess technical competence.
Other Technical Competencies
In addition to fire protection systems, Tier 5 of technical competencies also includes fire science, human behavior and evacuation, and fire safety analysis. The range of these technical competencies allows fire protection engineers (FPEs) to function in an interdisciplinary role in project teams. This breadth of skills enables FPEs to develop solutions to complex fire issues utilizing a holistic view toward building fire protection and life safety.
Fire science refers to the underlying physical principles related to fire, including heat transfer, fire chemistry and fire dynamics. With this knowledge comes an understanding of the principles of ignition, combustion and heat transfer, amongst others. This skill set provides for an understanding of varying fire types, fire development and the potential impact on the surrounding environment.
Human behavior and evacuation include the behavior of people during a fire emergency and principles related to egress. Understanding these principles can help inform on critical aspects of building design related to occupant movement during an emergency and understanding the impact on evacuation.
Knowledge related to visibility during fire and smoke conditions and impact to occupant speed, decision making and required versus available safe egress time are some aspects encompassed within this technical competency.
Fire protection analysis includes the “principles of technical analysis related to fire safety design.” These types of analysis can range significantly and may consist of study related to structural fire protection, performance-based design as an alternative to prescriptive building requirements, providing a risk management analysis, or modeling such as computational fluid dynamics for cantilevered buildings.
The technical competencies in Tier 5 cover a vast knowledge base. A solid foundation of engineering knowledge is necessary in each area; however, this does not necessitate developing expertise in each technical competency. As is the case with any engineering discipline, expertise is developed based on an individual’s practical experience.
Engineers utilize continuing professional development (CPD) throughout their careers to ensure they maintain the level of competency needed to keep practicing in their disciplines. Throughout one’s career, significant changes occur in technologies, standards, regulations and common practices.
It is essential both in the fire suppression technical competencies, as well as in all other competencies, and other engineering disciplines that practicing engineers maintain a knowledge base reflecting the current built environment.
This continued learning can be done in the form of relevant training, professional development programs, and mentoring and independent research. When continued education involves crossover between branches of engineering, such as from plumbing to fire protection, guidance must be provided from an experienced and competent engineer. An engineer developing a new skill set can benefit greatly from strong mentorship and work experience.
The SFPE core competencies guidelines are intended to provide guidance for jurisdictions and the engineering community alike, including the knowledge and technical skills by which a person can be considered a competent fire protection engineer. Although these competencies are specific to fire protection engineering, there is overlap with other engineering disciplines, including plumbing engineering.
For engineers designing fire suppression systems, regardless of disciplines, it is vital to have a strong engineering foundation and technical knowledge to meet the standards of high quality and ethics set forth by the SFPE guidelines.
Free access to the complete text of the “Recommended Minimum Technical Core Competencies for the Practice of Fire Protection Engineering” is available online at www.sfpe.org.